A hundred years ago could anyone imagine that darning tools would now be unrecognisable except to antiques or crafts enthusiasts? There always used to be a steady supply of darning in the family mending bag. A woman sitting darning was a common sight, and so was a darning egg. Inside a stocking or sock with a hole in, the “egg” or darner made it easier to stitch a neat repair: not too tight, not too slack.
The simplest old darners are rounded pieces of hardwood – boxwood, maple, apple, elm – with a lovely smooth surface. Edward Pinto, the treen expert, thought the egg was the oldest shape in common use. They were also called darning balls.
Other names and other shapes include darning mushrooms, darners, lasts and wooden “gourds”. Real gourds or cowrie shells could be used, and special 19th century darners might be coloured glass, pottery, or ivory, or have silver handles.*
Darning eggs that open to reveal neatly-stowed sewing accessories are attractive pieces of treen (woodware), appealing to collectors who would never actually use them. There’s something about a clever design with small things unexpectedly tucked inside a well-crafted piece of hardwood. (See pictures near the bottom of the page.) Desirable antiques now, these used to be bought as gifts. Hollow olivewood eggs with needle and thimble inside were exported to England from Southern Europe. You may also come across darners with a detachable handle doubling as a needle case.
In France, every village woodturner had his own style of egg, as you see in this well-illustrated post, and it was once a common present for a bride. Handles were less common than in the UK or USA.
A darning-egg or ball, held in the left hand, is slipped under the hole, with the stocking stretched smoothly, but not tightly, over it.
The Dressmaker, 1916
When a glove needed darning, little darning eggs were pushed into the fingers. Some glove darners had different-sized balls on each end of a handle. With big sock darners, the handle itself could sometimes be used for glove repairs. Not all glove darners had a handle. Some were simple egg shapes dropped into the finger. The handle-free type was usual in France, as with the sock darning eggs.
All these curved darners were best suited to mending small pieces of knitted clothing. They were not meant to be used for “flat darning” of woven cloth.
Ceramic hot water bottles were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As well as filling hot water containers to warm your bed, you could buy earthenware bottles to use as foot warmers or hand warmers too. Earlier foot warmers used to hold hot coals, or glowing wood, not warm water. In the same way, traditional bed warmers filled with embers were once more usual than hot water bottles.
If you were travelling in cold weather you would hope to have a foot warmer of some kind in your unheated carriage, sleigh, or train compartment. In the 17th and 18th centuries a pierced metal carrier for hot coals was a common solution for anyone who could afford one. They went on being used in the 19th century, while other styles of foot warmer came along too.
The simplest were punched tin in a wooden frame with an earthenware or iron pot inside. Brass was more stylish, and silver warmers were used by the wealthy, although you couldn’t actually rest your feet on them. Poor people travelling by wagon or sled could carry pre-heated stones or bricks with them, or even baked potatoes and flatirons, as described in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.
In the US these warmers were called foot stoves and were taken to church on winter Sundays to keep feet warm during long services. It seems the name and style was inspired by the Dutch style of foot warmer, called a stoof or stove, discussed below.
In bitter winter weather women carried to meeting little foot-stoves – metal boxes which stood on legs and were filled with hot coals at home, and a second time during the morning from the hearthstone of a neighbouring farm-house or a noon-house. These foot-warmers helped to make endurable to the goodwives the icy chill of the meeting-house; and round their mother’s foot-stove the shivering little children sat on their low crickets, warming their half-frozen fingers.
Alice Morse Earle, Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891
As rail travel took off, foot warmers moved onto trains. First class rail services in cool climates often supplied foot warmers. These might be metal or earthenware containers for hot water, metal holders with hot brick slugs or even chemicals inside. Some later trains were designed with built-in “foot warmers”: areas of the floor with heated piping running underneath, for example. Early cars followed the same pattern. Before the days of fully heated vehicles foot warmers were included in the design.
Dutch foot stoves
The Dutch used to be known for a certain kind of foot warmer found alongside other household furniture: a pierced box with an earthenware or metal pot holding glowing coals inside. They called it a stoof (stove) and you can see it in countless paintings from the 17th century on, like this one by Cornelis de Man c1670.
These foot stoves were also common in northern Germany. A stone slab was an alternative to the wooden top with holes. Similar foot-warming “boxes” were known in other countries too: see this French chaufferette. In Britain open fires were the most popular way of warming yourself indoors and foot warmers were not much used in the home, but some craftspeople had an earthenware pot of coals for heating their workshop, and this might be placed under a footstool.
Foot warmers are visible in the paintings, but they could be completely hidden under a long skirt or cloak. They were used more by women than men. Did men’s boots keep them warmer?
More on the Mecca foot warmer and other ceramic foot warmers
After the first plain cream queensware “Mecca” warmer in 1910 (“finest English Ivory Queens Ware”), they were made in various other “Royal Winton” decorative finishes and several different sizes.
Grimwades Ltd., Stoke-on-Trent, one of the best-known firms manufacturing an exhaustive range of popularly priced, useful and ornamental earthenware and china, and famous for their hygienic wares for the kitchen and pantry….An unique feature of the exhibit is the Mecca bed-bottle or foot-warmer in a variety of choice decorations. What nicer present for an invalid friend or wounded soldier!
1915 Guardian report on the British Industries Fair
A more common shape of earthenware foot warmer, popular in the UK, was made by many different manufacturers (see photo left). Doulton’s were lent to passengers on an English railway.
I’ve written about box beds before, and about the Breton tradition of fine, substantial, and wonderfully carved box beds (lits clos or enclosed beds). At the time I didn’t know about another, more recent, tradition from about 100 years ago: pictures of comic scenes staged around Britanny’s most famous furniture. The double-decker beds (double lit clos, lit à l’étage etc.) are doubly amusing with the right humorous caption. There are straightforward photographs too, showing off traditional Breton folk costumes as well as the beds.
The postcards probably appealed to city slickers from Paris taking the sea air in Brittany, as well as to tourists from further afield. Brittany’s cultural heritage is quite distinct from the rest of France, so a cute picture of the carved box beds plus wooden clogs (sabots) and local characters in Breton dress could be just the thing to send to the folks back home. There seems to be a hint of “Aren’t these rustic hicks funny?” but it’s hard to be sure how it would have seemed at the time. In any case, the photographs give a good impression of the amazing furniture.
Every box bed had its combination bench-chest (banc-coffre or banc-tossel) to help with climbing in. (And with storing linen.) To get up and down, some postcard characters perched a stool precariously on the chest, some asked for a ladder, and others used a convenient shoulder.
Within Brittany, there were regional differences in the design of lits clos. Some were completely enclosed with full doors, except perhaps for decorative pierced carving to let air circulate. Other beds were only partly surrounded by wooden panelling, and had a curtained opening. Fixed panels and sliding doors could match perfectly. The space behind the bench-chest might be empty, or covered with a simple plank. Side panels were generally plain, hidden by other furniture close by.
As well as elaborate carving on flat surfaces, many beds featured ornamental balusters. A balustrade ran all the way along the top of some beds.
To see more souvenir box bed photographs – plus comedy – try these links:
This site only has one picture of a rather downmarket bed (is that a chamber-pot under the bench?) but, if you can read French, note that it leads to a curious poem about an elderly matriarch holding court in her imposing lit clos.
Enamel cookware, dishes and candlestick, a black stove with a flat iron and skillet on top, a nice old wooden high chair – nothing too surprising for a 1930-ish kitchen. But if you live in an English-speaking country, there may be things in this German kitchen that seem slightly, or very, unfamiliar.
Do you recognise the little shelf on the left-hand wall with three pots of sand, soda and soap: a characteristic German way of organising cleaning materials in the early 20th century? Nearby is a “modern” touch: an electric outlet. (The wooden apparatus next to it is a puzzle. Could it be glass-making equipment from the workshop on the other side of the wall? Please tell us below if you know.)
The coffee mill on the wall has a glass cup to catch the ground coffee and a jar above the grinder to store the roasted beans. This type was used in other European countries too – but not in Britain, where you were far more likely to see a tea caddy than a coffee mill. There was a variety of wall mills in the US, another coffee-drinking country.
There’s a mould hanging on the wall for baking ring cakes. If you’re American you’ll call this a Bundt pan, but they were uncommon in the USA of the 1930s. In Germany and Austria Kranzform (wreath-shape) pans for baking Bundkuchen aka Gugelhupfer have been known for 300 years: ceramic, copper, or iron before the days of enamelled steel or aluminium.
Just to the right of the cake pan is a collection of long-handled utensils. At first glance you may think it’s just a set of spoons and spatulas, but these are slightly different. The meat tenderiser in a poor household surely reflects a “schnitzel-oriented” style of cooking, and would not have been owned by a working-class family in England, for example.
And then there are four quirls. Three of them haven’t changed much from when they were part of a tree. Quirl is often translated as whisk but that could be misleading. These are wooden beating and mixing implements and are not used for whisking up snowy peaks of egg-white or cream. German-speaking households would have a schneebesen (snow-broom) for that, a wire whisk, if they didn’t have an electric or hand rotary beater.
A quirl is essential for making some kinds of traditional dumpling! It can also be used for mashing potatoes, making doughy or porridgy mixtures, stirring liquids, and it’s handy for other things too. You can make one from your Christmas tree when the seasonal festivities are over. Quirl means a “whorl” on a plant.
German kitchens used to have a decorative shelf with a set of pots, neat and tidy, filled with three essentials for a clean home: soap, sand, and soda. Although English-speaking countries never had a special storage unit like this, and didn’t think of the “three esses” as a trio, they also made much use of sand and soda as well as soap.
Antique wall-hung shelves with their three containers appeal to collectors in the USA, not just parts of Europe. The most attractive to me are the ones ornamented in folk art style with full-petalled pink roses and curving outlines. Traditional German lettering adds character too.
They all seem to be made of enamelled sheet metal and belong to the first half of the 20th century, or possibly the late 19th too – the heyday of enamelware. If you know when these first came into use please do add a comment. The early 20th/late 19th century dates would match with cleaning and washing methods in that period.
Washing soda in the late 19th century was factory-made and quite affordable. Among other things, it helps with laundry and with taking out stains from wood, and is simple enough to be seen today as a “green” product. Soap, like soda, was quite plentiful by 1900, not too expensive, and was available in powder or flakes suitable for filling a nice enamel pot.
Sand had been a basic cleaning agent for centuries: for scrubbing floors, scouring iron cooking pots, and much more. This is easier to remember in German-speaking countries where the word Scheuersand, meaning scouring sand, is still recognised. Fine sand for cleaning gradually morphed into white abrasive cleaning powders with hygienic-smelling chemicals. There was an intermediate stage with sand and soda scouring mixes. One brand of “sand”, ATA, was remembered with nostalgia by some older people from former East Germany, after it vanished around 1989.
Household advice books from 100 years ago tell us about using the three esses. There’s one in German that recommends mixing soda and sand for cleaning wood – no soap as that makes wood look grey. Use all three for metal utensils but be sparing with the sand or you will damage tinned surfaces. Enamel is best cleaned with a soap and soda mixture, after soaking.
Or you can buy some detergent at the supermarket…..
Drinking strong coffee made in a small pot called a briki, ibrik, cezve or rakwa, has become quite popular in English-speaking countries in the last few years. If you have an old briki – from an antique shop, relative’s attic, or an old souvenir – you may wonder if you can put it on the kitchen stove and prepare intense, concentrated coffee in the Greek or Turkish style.
If it’s a copper briki – and many are – you must check the inside. An unscratched tin lining is important for both taste and health reasons. Copper can give a nasty metallic taste to coffee. Even if it tastes OK, there’s a question mark over the safety of unlined copper cookware, especially for acidic drinks and foodstuffs. Using copper for cooking could lead to toxic levels in the body. Brass contains copper so it can’t be seen as a safe alternative.
You should be able to find a tin re-lining service if you want to get a vintage briki back in use, but be aware that having copper cookware re-lined is not cheap. Try to estimate the surface in square inches or centimetres before asking about price.
Making Greek or Turkish coffee
To prepare coffee in any briki, start with Greek or Turkish roast beans ground to a fine powder. You can buy a traditional spice mill to grind the beans by hand if you want to do it the old-fashioned way. Otherwise buy the coffee ready-prepared or use an electric mill or food processor. It’s possible to buy Greek coffees with special flavouring – like rose petal – but this is not for everyone.
Use at least a teaspoon of coffee, an optional teaspoon of sugar, and about 3oz (85g) of water per person and heat the mixture till it boils and froths. Many cooks like to remove the coffee from the heat, stir it, then boil it once or twice more. Pour or spoon out the froth (kaimaki “cream”) so everyone gets some in their demitasse cups. Next share out the liquid, trying to leave the coffee sediment in the briki. Sip slowly, hoping any grounds will stay settled at the bottom of the cup. Do not stir!
Other names for the briki include the Turkish cezve, and ibrik, a word related to briki. Brikia is the Greek plural, but ‘brikis’ sounds more natural to English speakers. Arabic speakers may say raqwa, rakweh or similar. Whatever the pot is called, coffee is made this way in many countries around the eastern Mediterranean.
This kitchen is on an early dude ranch set up for city dwellers who wanted an “American West” experience on vacation. Perhaps it’s a little more folksy than some other kitchens of the 1920s, but everything in there is authentic, and could have been found in other homes of that era.
Before I start naming names, have you had a chance to ID the things kept on “Mama” Holzwarth’s stove? The tea kettle is easy, and the classic speckled enamel coffeepot too. These don’t really look big enough to supply breakfast-time hot drinks for a full house of visitors. At busy times 50 people had their meals served in this one building.
In the middle of the stove are two sadiron bases: one with the detachable handle fixed on, and one without. Although heat-it-on-the-stove flat irons, aka sadirons, had been around for centuries, this particular design is an American classic originally patented in 1871 by Mary Potts. In the days of non-electric ironing, the spare base would have been heating on the stove, ready to be used when the other got too cool for effective clothes pressing. Then you’d switch the cool wooden handle over to the hot iron.
If you don’t recognise the dark metal item on the left, it may help to click on the link below to reach a bigger version of the picture. This item was used for campfire cooking as well as in the home kitchen, though I imagine it working better on a camping stove than balanced precariously over an open fire. Yes, it’s a toaster with a base to set on the heat and four wire racks to hold slices of bread, rather like this. The long tongs: what are they for? Probably for reaching into the fire burning inside the stove – but whether for rearranging logs or deliberately charring some “toasted” food, I don’t know.
Now for the big copper pot with bulbous lid and a tube draining away from it. Perhaps it’s the most difficult thing to identify in the picture. If the ranch owners told you it was only there for “medicinal” reasons, would that help? This is a still for making moonshine or hooch or whatever name you wanted to call your homemade liquor. Heat from the stove would certainly get the distilling process going, but I guess it would be a little risky using it in full view of your guests while alcohol was strictly illegal. Historic kitchens sometimes display items which weren’t there originally, and I don’t know whether the Holzwarths made their own distilled spirits. If they did, it may not have been in the kitchen. A quiet corner seems more likely.
The stove would have burned wood behind the left-hand doors. The central oven door has a temperature gauge, and the right hand section probably held hot water. You could warm plates, buns etc. in the top part or keep cooked food warm in there before serving.
Having no bathroom was no problem for people with servants. Using your bedroom for bathing was normal in the 1800s. Even if you were rich enough to install indoor plumbing, and enjoyed a bath or shower in a brand new bathroom, you wouldn’t necessarily want to give up the convenience of a commode near your bed, a washstand with warm water supplied by the maid or even a nice hip bath set near to all the bedroom furniture and accessories you used for grooming and dressing. This was especially true in big houses in cold weather. Keeping everything in one warm room was a good idea, or you could use a connecting dressing-room or boudoir, and still avoid unheated hallways.
As well as wardrobes, dressers, vanity tables, mirrors and so on, a 19th century middle or upper class bedroom serving as a bathroom too needed:
Chamber pot or a wooden commode in form of stool or steps, with pot hidden inside.
Washstand with earthenware bowl and accessories
At least one water carrier like can, pitcher, jug etc.
Free-standing wooden towel rail known as a towel horse
Basin for a sponge bath and/or a hip bath
Other things you might have seen include a bidet, a polished wooden clothes horse to hold clothing overnight, soap dishes, and a foot bath.
Bedsteps may have been useful for climbing into high beds, but from the 18th century people wanted them to conceal a “pan”. The same cabinet-making skills used for clever, folding furniture displayed in public parts of the house, like convertible library steps, were also applied to making bedroom steps double up as a seat and toilet.
The bidet here is not much like the modern idea of a bidet, especially as the box top looks as if it only has space for a very shallow pan inside under the lid. Still, the sales catalogue discreetly describes it as “complete”. See something similar in the second bidet photo here.
BIDET…. Amongst cabinet-makers it denotes a small stool with four legs, sometimes fixed, and at others to screw off, to render them more portable. They contain a pan made of tin, and japanned, or are of earthen ware, made for the purpose….
The simple box shaped ones are about 5 inches deep…
Sheraton’s Cabinet Dictionary, 1803
The first three pictures on this page are from England in 1875. The last one is from 1874, showing an American inventor’s idea for making a compact piece of furniture that would hide everything away in a kind of convertible vanity table with mirror and doors. No more need for separate washstand and bedsteps or chamber pot.
My invention relates to that class of toilet cases combining a commode, washing facilities, towel-rack, and other devices for use in a chamber or room; and consists in the hereinafter-described parts, combined and arranged in such a manner that the case may, when not in use, present a neat and compact article, capable of being opened out, in its several parts, for several uses incidental to chamber purposes…
When a reader told me she’d seen a “Manual Washing Machine” on sale looking just like a traditional posser, but with the advantages of plastic, I was intrigued and read every word of the customer reviews, wanting to know who liked it.
I already knew that many visitors to our sister site at Old and Interesting are interested in self-sufficiency. Some are in search of green or thrifty ways of living. Some want to be prepared for power outages or other emergencies. (And, by the way, there are lots of readers with completely different interests – historical ones especially.)
But it was news to me that a posser would be useful on a camping trip, or for soldiers washing their clothes in Afghanistan. This modern blue one has attracted some enthusiastic feedback, though reviewers are always quick to point out any disadvantages too. One person who had not been reading up on vintage laundry methods was misled by the name and tried to stuff their sweatpants inside the cone.
Traditional posser is what I called it at the start, but this kind of thing only goes back so far. The metal cone plunger type belongs to the later 1800s and early 1900s. Older laundry punches and dollies could press and stir a tubful of clothing and household linen, but they didn’t have “suction” to encourage water and suds to circulate through the fabric. Washing dollies may go back to before 1700, but simple wooden sticks (or human feet) are the truly traditional, centuries-old ancestors of this “manual washing machine”.
You may like to see a video by the manufacturer, explaining the best features of his product.
It’s this “possing” action – plunging, pressing, and stirring – that inspired the very earliest washing machines. The machines that move clothes round and round in a revolving tub came later, using the same kind of mechanism as barrel butter churns that turn the cream over and over.
I like the way the 21st century hand tool is called a machine. There’s some historical truth there, since that’s the way the word was used in the early days of modern-ish laundry inventions, when 18th century technology was getting going. All sorts of newly-invented gadgets that were a bit more ingenious than a stick or plank might be called “machines”.
While searching for alternatives to this blue plastic posser, I came across a print of a 1940s style kitchen with a woman using an old metal cone in what looks like a tub-type washing machine, not just a simple washtub. Is this an authentic “re-enactment” of life 60 years ago?
These are available from Amazon.com. (Click picture for more info.)
The Asbestos Sad Iron design really did use asbestos. It was under the handle, inside a “hood” or cover that fitted over a heated “core”. It “bottled up” the heat, said an ad, so it was all channeled through the hot solid steel surface that pressed the clothes smooth. No heat rose upward to bother the woman ironing. The handle stayed 15 degrees cooler than blood temperature, claimed the Dover Manufacturing Company in early 1900s USA, and the cores needed reheating less often than other flat irons. This brand flourished just before electric irons helped bring cooler, less fatiguing ironing days.
Hot iron, cold handle
The main selling point was the cool handle on a hot iron. A 1906 ad explains this, and more:
The Asbestos Sad Iron handle…is attached to a steel shield, separated by an air space from the hood, thus preventing any conduction of heat to the hand. The asbestos lined cover, when placed over the throroughly heated iron, shuts in the heat. … An air chamber between the core and hood serves as a non-conductor of heat and also as a heat reservoir…
Is your comfort a consideration? If it is, this feature alone is sufficient to induce you to purchase an Asbestos Sad Iron Equipment…The elegant polish…is not intended for the sake of appearance only – but for the sake of making possible handsome work… All metal parts are substantially coated in nickel that won’t peel off … smoothness and polish of a mirror… glide over the most delicate fabrics…
No more handsome and useful wedding or anniversary gift can be found than the “Asbestos French Cabinet”. [boxed set]
Sets and specialist irons
The most-advertised Asbestos Sad Iron product was a “Laundry set” with 3 cores, hood, and stand, usually retailing at $2. In fact there were three types of Laundry set, one with extended pressing surfaces on the bottom of the cores. You could also choose from these:
Household set – 5 irons
Family cabinet – most expensive
And for travellers:
Tourist iron, small, only 35¢
Tourist flounce iron
You could also buy extra cores or hoods individually.
Manufacturers, patents, inventors and businessmen: Tverdahl, Johnson-Vea, Clark, Chalfant
In 1893 two men of Norwegian ancestry went into the sad iron manufacturing business in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Charles T. Johnson-Vea, who was not quite 30, had an entrepreneurial spirit, and Ole Tverdahl, in his early 40s, was an inventor. The Tverdahl-Johnson Company’s first patent was based on an idea of Ole’s wife Mathilde, but it had no sign of the asbestos iron that would be well-known in a few years.
Then another Stoughton resident, Dr Lorenzo.D. Clark, gave Johnson-Vea (aka Johnson) his idea for an iron with an asbestos layer and air pocket between the handle and the hot part, along with a crude model he had made. An improved version was produced and marketed. By 1898 Tverdahl-Johnson had more than 40 employees. Charlie Johnson wanted to expand further. He especially wanted better access to markets in the eastern US. In 1900 he moved the company 500 miles east to Canal Dover, Ohio, found extra capital investment, and became director of the Dover Manufacturing Company.
This was the only “exclusive sadiron concern” in the world, in touch with “the housewife’s ironing problems”, according to Johnson. Within a few years it employed more than 200 men and sold 300,000 to 500,000 items annually. Johnson was learning a lot about pricing, retailers, advertising and so on. Newspaper ads were everywhere. Stores hosted demonstrations. The Asbestos Sad Iron was produced in different sizes, and packaged in different sets. Profit for the manufacturer was 5-8 cents per set.
Patenting was difficult and expensive. Johnson spent two to three thousand dollars on lawyers and travel over several years before he was confident that Dover’s manufacturing rights were protected. The important Clark-Johnson patent came through in 1900, Tverdahl got a patent for a locking mechanism in 1903, and other patents followed. I don’t know if their problems had any connection with an earlier patent granted to Isaac P. Chalfant of the Chalfant Manufacturing Co. He seems to have been the first person in the US to patent an iron with asbestos lining under the handle, back in 1878.
New irons of this kind were fading in the USA by about 1920, though they were still being exported to New Zealand in that year.
A sad iron (or sadiron) is an alternative name for a flat iron. Here the word “sad” means “solid” and it may suggest a weighty iron with a thick base. Read more about the history of irons and ironing here.