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Museum Alphabet: Farm Life from A to Z

The Tobacco Farm Life Museum recently shared an artifact or something from the museum for each letter of the alphabet as part of the #MuseumAlphabet social media trend and our Museum From Home digital content on our social media platforms. If you missed any of the letters on our social media, check out the full list here and learn about Farm Life through artifacts from A to Z!


A is for Anvil


An Anvil is used by a blacksmith as a flat surface to work on with a rounded horn to make curved objects. The square hole in the anvil is called a Hardy hole and is used to hold “hardies.” A hardy is a tool that further shapes metal including assisting in cutting a rod off or similar. The round hole is called a Pritchel hole and is used to punch holes in metal. This anvil is in our functioning blacksmith shop reproduction on site. To see it in action check out our Sharing Our Heritage video on blacksmithing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zq-sDk29XxE



B is for Bessie


Bessie is the museum's milking cow and a fun and engaging part of our field trip programs. Bessie helps kids learn about milking cows. Since field trips are not currently happening, we thought we would share this behind the scenes look at Bessie. Historically, children on farms in the early 20th century helped with daily farmchores as all hands were needed to get the work done to keep the family self-sufficient. Milk from cows was used to drink, make butter, buttermilk, and in turn used in cooking and baking.



C is for Cotton Mopper

This farm implement was used to apply pesticides to cotton, especially to ward off the harmful boll weevil, a beetle that ruins cotton crops. The strands of cloth attached to the circular parts hanging from the bottom were used to "mop" the cotton to cover it with pesticide as the farmer walked along the field.



D is for Dress

We have an exhibit about how people dressed in the late 19th century and early 20th century for various tasks. The dress and apron in the center were homemade and would have been worn by a girl or young woman for work or play, including going to school, working in the field, and helping with household chores. Clothing was often made from reusable materials such as flour sacks. Nicer clothing was reserved for church, going to town, or visiting friends or relatives.



E is for Electric Most of rural eastern North Carolina didn't receive electric service until the 1940s. In addition to lighting homes, electricity also provided more efficient appliances of all sorts for farm homes including stoves, mixers, and fans. Electric stoves eliminated the need to have open flames or explosive gases in the kitchen. Prior to electricity, homes had wood-burning or gas stoves.



F is for Fan


Tobacco Warehouses would place advertising on the back of these inexpensive fans that were often distributed to community groups, such as churches, and local businesses. The pictures on the front varied from landscapes to animals and people, but were usually family-oriented to appeal to a large public audience.


G is for Grindstone


This pedal-powered grinding stone wheel is used to sharpen tools. The user would sit on the seat and pedal to make the grindstone rotate while holding a tool in need of sharpening up to the moving grindstone. This grinding wheel is part of our farm workshop on site.



H is for Handmade


Many of the tools we have on exhibit were handmade for use by farmers. This handmade pea planter is one such example. Peas were often grown between rows of corn. Once the corn had grown several inches high, a farmer would plant peas by using a hoe or stick to make a hole and then drop the seed in. To make the job easier and faster, some farmers purchased manufactured hand planters. This is a hand-made wooden pea planter that an industrious, but probably poor, farmer made. An updated pea planter was later commonly made of metal. To learn more about pea planters check out our Sharing Our Heritage video about these artifacts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ij73FF0qh0



I is for Iron


Pictured are three irons showing the change over time in technology. From right to left goes from oldest to newest. The iron on the far right (numbered 32) is a cast-iron used for ironing by heating the heavy piece of metal over a fire on on a wood-burning stove and then handling it with towels or mitts over the handle. The iron in the middle (numbered 33) is a gas iron, powered by gas in the circular compartment at the back. The iron at the left end (numbered 34) is an early electric iron, that functioned much as irons do now. Which one would you prefer to use?



J is for Jar


Jars like these canning jars were used by farm families to preserve food. Extra crops or food from gardens could be preserved in jars like these to be used in the winter when there was less fresh produce available.



K is for Kitchen


The kitchen has often played a defining role in the lives of families. Kitchens were (and often still are) the central gathering spot for family members and guests, while also serving as a cooking space, laundry room, home office, nursery, and craft room. Eastern Carolina farm families in the early to mid-20th century experienced a lot of changes in technologies. Kitchens can demonstrate a lot of those changes as they transitioned from wood burning fires to gas power and eventually electricity. Despite all of these changes, the overall function of the kitchen changed very little.

What role does the kitchen play in your family today?



L is for Lye Soap


Lye soap was a staple product made on farms. The recipe was a mixture of animal fat (usually hog fat), lye, and water and it would take several hours to cook down. Lye is an alkaline chemical solution that can be made out of ashes by leaching out potassium carbonate or potash. The lye used is no longer there once the soap is complete, which is important as lye can injure skin. Lye soap was used to wash laundry and bathe.



M is for Medicine


Medicine has come in many forms over the years. Before modern medicine, farm families relied on doctors only in the case of serious illness or injury. Instead, most people practiced various forms of home medicine. The most common home cures usually passed down from generation to generation and relied heavily on herbal remedies. Alcoholic drinks, often straight whiskey, were used for anesthetic purposes and for the prevention of colds and flu. A wide assortment of salves, balms, tonics, and poultices could be purchased from local stores, mail order suppliers, or traveling medicine shows and were meant to cure a wide variety of illnesses and symptoms.



N is for Nutrients


This fertilizer bag had two lives. In the first it provided nutrients to a farmer’s crops. Its second life provided warmth to the farmer’s family. Rural families reused as much material as possible. Feed or fertilizer bags usually contained a yard or more of material. Before re-using them, farm women washed, bleached, and sometimes re-dyed the cloth bags with homemade colors. They then cut and sewed the recycled cloth into various useful items from hand towels to dresses. This blanket was sewed from fertilizer bags that had been colored using homemade dyes.



O is for Overalls


Overalls were usually made out of denim because it was a durable material that could stand up to the wear and tear farmers put their clothing through while doing their work. Overalls protected nicer clothing and a farmer could throw them on over their Sunday best to do their chores before church.



P is for Press


This cider press was used to make apple cider. Fresh apples were pressed to obtain the juice which was allowed to ferment to make cider. Sugar was sometimes added to the juice to make sweet cider. Fermentation time varied according to weather, temperature, apple variety, and personal preferences.



Q is for Quilt Frame


A quilt frame or rack was a common item in most households. It hung from the ceiling to save space and could be lowered so women could work on the quilt and then raise it back up to make room for other activities. This quilt rack is in the Brown Family Home and is representative of how the Brown sisters utilized their space in the home.



R is for Radio


Before the invention of the television, radios were a main source of family entertainment. Farm families of the early 20th century would gather around the radio and listen to the news and to their favorite shows. This form of entertainment was not only a way to relax after a long day working in the fields, but it also provided time for everyone to gather as a family. The radio seen here belonged to Watson-Alford Hardware Store in Kenly, NC from about 1937.



S is for Stereoscope


A stereoscope is a device used for viewing a stereoscopic pair of separate images as a single 3-D image. The viewer looks through two windows—one for the left eye and one for the right and the effect is to combine the two images into one 3-D image. Stereo cards were popular off and on from about the 1850s to the 1930s for home entertainment.



T is for Tractor


Mechanical tractors and other large-scale farm equipment became more and more popular on Eastern NC farms as technology progressed in the 1900s. Tractors that were cranked by hand using a small handle on the front of the machine and that used gasoline for fuel began to replace wooden hand-drawn and mule-drawn plows. This tractor is a hand-cranked Fordson built by the Ford Motor Company in 1918.



U is for Utilities


In the 1930s rural citizens, especially small farms, had limited utility services. The Grange organization promoted statewide rural electrification and telephone services. To secure funds for North Carolina from the federal Rural Electrification Administration, the Grange urged the state to establish its own administration in 1935. In 1948 Governor William Kerr Scott implemented the “Go Forward” program which finally realized rural electrification and telephone service. In 1949 a bill was passed by Congress which allocated $25 million nationwide to fund the program.



V is for Violin


This violin, or fiddle, is from about 1940. Music and dancing were frequently found at Saturday night gatherings. Fun-loving families used an empty barn or they moved the furniture in their homes to make room for dances. Music was one leisure time pursuit that farming families could enjoy in their limited downtime.



W is for Winnower


Farmers saved the seeds from their crops for the next year’s planting. This hand-cranked machine separates seeds from chaff, or dried pods, by using air to blow the less dense chaff away while the seeds fall down through the screens. In order to operate the winnower, or seed cleaner, the hand crank is turned and the seed mixture I pushed into the air duct. The seeds drop down into a tray when cleaned and separated. If a farm did not have a winnower the pods were put in a bag and the children flailed the bags until the seeds fell out.



X is for X-ray


Did you know early research into the use of X-rays was conducted at Davidson College here in NC in 1896? While the museum does not have x-ray equipment in its collection, we do have a number of other artifacts related to the history of small-town medicine in the early 1900s.



Y is for Yoke


A yoke is a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plow or cart that they are to pull. Eastern NC farmers primarily used mules to plow their fields before the widespread availability of tractors.



Z is for Zipper


The first version of the zipper debuted at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. The modern zipper was designed in 1913 by Gideon Sundback. Zippers are used in clothing and on luggage, bags, and other items use by farmers.


Thank you for coming along with us on this Museum Alphabet adventure through our museum and artifacts. Let us know what you learned, your favorite artifact, or any memories you have of items like these.

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