Baking at Daggett Farm. / Photo courtesy Cindy Melotti
Recently, I sat down with Master Presenter Cindy Melotti, house lead at the Ford Home, to chat with her about 17 years at The Henry Ford. In the first installment of that interview, Cindy talked about her teaching background, her work at the Ford Home and other Village buildings, some of her favorite interactions with guests, and more. In this second installment, she offers insights about how historic cooking in Greenfield Village is far different than modern cooking at home.
What was it like cooking in the village? Did you notice any difference cooking at Daggett, say, and cooking at home?
When I first started as a presenter, I had never baked bread or made a pie before. I was a working mother, so I didn't have time to play around. I used the typical shortcuts. So it was a shock working that first season at Daggett [Farmhouse] and baking loads of bread and pies. Placing these on the table for us to eat for our 1760 mid-day meal and having guests come in and say it was the most beautiful pie crust or bread they’ve ever seen—I experienced such a sense of accomplishment.
I would go home and brag about making the most wonderful loaf of bread, a pie, or a tart. So, I decided I was going to make these same recipes for Thanksgiving dinner at home. I made the pie crust, and I made wheat bread and… I need to tell you that my husband is still living. Because he said: what was so special about them? Sadly, they didn’t turn out the same. Making bread or a pie in a bake kettle on an open hearth, it's not the same product you get using the same recipe in modern oven.
With the bread and pie baked in the modern oven, I couldn't taste all the flavors. I didn't get the flakiness, and it just wasn't the same. There are some things that you can make in a modern oven, and there's no problem. But there are other things that—you know, when you roast something today, you're actually baking it, right? At Daggett using the open hearth, when you roast something, it's on the spit or the small game roaster that you place against the fire and keep turning it. You can’t get that same flavor. When you go from the open hearth, to wood, to coal, to gas, to electric, and to microwave—every time you go up that ladder, you lose flavor. So, your best flavors come from open hearths or open-air cooking. That's why camping is so much fun.
I think part of it too is the cast iron, like at the Ford Home, where we use cast iron pans and pots that are very well seasoned. We do have a couple of cast iron artifacts that we use there. I mean, it takes 100 years or so to get it that seasoned. You can't buy one off the rack. You can’t get the same flavor. And it might have something to do with the moisture and wood smoke that gets in, because it's not hermetically sealed off like a modern oven is. There's no question many of the recipes cannot be duplicated. They’re good, but they're not what it's like when you're there at that table with the ambience of the time period.
Do you have any further observations about the differences between historical and modern recipes and cooking methods?
Yes, guests might think that because a recipe is from a long time ago, from Daggett in 1760 for instance, that it’s easier to make. That recipes are more complex now than they were in the 1700s. But they’re not. For example, our recipes at Daggett are written in the hand of that century, where they use the long “s” that looks like an “f.” And they use such odd quantities, you sometimes have to have a group discussion to figure out what they're trying to tell you about making the recipe. So recipes at Daggett are very often much more difficult than ones at the Ford Home from 1876.
Of course, it’s difficult at the Ford Home making special recipes for Holiday Nights [in Greenfield Village]. But your everyday dishes for 1876 are pretty basic and easier to make. There isn't a tendency in the 1800s to use a lot of herbs, for instance, as they did in the 1700s. So even for your meat at the Ford Home, you basically use salt and pepper, and there's a lot of lard to flavor it. The food is good, but it's not using difficult flavorings like rosewater and all these other things we use at Daggett or the Giddings [Family] Home. Recipes from the 1700s are much fancier than what I put on my own table.
Also, cooking methods in the 1700s had more challenges in the kitchen. In the Ford Home, we have a better understanding of what measurements are needed. In Daggett’s time, they're making huge amounts of food as opposed to what a family would need in the 1800s. For instance, they did all their baking in one day, and they didn't bake more until they needed it. When you’re cooking on the open hearth or with a wood or coal burning stove, how do you know when food is done? Can you talk more about how to cook using these methods?
When I talk about cooking with guests, what they really want to know is: “how can you successfully cook like this?” And it's not hard, but you need to use all your senses, unlike how we cook today. You feel the temperature of the stove or bake kettle radiating on the skin of your face and your hands. This gives you a hint about the temperature and when you need to add more fuel to the fire. On the hearth, you can see it. But with the wood burning stove, you feel when you have to put more wood in.
To find out how your food is cooking, you use your sense of smell, and you can look and see how something's cooking. But your ears help too, because you can hear if something is over boiling or if it's boiling at all. There’s even a recipe for something that says: cook until you hear it sizzle. That was part of the recipe, to listen to it. Of course, you taste it to see if it's done. So the biggest difference with cooking in a historical kitchen is that you are actively engaged with all your senses in the process. We don't do that now. We set timers. We walk away because we can.
It's fun as a presenter to do on a daily basis. But would I want to do it every day again? I don't think so. And it's also fun for us to cook because we have guests coming into the homes. And we share what we're doing, how we're doing it, and why. I get the best reactions from guests when we have difficulty with something because it's not common to what we do. They love to see how we solve these problems that we've never faced before, because we don't cook like this all the time.
Holiday Nights in the Ford Home, with a Charlotte Russe dessert on middle-right side of table. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
What is the most difficult recipe at the Ford Home?
Charlotte Russe is probably the most difficult thing to make. We display it on the dining room table during Holiday Nights. It’s a sponge cake that you cut into strips, and you line the sides of a mold with the strips. And then you place raspberry or strawberry jelly or jam at the bottom of the mold. Then you make homemade custard and put it in the center and let it firm up.
It's a tricky little recipe to get to turn out right and come out of the mold. We finally figured out after all these years a good way to do that. We flip it over onto a plate and leave it out for a while. And once the mold is off, we put it back in a really cold place. So it stays firm as we display it on the table.
There are other recipes from the Ford Home that are my favorites. Of course, there's the pumpkin fritters that are just to die for.
Frying pumpkin fritters on the set of Live in the D on WDIV Local 4 in 2017. / Photo by Jim Johnson
Speaking of pumpkin fritters, I remember you appeared on a local news show where you made them in their studio kitchen. Can you tell me more about that experience?
Ah, yes. That was so fun. It was Fall Flavor Weekends in 2017, and the first weekend was already over. It was a Monday afternoon, and I was working at Daggett with two of our other talented presenters, Kellie and Erica. And Mary Weikum, who manages domestic life, stopped by and asked if I wanted to be on television the next morning at 10 a.m. on WDIV Local 4. She suggested I make the pumpkin fritters from the Ford Home with some extra batter we had. So, I agreed to do it.
Recipe for Pumpkin Fritters (1890)
One pint of flour, one of buttermilk, half a teaspoonful of salt, one of soda, half a cupful each of molasses and stewed pumpkin, two eggs. Fry quickly in plenty of lard. Serve hot with sugar and cream.
And then I looked at Erica and Kelly and said: “what have I got myself into?” They both encouraged me and said: “Cindy, you do this 1,000 times in a day, just be yourself.” I thought, I can do that. But then again, it was difficult having to think through all of the preparations. We had to get the ingredients, and the appropriate historic utensils and bowls. To think of all those things, then be down there by 9 a.m. and then cook on television, it was daunting. Fortunately, [The Henry Ford staffer] Jim Johnson came with me, and kept me calm.
One of the funnier parts I remember was making a reference to lard and emphasizing that’s how the pumpkin fritters are made. Two of the show’s hosts went into an uproar about how they can’t eat lard—yet they obviously wanted to try some. I mean, they were just going on and on about lard when we were not on camera. So that's why I make this little reference on camera to say, yes, we fry them in lard! And then later on, I could hear them hollering “lard” across the studio while cameras were rolling. Oh my gosh!
Tati Amare, a Live in the D host, made more batter while we were frying them in the studio kitchen. After the hosts tried them, they wanted more. Eventually, the people in the control room sent down a plate so they didn’t go without. Tati and I took a picture together, and she said I was her new BFF. It was just a wonderful experience.
Amy Nasir is Digital Marketing Specialist and former Historical Presenter in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
Guests of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village have been captivated by our various dramatic programs for decades at The Henry Ford. And Anthony Lucas’ performances as an historical actor have been essential in bringing our stories to life throughout many time periods and historical contexts. I had the honor of sitting down with Anthony, 2010 winner of The Henry Ford’s Steven Hamp Award, to chat about his 20 years of theatrical work at The Henry Ford.
You’ve been performing at The Henry Ford since the fall of 2000. What was your first project here?
I started as a replacement actor when another actor was out sick, and I performed in a program called “Gullah Tales” near the Hermitage Slave Quarters. After this, they called me back to do more performances.
How did you get into acting and what inspired you to act?
My interest to become an actor goes back to when I was five years old, believe it or not. I used to watch a gentleman named Bill Kennedy, a local TV host in Detroit who would show a lot of black-and-white Hollywood movies on Sunday afternoons. I would watch actors like James Cagney, and I said in my mind: “Wow, I want to do that!” I have a lot of favorite actors, but James Cagney was the first one because of his energy and his versatility. He could play a lot of different roles other than playing the bad guy. All the movies I watched on Bill Kennedy at the Movies were very entertaining, and they made a big impression upon me, including all the musicals and the films that starred Shirley Temple, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Bette Davis—the Golden Age of Hollywood.
What were your first theatrical roles and when did you perform them?
I really didn't get the opportunity to act until at the end of the 11th grade in high school. The following year, I did two plays. One was kind of a historical play dealing with Black history. It was called “In White America,” and it was a series of vignettes and monologues about civil rights and the Black struggle for freedom in the United States. And the other play was a kind of comedy farce called “Day of Absence.” The story took place in the South, and it dealt with what would happen if one day all the Black folks had suddenly disappeared. My performances took place in the early 1970s. We were coming right out of the sixties with the civil rights movement and the Black power movement. And so that was my start. I went on to study theater at Western Michigan University and performed in various shows with Detroit Repertory Theatre and Plowshares Theatre Company.
“Elijah: The Real McCoy” program in the museum. / Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
You’ve performed in several programs at The Henry Ford, which we’ll get into in a moment. But first, which one stands out as your favorite?
I love all the shows that I do, but one of my most favorite programs is “Elijah: The Real McCoy,” which I performed in both the village and museum. Elaine Kaiser, who has since retired [as Manager of Dramatic Programs at The Henry Ford], wrote it brilliantly. She wrote it for me to perform at Discovery Camp. Every show was very rewarding, and I just loved working with the kids during camp and seeing them at shows. The story starts with Elijah McCoy as a young kid, and the scenes travel through his achievements and struggles until he reaches his success as an inventor, and then into his old age. I loved to perform each stage of his life and see the kids’ reactions.
Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
Have there been any challenges you’ve encountered while performing?
Well, here’s a story that’s kind of funny. One summer in the village, I was very busy. While I was at Town Hall doing a couple of Elijah McCoy shows, I would need to change into a different period costume and get to Susquehanna Plantation to do “North Star Tales” as fast as I could. And then I would hurry up and go back to Town Hall, change, and do another Elijah McCoy. Thankfully, Elaine Kaiser loaned me her bike, so I could ride it between shows. So, it was quite exciting!
“How I Got Over” program at Susquehanna Plantation. / Photograph by Roy Ritchie
I’ve attended your performances at Susquehanna Plantation many times and have always been inspired when participating with other guests as we jumped from the porch steps yelling, “Freedom!” How long have you been performing at Susquehanna, and are there any other similar programs you perform in?
There were a few different shows we did at Susquehanna, and they go back to 2003, right after the renovation of the village. There is “How I Got Over,” “Tally’s Tales,” and a newer version called “North Star Tales,” which were all themed around the stories of slavery and endurance on the plantation. Last year in 2021, I narrated the North Star Gospel Chorale’s performance on the porch of Susquehanna as part of Salute to America: Summer Stroll. That was the first year, and it was really a great experience. We really enjoyed that. It's really a powerful show and I was happy to be a part of that. The Chorale also performed in the museum in February 2020, right before the pandemic, which was livestreamed on Facebook.
You are also a big part of the “Minds on Freedom” program in the museum. When did that start and how did it develop?
Yes, this program started in 2004, and it was a combination of two shows—a musical act, and then a dialogue part about the Civil Rights Movement. It was merged into one show called “Minds on Freedom,” which was performed in the museum around our Celebrate Black History program in February. There was also our special celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in June 2011, which I enjoyed being a part of. And during the National Day of Courage, celebrating Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday on February 4, 2013, I performed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Seen the Mountain Top” speech. That's always an honor any time I get a chance to express the words of Dr. King. He was a great man, a great orator, a great minister, and a great leader. And he gave his life for us to believe them. So any time you try to deliver his speeches, you’re never going to be like Dr. King. But I use my own approach and try my best to get the spirit across.
“Elijah: The Real McCoy” program in the museum. / Photographs by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
Many guests are familiar with your performances at our Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village and Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village events. How and when did these roles begin?
Oh, yeah, performing “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe goes way back with me, because it was one of the first dramatic readings I recited in high school. My mother coached me. I think if my mother had pursued acting, she may have been a pretty good actress. She helped me bring the story to life. Around 2003, Elaine Kaiser asked me to dramatize this short story for Hallowe’en from the point of view of a murderer descending into paranoia, haunted by the thumping sound of the murdered man’s heart. The program is different from Holiday Nights, because I have set times for shows. So I usually don't have a chance to interact with the audience in-between shows as much as I would like. Interacting with the audience afterwards whenever possible is a special part of being there. I'm not there just because I'm an actor to do shows. I'm there to be a part of The Henry Ford and to interact with the guests and help create that experience for them. It’s very special, unique, and moving to interact with the guests. So that's how I approach it.
I started performing at Holiday Nights just before I performed at the Hallowe’en event. Initially around 2003, I was working with a few other actors, and we were moving around the village doing a variety of poems and Christmas carols. And it was around 2004, I performed Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nick,” which we generally call “The Night Before Christmas.” I performed it as a solo act and was relocated outside of Town Hall and later to a warming fire. It’s developed into a very special event because of how guests react. There was one guy who proposed to his girlfriend at my warming fire. There are so many people with stories of their own, making Holiday Nights and the village a big part of their lives. Holiday Nights is a whole story in itself. I started adding an introduction to the performance rather than just solely dramatizing the poem. I started talking about Christmas in early America. And then I would ask guests about all the different holiday foods and dishes they like, and finally I would ask: Do you like Christmas cookies? I would then ask the big question: Do you have any with you tonight?
After this, guests started bringing me Christmas cookies every year. I come home with all sorts of cookies, sugar cookies, and chocolate chip cookies and all. Oh, yeah, it's funny. But it's great, though, because people come year after year and sometimes they tell me they used to bring their children and now they're all grown up. I'm like, wow, this is a reminder of how long I've been doing it. And it's so rewarding; sometimes I look out and see people that are moved. They get emotional and so it's wonderful. And the children are the best, they can just make you feel like a million bucks. In December 2020, I recited “The Night Before Christmas” for a video during the pandemic. That was a real different take on it because they had me come in and sit down and have a storybook in my hand. So I had to rework it so it could fit that format. And I like that too. It was very comfortable and warm. That was a real nice change of pace.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” program at Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village. / Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
Do you have any other stories about interacting with guests you’d like to share?
Sure. I was performing Elijah McCoy at the Town Hall one day, and there is a point where I would walk up the steps of the stage. I was playing the elderly Elijah, and I asked for volunteers from the audience to help me up the steps. So, this one little girl came up to me and she said: your tie is crooked. And she starts straightening my tie. Sometimes you just have to roll with it. That was a beautiful moment.
Another time, there was this couple that followed my shows. They took pictures of me performing Elijah McCoy in the village and “Minds on Freedom” in the museum, and other performances. The wife put together a scrapbook of their photos, and it had all these pictures and a beautiful cover. They gave it to me as a gift. I was just so speechless, you know, that they took time to create it over several months, putting this book together. I was very moved by it.
Amy Nasir is Digital Marketing Specialist and former Historical Presenter in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
Scotch Settlement School in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller
Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village offers an engaging look into the ways Americans celebrated Christmas in the past. At Scotch Settlement School, the holiday vignette reflects the Christmas programs that took place in the thousands of one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the landscape of rural America.
Students and teacher pose outside their rural one-room school in Summerville, South Carolina, about 1903. / THF115900
The schoolhouse—often the only public building in the neighborhood—was a center of community life in rural areas. It was not only a place where children learned to read, write, and do arithmetic, but might also serve as a place to attend church services, go to Grange meetings, vote in elections, or listen to a debate.
Students dressed in patriotic costumes for a school program, pageant, or parade, about 1905. / THF700057
People in rural communities particularly looked forward to the programs put on by the students who attended these schools—local boys and girls who ranged in age from about seven to the mid-teens. School programs were often presented throughout the year for occasions such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, Arbor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and eighth-grade graduation. People came from miles around to country schools to attend these events.
Handwritten Christmas program from Blair School, Webster County, Iowa, December 23, 1914. / THF700097, THF700098
Among the most anticipated events that took place at the schoolhouse was the Christmas program—it was a highlight of the rural winter social season. Preparations usually started right after Thanksgiving as students began learning poems and other recitations, rehearsing a play, or practicing songs. Every child was included. Students might have their first experience in public speaking or singing before an audience at these school programs.
Interior of Scotch Settlement School during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller.
The schoolroom was often decorated for the occasion, sometimes with a Christmas tree. During the late 1800s, when the presence of Christmas trees was not yet a widespread tradition, many children saw their first Christmas tree at the school Christmas program. Presents like candy, nuts, fruit, or mittens—provided by parents or other members of the community—were often part of the event. Growing up in the 1870s frontier Iowa, writer Hamlin Garland recalled the local minister bringing a Christmas tree to the schoolhouse one Christmas—a tree with few candles or shiny decorations, but one loaded with presents. Forty years later, Garland vividly remembered the bag of popcorn he received that day.
Teachers were often required to organize at least two programs a year. Teachers who put on unsuccessful programs might soon find themselves out of a teaching position. Teachers in rural schools usually came from a similar background to their students—often from the same farming community—so an observant teacher would have understood the kind of school program that would please students, parents, and the community.
Children at times performed in buildings so crowded that audience members had to stand along the edges of the classroom. Sometimes there wasn’t room for everyone to squeeze in. To see their parents and so many other members of the community in the audience helped make these children aware that the adults in their lives valued their schoolwork. This encouraged many of the students to appreciate their opportunity for education—even if they didn’t fully realize it until years later. Some children might even have been aware of how these programs contributed to a sense of community.
Postcard with the handwritten message, “Our school have [sic] a tree & exercises at the Church across from the schoolhouse & we all have a part in it,” from 11-year-old Ivan Colman of Tuscola County, Michigan, December 1913. / THF146214
These simple Christmas programs—filled with recitations, songs, and modest gifts—created cherished lifelong memories for countless children.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Those who decorated for Christian holidays made the gathering of evergreens a ritual. Families and friends ventured into the woods and cut conifers and other wintergreens to festoon churches, ballrooms, and private homes. This post focuses on the process of acquiring the iconic Christmas tree, a conifer or cone-bearing tree, evergreen because it retained its foliage throughout the winter season and prized for its shape, color, aroma, and association with gift-giving.
The native ranges of conifers affected personal preferences for Christmas trees.
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), the perch for a female and male cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), drawn by John Jay Audubon (1785–1851) in Cincinnati, Ohio, April 1811, reproduced by the New York Historical Society in 1966. / THF251903
Across the southern and eastern United States, the eastern red cedar (really, a juniper) proved a popular tree choice for those who could cut their own. The tree grew rapidly along the edges of woods, encroaching into fields and pastures. Thus, removing a few trees to deck the halls at Christmas time also served the purpose of containing the juniper and retaining arable land and pasture.
The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) appealed to landowners for many of the same reasons. A report in the Detroit Free Press (December 10, 1901) explained that in Maine, the “young firs, which are almost exclusively used for Christmas trees, are good for nothing else—in many sections being considered a nuisance, as they grow like burdocks and crowd out better trees.” Harvesting the trees for urban markets became a festive occasion as the reporter explained, with “whole families going into the woods and taking their dinners along.”
Print made from a watercolor sketch of “Alpine Fir” by Mary Vaux Walcott (1860–1940), printed by William Edmund Rudge, Inc., 1925. / THF125075
The subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), also known as the Alpine fir, grew in the high-elevation forests of the Canadian Rockies and western United States. It was much less easily accessible for families harvesting their Christmas tree, but its tall profile and stout branches appealed to Christmas tree shoppers none the less.
Bringing evergreens into private and public spaces during the darkest days of the year (the winter solstice) offered hope for the next growing season. Germanic people receive credit for adding light to the conifer. An 1836 illustration, “Christmas Eve,” showed a Christmas tree with candles aglow. The editor explained this as a well-known German tradition “that almost every family has its Christmas tree covered with a hundred lights and many beautiful gifts, and surrounded generally by a little group of happy beings” (The Stranger’s Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, edited by Hermann Bokum and published in Boston by Light & Horton in 1836, page 9).
The hand-tinted lithograph below, of a boy carrying a tree and a girl carrying a bundle of greens, printed in Hamburg, reinforced a tradition that increasing numbers of German immigrants brought with them to America during the mid-19th century.
Color Lithograph, "The Christmas Tree," printed by Gustav W. Seitz, Hamburg, 1856–1866. / THF108194
By 1867, “the pleasant Germanic custom of gathering the family round a Christmas tree ... has become thoroughly domesticated in this country.” So declared Harper’s Weekly (December 18, 1867) in a brief explanation of the reasons why families no longer hung stockings ‘neath the chimney with care, but instead hung presents from Christmas trees. A full-page illustration of “The Christmas Tree” further emphasized the point.
Christmas tree decorated with candles, popcorn strings, and toys, circa 1900./ THF290114
The bucolic imagery of bringing a Christmas tree home through snowy fields to a rural farmhouse contrasted with the risky business of tree markets.
Hallmark "Memories of Christmas" Christmas ornament, 1998./ THF186978
Families invested their labor in tree harvests. “A man cuts the trees close to the roots and a boy or a strong girl clips away with a sharp hatchet the few dead branches near the base. Women and boys tie the trees into bundles of a dozen each, binding them with strong cords, and then the harvest is piled into hayricks and taken to the nearest railroad station.” Often middlemen stepped in. As the New York World reported (reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901), “the evergreen harvests are generally bought by men who make a business in winter of supplying the holiday green markets of large cities.”
Families cutting conifers for urban markets, middlemen trying to sell them, and customers trying to buy them all relied on railroads to move the perishable cargo. This seasonal business was no holiday (to borrow colleague Matt Anderson’s turn of phrase in his blog post, “Winter Railroading was No Holiday”).
Christmas Tree Market, New York City, Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1903. Another view of this market at Barclay Street Station shows smaller trees in bundles to the left of the taller trees. These fit more closely the trees bound up by Maine families and shipped by train to the city, as described in the New York World article mentioned elsewhere in this post. / THF144363
Urban customers had little time to waste because trees arrived close to Christmas day. The Detroit Free Press reported that “Christmas trees, that is to say evergreens, are up in the market” (December 21, 1879). This arrival a few days before the holy day/holiday remained fairly consistent during the 19th century. A decade later (December 20, 1889), the Free Press reported, “Christmas trees have appeared on the market.”
What did these conifers cost? During December 1901, prices depended on tree height: “For trees five to six feet tall the buyers in Maine pay five cents, and for trees six to ten feet tall ten to fifteen cents. In the city these trees bring twenty-five cents to $1” (New York World reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901). Note that these prices are likely per foot, not per tree.
Customers looking for Christmas evergreen goods in Detroit a week later (December 18, 1901) could expect to pay eight cents per foot for an “Xmas tree” as reported by the Free Press. The market price for a 20-yard roll of “evergreen” was 85 cents to $1 and for a holly and evergreen wreath, $1 per dozen. In 2021 prices, that’s an average of $1.63 to $2.60 per foot for a six-foot tree, and $27.66 to $32.54 for a 20-yard roll of evergreen.
Whether families cut their own or paid market price for their conifer, photographs of home interiors indicate the ways they decorated.
First electrically lighted Christmas tree, home of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison Electric Light Company, December 1882. / THF69137
A magnifying glass and close inspection of the original print could confirm the tree type that Edward Hibberd Johnson, wife Margaret, and their three children (Edward H. Jr., Edna, and Lillian) enjoyed as of December 22, 1882. Subscribers to the Detroit Post and Tribune could read about this first tree lit with electric lights—80 red, white, and blue bulbs, hand wired—as reported by journalist William Augustus Croffut. The Johnson family (or their staff) also strung electric lights in the garland running from window treatments to the ceiling light fixture. Readers of Croffut’s article might even have anticipated the possibilities in Detroit, because the Western Edison Light Company had just offered an Edison incandescent light plant for use at Detroit’s Central Market. Detroit’s Committee on Gas was considering the proposal (Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1882).
Artificial illumination of the Christmas tree became standard practice quickly.
Christmas greens at Holiday Nights, December 5, 2021. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
Santa Claus employs the latest in transportation technology to share his greetings in this Christmas postcard, 1910. / THF93052
During the first two decades of the 20th century, people were likely to find colorful Christmas postcards when they reached into their mailboxes as the holiday neared. Americans were experiencing a postcard craze!
A New Idea: Sending Holiday Greetings
A pre-postcard era Christmas card by Louis Prang & Company of Boston, 1880. During the mid-1870s, Prang began publishing Christmas and other greeting cards, creating a highly successful Christmas card industry. / THF16646
It’s not that people didn’t send Christmas cards before that time. They did, especially during the 1870s and 1880s as Christmas became more widely celebrated in homes and in the community. Sending a Christmas greeting card was a way to keep in touch with distant family and friends. In the decades following the Civil War, as Congress increasingly standardized delivery, mail traveled more rapidly, dependably, and cheaply than it had before, transporting Christmas cards and other mail throughout the nation.
Post office in the small town of Hoxie, Kansas, about 1913. / THF700079
Yet interest in giving or sending printed holiday greetings through the mail had waned somewhat by the 1890s. That is, until circumstances—lower postal rates and improved delivery service to all areas of the country—helped create a postcard boom for urban and rural residents alike and encouraged a Christmas card revival.
The Postman Brings Postcard Cheer
n 1898, the United States Post Office reduced the cost of mailing privately printed postcards to one cent. As postcards caught the public’s fancy in the first decade of the 20th century, these cards blossomed with colorful images, humorous messages, or holiday greetings. Postcards quickly became an attractive and ready means of inexpensive communication, with room for a personal message on the reverse.
During the “Golden Age” of postcards, from about 1900 to 1914, people bought and mailed billions. In 1904, the New York City post office alone handled about 30,000 cards per day. Many of these billions of postcards were holiday-themed—Christmas postcards were the most popular.
United States Post Office delivery trucks, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, 1908. / THF700044
By 1902, rural mail routes had become a permanent part of the postal service. Instead of having to make a trip into town to the post office to retrieve their mail, rural residents now had the same advantage as city dwellers—mail was delivered directly to their homes.
Rural Free Delivery in a horse-drawn mail delivery wagon, 1895–1920. / THF143935
Christmas Postcard Greetings—Inexpensive and Colorful
Postcard advertising the Souvenir Post Card Company’s line of Christmas postcards, about 1910. / THF700082 and THF700083
These colorful seasonal greetings were not only affordable, they were attractive and appealing.
The time was right. Between 1900 and 1910, entrepreneurs established most of the American greeting card companies, including Hallmark Cards, American Greetings, Rust Craft, and the Gibson Art Company. Many of the colorful postcards companies sold to their American customers were printed in Germany—American printing technology lagged behind that of the Germans.
German-made postcard of Santa and reindeer and sleeping child, 1907-1910. / THF136483
The postcards displayed a range of what we now think of as symbols of Christmas, including Santa Claus, children with toys, Christmas trees, houses and churches in the snow, ice skating, bells, holly, and angels.
This postcard combines holly with a snowy landscape. / THF6869
Postcards sporting images of Santa with reindeer, 1907–1910, and a child with toys, 1905–1910. / THF136481 and THF4503
Christmas postcards—with a snow-covered church, holly, and bells, and with an angel holding a Christmas tree, 1910 and 1915. / THF700046 and THF700048
Up-to-date technology made its appearance in these Christmas postcards as well.
A child uses the telephone, rather than a letter, to communicate her wish list to Santa, 1907. / THF135741
Images of automobiles often appeared on Christmas cards of the era, 1907–1910 and 1910. / THF135814 and THF143923
Santa tries out motorcycle delivery of presents rather than reindeer-powered transportation, 1910–1920. / THF4508
The postcard craze peaked between 1907 and 1910—it was particularly popular among rural and small-town women in the northern United States.Some 700 million postcards were mailed during the year ending June 30, 1908, alone.
Yet the postcard craze would soon ebb. In 1909, a tariff was placed on imported postcards, making the German-printed imports more expensive. The quality of available postcards began to fall. Public interest waned and artistic tastes changed. In 1914, World War I further disrupted the postcard industry, as German-produced cards and high-quality dyes used for ink became unavailable. As the war continued, many companies shifted to greeting card—rather than postcard—production. The telephone probably contributed as well, as more households had phones to reach family and friends more quickly. The “Golden Age” of postcards was drawing to a close.
Step into Christmas Postcards Past
Phoenixville Post Office in Greenfield Village during Holiday Nights. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller
Today, strolling past the Phoenixville Post Office during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village offers a glimpse into this slice of Christmas postal history.
Photos courtesy of Jeanine Miller and Glenn Miller.
Visitors can experience the early 20th century postcard craze for themselves by posing behind enlarged versions of Christmas postcards placed near the Phoenixville Post Office—and then act as digital “postal carriers” by sending these images to family and friends by text or email.
Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller.
From a curator’s point of view, it’s a wonderful to see these postcards of Christmas Past become part of Christmas Present! You can take a “peek” into Christmas mailboxes of the past by clicking here to see additional early-20th-century postcards in our collection.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
From the kitchens of Greenfield Village to yours at home, this year’s collection of Holiday Nights recipes are inspired by our own historic recipe bank. Try our 2020 recipes and then dig deeper into our online collection of historic recipes. Thanks to our supporting partners at Meijer for making this year’s recipe collection possible.
Card and text versions of the recipes follow, or access a high-res PDF, suitable for printing, of all four recipe cards here.
(Please Note: These recipes are taken from original historical resources and contain spellings and references that will be unfamiliar to today’s cooks. These were retained for accuracy and are explained where possible.)
Weigh out a pound of sugar, three-quarters pound butter, stir them to a cream, then add three beaten eggs, a grated nutmeg, a spoonful of extract of lemon and a pint of flour; dissolve a teaspoonful of saleratus [baking powder] in a teacup of milk, strain and mix it with half a teacup of cider and stir it into the cookies; then add flour to make them sufficiently stiff to roll out. Bake them as soon as cut into cakes in a quick oven [375-400º F] till light brown.
May Perrin Goff, Detroit Free Press Cook Book (The Household and Ladies Cyclopeadia), p. 43.
2 cups sugar 1 cup sweet milk ½ cup butter 3 cups Five Roses flour 3 teaspoons baking powder 5 eggs (whites)
Mix and beat well. Bake in deep square tin. Cut in 2 inch squares. Remove outside. Frost on all sides, then roll in freshly grated cocoanut.
Confectioner’s Frosting: Two tablespoons boiling water or cream and a little flavoring essence of vanilla, lemon, or almond. Add enough confectioner’s sugar to the liquid to make of right consistency to spread.
Lake of the Woods Milling Company Limited, The Five Roses Cook Book, 1915, p. 86, 121.
Take five half pints of thick cream, half a pint of Rhenish wine, half a pint of sack, and the juice of two large Seville oranges, grate in just the yellow rind of three lemons, and a pound of double-refined sugar well beat and sifted; mix all together with a spoonful of orange-flower water; beat it well together with a whisk half an hour, then with a spoon take it off, and lay it on a sieve to drain, then fill your glasses: these will keep about a week, and are better made the day before. The best way to whip syllabub is, have a fine large chocolate-mill, which you must keep on purpose, and a large deep bowl to mill them in: it is both quicker done, and the froth stronger; for the thin that is left at the bottom, have ready some calf’s-foot jelly boiled and clarified, there must be nothing but the calf’s-foot boiled to a hard jelly; when cold take off the fat, clear it with the whites of eggs, run it through a flannel bag, and mix it with the clear which you saved of the syllabubs; sweeten it to your palate, and give it a boil, then pour it into basins, or what you please: when cold, turn it out, and it is a fine flummery.
Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1796, p. 179-80.
One and a half pounds of wheat flour, quarter of a pound of butter, one pint of molasses, one pint of brown sugar, ten eggs, ginger to the taste, one teaspoonful of pearlash [1/2 tsp. baking soda] dissolved in warm water; stir all together, and bake in pans or patties. Currants and raisins may be added.
Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847, p. 198.
Christmas tree in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we really enjoy showing how Americans would have celebrated Christmas in the 19th century. In almost all the houses, we use historical primary sources to try to glean out descriptions of what people may have done—but we have almost no concrete visual evidence. However, one huge exception is the Wright Home, the family home of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
We know from various sources that in 1900 there was a big homecoming in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin Wright, one of Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers, was returning home from living apart for a very long time, slightly estranged. In celebration, the family decided to put up their first Christmas tree. Wilbur and Orville, who were amateur photographers but probably as good as any professional of the time, documented some of that process.
Within the last decade, we have been able to access a very high-resolution image of the Wright family Christmas tree image from the Library of Congress, and the details just leapt out at us. This photograph, which we know was taken in 1900, documents exactly how the Wright Brothers designed and put up their Christmas tree. We examined all the minutiae in the photo and have attempted to recreate this tree as exactly as possible.
Wright Home Parlor Decorated for Christmas, Original Site, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF119489
The toys, the various ornaments—it's all in line with what's typical in the time period. So if you look at the tree in the Wright Home, you’ll see it lit with candles—this is not an electrified house yet in 1900. There's a variety of ornaments designed to hold candies and similar things. It has strung popcorn, which would have been homemade, but it also has store-bought German tinsel garland, glass ornaments (either from Poland or Germany), and all kinds of additional decorations that may have been saved from year to year. There's a homemade star on top that has tinsel tails coming off it.
For many years, we just had a low-resolution, fuzzy photograph of the tree, and we reproduced things as faithfully as we could—for example, what appeared to be a paper scrap-art angel. The first glimpse of the high-resolution photograph absolutely flabbergasted us, because front-and-center on the tree is a little scrap-art of a screaming, crying baby. It must have been some sort of inside joke within the family. We were able to reproduce it exactly as it would have looked on the tree.
The screaming baby scrap-art on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
In keeping with tradition, the tree is also covered with gifts for different members of the family. It seems that the adult gifts were hung unwrapped on the tree, whereas many of the children's things were either wrapped or just placed under the tree, based on the photograph. For example, on the tree, we see a pair of what are known as Scotch gloves—you would have found examples of these in Sears catalogues of the early 1900s. There's also a fur scarf, toy trumpets, and even a change purse, all hung on the tree.
Scotch gloves hanging on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
Beneath the tree, the arrangement of toys and gifts is quite fun. There’s a pair of roller skates, a little toy train, tea sets, furniture sets, and all kinds of different things geared specifically toward all the Wright nieces and nephews who would have come to visit on that Christmas morning.
There's also a wonderful set of photographs associated with the tree after Christmas. For example, there’s one of Bertha Wright, one of Reuchlin’s middle daughters, in the next room over, sitting playing with her toys. She's clearly been interrupted in her play, and you can see that in the expression on her face: “Okay, let's get this over with.”
Bertha Wright, Age Five, Niece of the Wright Brothers, Daughter of Reuchlin Wright, circa 1900 / THF243319
There are also photos outside the house, featuring the sleigh (which is prominent under the tree in the high-res photograph, stacked with books). Behind them in all these photographs is a little fir tree—the tree that was inside the house for Christmas has now been placed out there and propped up in the corner, probably for the winter season.
Milton, Leontine, and Ivonette Wright at Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF243321
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we have a wonderful large high-resolution blow-up of the tree photograph set up in the Wright Home for our guests to compare-and-contrast with the recreated tree in the corner. Be sure to stop by the Wright Home to see it on your next Holiday Nights visit!
The original historic photo of the Wright family Christmas tree, displayed in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Brian James Egen)
This post was adapted from the transcript of a video featuring Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
A Half Century in the Making, the Journey from Yuletides to Holiday Nights
What we know and love today as Holiday Nights did not spontaneously appear in 2000 when we first opened Greenfield Village on December evenings for an immersive holiday experience. Holiday Nights has evolved and grown based on many experiences and inspirations from decades of village “Christmases past.” and the work of many talented people.
The ability to transport our guests to a different time and place is most powerful after dark as the modern world that constantly pushes closer to our borders can be temporarily pushed away. When all is said and done, Greenfield Village provides the most perfect “set” in which to bring the past alive. With over 300 years of history represented, the possibilities are endless; a world where Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life can seamlessly collide. A place where a small town from the distant past comes to life for several hours on December evenings, bringing forth the magic of the holiday season.
Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village is a classic example of “if you build it, they will come.” What began with conservative hopes for several hundred people in attendance has continually grown year after year.
Information Booklet, "Christmas at Greenfield Village 1964." THF112439
The holiday experience in Greenfield Village has a long history. As early as the mid-1960s, Village buildings were decorated both inside and out for the holiday season. Historic Christmas recipes were prepared in the village kitchens in fireplaces and wood burning stoves. Early on, all the guest experiences were limited to daytime and varied from guided tours, to full access, to tour on your own. Decorations were very elaborate, and included many collection items, but were not always based on sound historical research. Every building got a bit of Christmas, whether it would have been celebrated or not. During this period, attendance was vigorous, especially on December weekends.
Guests at Clinton Inn (Eagle Tavern) During "Yuletide Evening in the Village," 1975. THF144738
By the mid-1970s, new evening holiday experiences, called Yuletide Evenings, were introduced. Guests had the choice of a formal dinner in either the newly constructed Heritage Hall (now the Michigan Café) or the Clinton Inn (now the Eagle Tavern).The experience included horse drawn wagon, or if conditions allowed, sleigh rides into the Village, and depending on which package was purchased, a tour of 4 different decorated historic buildings, either before or after dinner. By the early 1980s, the Clinton Inn became Eagle Tavern, and the evening program changed to become an immersive 1850 dining experience much like the program offered today. Eventually, the Village tour portion of the evening was discontinued, offering a dinner only experience.
In the early 1990s, a concerted effort had been made for some years to reinvigorate the daytime program. By paying attention to historical accuracy, but at the same time, broadening the scope and allowing for a wider interpretation of how Americans began to celebrate Christmas in the 19th century, more engaging programs were offered. Hundreds of artifacts were chosen to fit out the dining rooms, parlors, and where appropriate, Christmas trees. Additional research was also done to lift-up the historic cooking programs and infuse a “living history” approach to the historic structures with the addition of period clothing. All this further supported the stories of the diversity of the American Christmas celebration. This work laid the foundation for the core content of Holiday Nights that we rely on today.
By the late 1990s, for a variety of reasons, the daytime visitation to the Greenfield Village Holiday Program had begun to decline while the evening program attendance remained strong. Based on the inspiration and fond memories of the wonderful candle and lantern lit buildings decorated for the holidays, a new program was proposed to re-create that opportunity through the Educational Programs class offerings. Though on a very small scale that served less than 100 people, this program reminded us of what could be possible and got the creative process rolling.
Brochure, "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF144736
The Twelve Nights of Christmas, what would later be called Holiday Nights, debuted for the Christmas season of 2000. The daytime “Holiday” program remained in place, and the evening program was basically an evening version. This early version was very quiet, and very dark, as none of the village restoration had taken place yet. Most of the activities were based inside the buildings. Despite the slow start, the potential was fully realized, and creative and physical growth began. With the village closed for the holiday season of 2002 for the renovation, there was time to regroup, brainstorm, and make plans. The new and improved version for the “new” village in 2003 saw expanded outdoor activities, more music, and an ice rink that featured an artificial ice surface. Even with enhanced programming elements, the program was still not really filling the space as it could.
Musicians Performing at "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF133593
During these early years, it was apparent to the village programs team that to achieve the level of experience we were aspiring to, the event would need to be broken down into production areas, and each would need its own level of care and attention to detail. Decorating the village, designing and deploying the lighting, planning the historic food demonstrations, food sales and retail, staffing and training, musical and dramatic program casting and rehearsing, dressing an army of staff, firewood, lanterns, and communicating the entire thing, all was captured and pulled together with the Holiday Nights manual. This work became the go-to document for what needed to be done when and where, once preparation for the evening program began. This tool also became invaluable in planning and producing subsequent years of the program. So, as ideas came forth as to how to expand and improve the Holiday Nights guest experience, the program manual format made it possible to incorporate the new elements and move the experience forward.
A very memorable off site staff mini-retreat to a local book store cafe in 2004 laid the foundation for the program we know today. Building on the sound historical content of our village holiday celebration, our success with Holiday Nights thus far, along with a commitment from the institution, we created and refined the combination of guest experiences that today, makes Holiday Nights truly one of the nation’s greatest holiday experiences. The fireworks finale, the end of the evening procession and sing-a-long, a visit from Santa, a real ice skating rink, immersive food and drink stalls in the center of the Village, a greens market, storytellers, over 100 staff in period dress as well as a wide variety of additional dining experiences and top quality live music, has put Holiday Nights on the map over 20 seasons.
The program continues to grow and evolve. For my part, it’s been a privilege and source of pride to see how far we have come and how we have come together to achieve such greatness. I look forward to the road ahead and what the next 20 years may bring.
Inspired by the evolution of Holiday Nights? See it for yourself - limited tickets for 2019 remain.
Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford and Director of Greenfield Village.
During the Holiday Nights program in Greenfield Village, we strive to recreate authentic interiors and seasonal celebrations of the American past. With the holidays rapidly approaching we are setting our dining tables for Christmas and New Year’s Eve and think it is a good time to examine the evolution of festive table settings in times past. Of course, the focus of table decoration is the centerpiece and these have a long and interesting history.
Making Christmas ornaments in Henry Ford Museum, Christmas Eve 1986.
Earlier this month I was sent this blog post from Target showcasing some of their holiday ads from the past 60 years. From Christmas tree-filled print ads to YouTube-ready TV commercials, the post was a hit with many of my co-workers here at The Henry Ford.
The post got me thinking to some of my favorite holiday memories of THF. Growing up in southeastern Michigan, my parents were (and still are) proud members of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. One of our Christmas traditions every year was to visit the museum on Christmas Eve. We looked forwarded to making ornaments, adding our names to the huge visitor paper chain and, of course, taking our family picture by the Christmas tree.
As I thought about my favorite memories here, I wondered what kind of holiday programming memorabilia we had in our collections? Turns out, there's quite a bit!
Take a look at just a few samples of holiday programming from over the years at The Henry Ford.
Visitors to Greenfield Museum in 1964 were treated to "period decorations" for the first time. What could guests expect as they toured the Village? From this 1964 pamphlet:
Appropriate Christmas decorations, authenticated in each instance by careful research, have been installed in the 17th-century Cotswold Cottage, the 18th-century Secretary House, and the 19th-century Noah Webster House, Wright Homestead, and Ford Homestead, as well as in the Clinton Inn and the Martha-Mary Chapel. These buildings will be highlights of the regular guided tours during the holidays.
In the mood to learn more about crafting? Henry Ford Museum was the place for you during Christmas 1976! During the holiday season guests could learn about toymaking, counted thread embroidery, lace making, crewel embroidery, Christmas card painting, quilting, tinsmithing, broom making, candle making, glass blowing, weaving, doll making, cookie baking, basket making AND tole painting. Phew!
Need to know more about what was going on in the museum that year? Dial the Village Party Line!
In the 1980s, visitors enjoyed "Yuletide Evenings" in Greenfield Village, complete with sleigh ride tours and dinner inside Eagle Tavern.
While you might not think of a safari when you first think of the museum, children were definitely on the lookout with Santa in 1986 thanks to this holiday scavenger hunt. Chances are pretty good that I was one of those kids!
In the 1990s, the holidays were all about being a "unique event" in the museum and Village.