From Field to Factory: Broom Making!

broomcornFarmers in Iowa are busy harvesting corn and soybeans from their fields. Nowadays, a lot of Iowa’s corn and crops are grown to feed to animals. In the late 1800s, Iowa farmers sometimes grew a very special plant called broomcorn for a different purpose. Most brooms in the past were made from this plant. Broomcorn is actually not a type of corn at all. It is part of a family of plants called sorghum. Farmers grew broomcorn and sold it to factories, as a way to make some extra money. The harvesting took place in the fall, along with their other crops.

But how did the long broomcorn tassels grown on the farm become a broom? In the late 1800s, brooms were made in big and small factories. Some of the factories in Iowa had only two workers and a couple of factories had over 30 workers. Most factories, like the one we show at Living History Farms, had around 6-10 workers.

broom shop Not every town had a factory, so brooms would be shipped to towns around the state, around the country, and even around the world.

One of the first steps to making a broom was to soak the broomcorn in water.

soaking the broom corn Broomcorn is kind of like spaghetti, it breaks easily when it is dry and bends when it is wet. Once the broomcorn was soaked enough to bend, it was ready to move to the binding machine (also called a kicker). bindingThe person running the binding machine used their foot to make the machine turn and their hands to hold the broomcorn under the working wire that wraps the bristles onto a handle. Brooms are made in layers.setting the wire Each layer was wrapped tight to the handle using twine or metal wire. The wire was hammered down tight around the broomcorn and handle before the next layer was attached.

Some brooms had what are called shoulders – two bundles of broomcorn on each side of the broom – which gave them a curved look at the top. shoulders on a broomThe shoulders had to be put on just right so that they didn’t flatten out. Some brooms used only a small amount of broomcorn, like the laundry/cake tester broom and the hearth broom, while other brooms used a lot of broomcorn, like the house broom. Once a broom had all of the layers on it, which could be three to seven layers, it was ready to be taken out of the first machine to dry.

drying the broomIf the broom was not allowed to dry, it could become moldy inside. At the museum, brooms are hung from the ceiling for at least a day to make sure that all the layers are dry. A laundry/cake tester broom and a hearth broom would have one less step than other brooms. Other brooms like the house broom, children’s broom, and whisk broom were all flat brooms, and in order to make them flat, they had to go into a machine called a sewing vice. sewing vice

This machine smashed the broom flat so that a worker could use string and needles to sew the broom. The sewing is what kept the broom flat once it was taken out of the vice.

All brooms ended at the trimming board. This was a machine with a very sharp blade that cut the ends of the broom to the same length.trimming

Once the broom was trimmed, it was inspected to make sure it was properly made. If it was, the broom was sent to stores to be sold. If workers had made all the broomcorn even around the handle, and if they had sewn it just right, and trimmed everything evenly, the broom would pass the test of being able to stand up straight without being held. Not every broom was made perfect in a factory, so having a broom stand up on its own was a pretty special thing.broom standing

Once the brooms were at the store, it was up to people to buy the right broom for the job they had to do! Brooms were an important part of every household and they were used for many different purposes.whisk, cake tester, hearth broomsA small laundry broom could be dipped in water to sprinkle onto clean clothes before using a hot iron. This would create steam, so wrinkles could be ironed out. A hearth broom was used to sweep ashes back into a fireplace. A whisk broom had the handle cut off, so it could get under places where handles would get in the way. A house broom was used to clean the big rooms in a house. children and house broomsA children’s broom was for the children to help clean the house. Do you have a broom to help with cleaning? If you do, just think of the steps it took to make it for you!



twin lambs and other sheepHey, remember these little guys? Back in April, we talked about all the lambs born at Living History Farms this spring. You should see them now! They have grown a lot and all the sheep are a lot less shaggy. In May, all of our sheep got their hair cut. Sheep have special hair called wool. During the winter, the sheep’s wool grows very thick to keep the sheep warm. The sheep’s wool is also full of greasy oil called lanolin. It helps the wool shed water and keeps the sheep dry.

winter sheep

In the spring, farmers cut the wool off of the sheep to keep them cool in the summer. Cutting the wool off is called shearing. A shearer, the person doing the cutting, can sometimes get the wool off the sheep in one whole piece. That piece of wool is called a fleece.

In the 1850s, the wool was cut off with a sharp scissor-like tool called shears. Later, mechanical clippers—a lot like the ones you might see at a hairdresser now—were used to get the fleece off. These clippers did not run on electricity. Instead, someone had to crank a wheel to make the clippers move. Shearing was a two person job!

clippersThis photo is of a famous pair of clippers given to a champion sheep shearer in 1892 in Australia (photo: Southeby’s Australia.)

The video below shows Sheep Shearer Ray shearing the fleece off of a Living History Farms ewe. See his helper? Turning that crank can be a tiring job! Ray thought the whole fleece might weigh 6 or 7 pounds. This was a small ewe. It is pretty common to get 8 or 10 pounds of wool from a large ewe.

A long time ago, Pioneer farmers might sell the fleece to a woolen mill. The woolen mill factory would make thread and weave clothing from the wool. In 1850, farmers could sell one pound of wool for 50 cents. How much money would 6 lbs. of wool make for the farmer? A Pioneer farmer might also keep part of the fleece and spin the wool fibers into yarn to make hats and socks and mittens.

pioneer with woolen mittens and hat

Maids and Servants

Kate 1875Hi, I’m Kate. I am the supervisor at the Flynn Mansion at Living History Farms. Have you ever visited our museum and discovered one of the guides dressed differently than during your last visit?

1850 kate 1900 Kate

Museum guides at Living History Farms often work at many different sites and do many different jobs–so they wear different clothing and hats for different kinds of work.

One job that everyone has to do is clean. Sometimes guides clean up after themselves and sometimes they clean up after animals. Have you ever helped do any cleaning during a visit here? sweepingWas it a lot different than cleaning at your house? Spring is a time of year when many people take extra time to clean their houses really well. It is called “spring cleaning”.

Flynn MansionNext time you visit the Flynn Mansion, you may notice that there are guides dressed in different ways. Some ladies wear fancy dresses with lace or ruffles. But other women wear blue or gray dresses with white aprons and white caps on their heads.

tea at Flynn

Some gentlemen wear colorful vests and ties, but there may be men wearing plain black pants and simple shirts and vests or even work aprons. The women in the caps are called maids and the men are called footmen. Have you read about maids and servants in books or seen them in movies?maid at stoveA servant’s job was to take care of the house by doing things like cleaning the dishes, dusting, and picking things up.

servants in kitchen

Being a servant wasn’t always a very fun job. It was a lot of hard work keeping a big house like the Flynn Mansion clean and tidy. There are fourteen rooms that need to be cleaned, windows to wash, and furniture to dust. The Flynns also had ten children that lived in the house. Think of all the messes they made! At your house, whose job is it to clean up your toys and clothes?

tea at Flynn

Guides who work at the Flynn Mansion don’t always have to clean. They usually switch back and forth between being fancy ladies and gentlemen one day, and being servants a different day. When I work as a maid, I dust the furniture, polish the silver, and make the beds. Just like the maids that worked here more than 100 years ago! If I am being a maid for the day, my dress is not as fancy and that makes it easier to move around and get my work done.maid dusting

While sometimes it can be hard work, having the house look neat and clean makes me feel very proud. I also have a lot of fun talking to kids like you about the chores. Sometimes I even get some help, which makes the work get done even faster! Are there chores at home you don’t like doing? dishesDoing dishes is my least favorite chore, but it’s very important so we don’t attract bugs. Luckily, the Flynn Mansion has a sink with running water, which makes doing dishes much easier!

Though being a maid was hard work, it was a very important job to help keep the house looking nice. Even if you were a maid for a while, it didn’t mean it would be your job forever. Sometimes, after changing jobs or getting married, these former maids would have houses of their own and be in charge of their own maids. Mrs. FlynnMrs. Flynn was a maid when she was a teenager. She grew up to be the owner of a mansion! Next time you come to Living History Farms, make sure to visit the Flynn Mansion and see if there is a maid or footman working around the house. We always love a helping hand!

Laundry Chores

Laundry is probably a chore you see your parents doing, and maybe you even help by folding or putting away your clean clothes. In 1900, farm houses didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, so there were no washing machines or dryers to help do the work. If we didn’t have washing machines or dryers, what do you think we would need to do laundry the same way they did in the year 1900?

First, we would need clothes. Think of all the clothes you have at home in your closet and your dresser drawers. Can you believe that in 1900 kids might only have four or five outfits? That’s not even one outfit for every day of the week! Most of their clothes would be for working and doing chores around the farm. They might have one nice outfit to wear for special occasions. What do you think of the clothing in this photo of the Henry Dengler Family in Scott County, Iowa? This family is wearing their special occasion clothing for the picture.

Dengler Family

(source: Dengler Family History)

Second, we’d need soap. In 1900, they didn’t have laundry detergent like your family uses to clean clothes. They could buy soap at the store, but if they wanted to save money, they would make it at home. The soap they would use was made from two ingredients: lye and lard. Lye is a chemical for cleaning, made from pouring rainwater through wood ashes over and over. It can be very dangerous by itself, so they would have mixed it with lard. Lard is fat from a pig. Mixing the lye with lard would make it safe to touch.

Third, we would need water. As we mentioned, Living History Farms’ 1900 era farm house doesn’t have indoor plumbing, so there are no sinks or pipes to provide water. Instead, farmers got water from a pump that brought water up from a well underground.water pump

Now we’d wash! The water from the pump was placed in tubs.wash boiler One of the tubs was called a wash boiler. It was made of special metal called copper.  Copper heats up very quickly and a copper boiler could be quickly heated on top of the stove, boiling the clothing and soapy water together.

Fourth, we’d need a way to scrub stubborn dirt out of the clothes. After the clothes were boiled in hot water to remove general dirt and stains, they would be scrubbed in another big tub with soap on a washboard. The washboard had metal ridges to help get rid of smaller, set-in stains.


After scrubbing, the clothes would be put in a third tub which had bluing in it. Bluing is a blue liquid you put in water which keeps your white clothes white and your colored clothes bright. In the bluing tub, they would also rinse out the last of the soap.

kids doing laundry

Finally, we’d need a way to dry the clothes. After the clothes went in the tub of water and bluing, they were ready to be dried.

clothesline  hanging clothes on the line

The clothes would be pinned to a wire line outside, so the sun and air could dry them. When they were all dry they were ready to be ironed, then put away to be worn again. Washing clothes was such a big job that it would take a whole day to finish. It was too big of a job for one person, so kids were important helpers. Laundry is done every week at Living History Farms’ 1900 Farm in the summer, so come out and visit and give us a hand!

Spring Cleaning!

It’s finally spring time in Iowa! The grass at Living History Farms is starting to turn green. Tangen Home

Our museum guides are getting all the historic houses and shops ready for you to visit soon! That means it is time for spring cleaning. Even people over 100 years ago liked to clean out their homes in spring! In 1877 (that’s 137 years ago!); a how-to-do-it book was written in Minnesota called Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping.

It said, “When mother earth summons the stirring winds to help clear away the dead leaves and winter litter for the coming grass and flowers, every housekeeper has a feeling of sympathy, and begins to talk of house-cleaning. The first bright sunshine of spring reveals unsuspected dust and cobwebs, and to her imagination even the scrubbing-brushes and brooms seem anxious to begin . . .”

Do you do any spring cleaning at your house? Think about what it might have been like to clean a house a long time ago! When your family cleans their house now, I bet you use one of these.vaccuum

When an Iowa family cleaned their house in 1875, they had to do everything by hand! They did not have electricity to help them! Let’s visit the Tangen House in our town of Walnut Hill and see how it was done.

Buckeye Cookery says to start cleaning in the parlor—that’s a fancy room used just for company. It has a lot of furniture, like sofas and chairs and wall to wall carpet! Tangen Parlor

How did they clean a carpet without a vacuum? The carpet is sewn together in strips. It could be taken apart and carried outside. The carpet strips and any rag rugs would be hung over the clothes line and beaten with a wire rug beater. In the spring, a house keeper could also use a rug beater to beat the dust out of the stuffed chairs and sofas.rug beater

A feather duster, made of chicken feathers, or a soft cloth was used to wipe away dust on shelves and the statues, vases and pretty things on them. And there are an awful lot of fussy things on shelves that have to be dusted in this house. Wow!feather dustersTangen shelves

Our how-to book reminds housekeepers to “Look on the ceiling for cobwebs” and to “brush down with the feather-duster all picture cords, frames, and curtains.”

Tangen parlor

“Clean the corners and edges with a sharp-pointed stick and stiff whisk broom”. Hmm. . . I think someone missed this corner. I better go find a stiff broom.Tangen home

A damp rag could be used to wipe the wood furniture and wood trim. On some fancy tables and chairs and especially the organ, the carving was hard to dust and the book says to dust the fine carving with a paint brush! Would you want to come over and brush all those carvings and curls?

Tangen piano

Windows had to be washed with rags or newspaper. The Tangen House has an awful lot of windows. Would you want to clean them all, inside and out?Tangen windowsInstead of a spray bottle of chemicals, most housekeepers used a pail of vinegar and water to wash their windows.

Tangen bedroomIn the bed room, the Buckeye book said to take apart the wooden bed frame and wipe it down. The family might even use a salt water brine to wash the bed. It was supposed to kill bed bugs! The bed mattresses were stuffed with straw or corn husks. Our Buckeye book says to re-stuff them in the spring and lay them out in the sunshine to air out.

In the kitchen, all the counters had to be washed and rubbed clean by hand. Children could help sweep and mop the floor and carry water for all this cleaning!Tangen cleaning supplies

All of these deep cleaning chores were done in spring and fall. What a lot of work for everyone! But there were also chores to be done every week. For every day cleaning, the Buckeye Cookbook says that:

“On Monday, wash; Tuesday, iron; Wednesday, bake and scrub kitchen and pantry; Thursday, clean the silverware, examine the pots and kettles and look after store-room and cellar; Friday, devote to general sweeping and dusting; Saturday, bake and scrub kitchen and pantry floors, and prepare for Sunday. Have the sitting-room tidied up every night” before going to bed.

Kids helped with many of these cleaning chores in 1875. Even very small children could help pick up the sitting room. What about now? Do you have to keep your own room clean? Is it your job to take out the trash or pick up your toys? When your family does their spring cleaning or sorting out, can kids help with those chores? Share what kinds of cleaning chores you have to do at your house! Tell us which ones you like to help with and which ones you hate to do! Would any of those chores be more fun in 1875 or a lot less fun?

That how-to-do- it book written long ago says, “Work done quietly about the house seems easier. A slamming of doors, and the rattle and clatter of dishes, tire and bewilder everybody about the house. Those who accomplish much in housekeeping . . . are the quiet workers.”

Do you agree? I don’t know. When I clean my house in 2014, I like to be loud while I do it!

Seed Starting

It’s going to be 60 degrees and sunny today! Time to really start thinking about spring and take those garden plans a step further!


When we think of gardening, we usually think of lots of big plants heavy with fruits and vegetables outdoors in the summer heat. Those plants don’t start out that big, though.

seed packets

Did you know that most plants in the garden start out as tiny seeds that have to be planted each year? Maybe you’ve planted seeds in a garden before and gotten to watch them grow into big, healthy plants.

Not all seeds can be planted straight into the garden, though. Some plants grow too slowly to be planted right outside. If we waited until it was warm outside to plant them, they wouldn’t have time to grow big enough to have vegetables for us to eat before frost comes in the fall.

Other plants are very sensitive to cold weather. We can’t let them be outdoors until the weather is warm enough. Farmers and gardeners can give these kinds of plants a head start. They plant these seeds in small pots indoors. Seeds like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cabbage, cucumbers, melons, and squash can all be planted or “started” indoors.

Starting seeds indoors is easy! You only need a few things and a little time and patience to give your garden veggies the head start they need! We’ll give you instructions on how to start your own seeds indoors. Make sure you get an adult’s permission and help before you start!

What you need to get started:

  • seeds such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, or lettuces
  • small containers to plant into; paper cups and paper egg cartons work well!
  • seed starting soil mix
  • water

First, take your containers and fill them about 3/4 of the way full with dirt. Using special seed starting mix will help your seeds get the best possible start, but regular potting soil will work, too.

Next, put 2-3 seeds in the middle of each container. You’ll thin these later so only one plant will be in each pot.

Sprinkle a little more dirt on top of the seeds so they’re just lightly covered with about 1/8″ soil.

Gently water the containers. Be careful not to use too much water – the seeds can wash away if they get flooded!

egg cartonsPlace the containers in a bright south-facing window that gets lots of sunlight.

Be sure to label what kind of plant is growing in each container. You could get creative and make fancy labels for your plants.

Make sure you keep them moist, but not too wet. In just a few days you should see baby tomato plants starting to poke up through the soil.

Eventually, you’ll want to transplant the seedlings into a larger container outside or out into your garden when it is warm enough. Check your seed packet for instructions.

If you don’t have small containers to plant your seeds into, you can make them out of newspaper like this!

Get those plants growing! If you start now, by September, your garden might look like this!

Dreaming of Seeds!

winter at Living History Farms

There is still snow in Iowa. The ground is frozen. But spring will be here soon and it is time to plan the fields and gardens at the museum!

field at Living History Farms

Lots of catalogs are coming in the mail with pictures of vegetables and flowers. These catalogs sell seeds and plants.

Our museum workers can also use their computers to search for seeds and plants. It is fun to look at the photos and think of all the wonderful things we can grow when it gets warmer.

seed catalog

What are your favorite vegetables and flowers? Do you grow any of these in a garden at your house?

How did the people who lived in Iowa a long time ago choose seeds for their gardens and fields? How about a pioneer farmer living in a log house in 1850? Here is one of our farmers working in the 1850 pioneer farm garden. Where would the seeds come from?

1850 Pioneer Farm garden

Iowa’s pioneers often brought seeds with them when they moved here. They could save some of the seeds from their first crops in Iowa to plant new crops the next year. If they lived close enough to a small town, the pioneer might also buy seeds at a General Store.

General Store

Even in 1850, a farmer could order seeds in the mail! The seed company would send the seeds to the closest post office. The farmer had to travel to the town’s post office to get his package. Iowa farmers continued to buy seeds in small towns and through the mail. Railroads made getting the seeds to Iowa easier. Flowers and plants for gardens got fancier and came from farther and farther away. Flynn summer kitchen garden

Our museum wants to make sure our farms plant the kinds of vegetables and flowers people did a long time ago. We use the lists in old seed catalogs and farm diaries to know what to plant.Landreth's Seed Catalog

The Landreth Seed Company is one of the oldest in America. You can learn more about their company here. Seed catalogs today are filled with color photographs of plants and flowers. A long time ago, the catalogs might not have any pictures, just words talking about the plant. Look at this very old catalog.  It doesn’t have any pictures at all! By the 1890s, some catalogs had drawings of the plant, sometimes in color and sometimes not. Like this one and this one. These catalogs were saved by National Agricultural Library at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

Even without pictures, farmers in the past got excited about planning their gardens in February and March. It made that last bit of winter go faster! We still get excited at this time of year. It is fun to dream about warm spring weather and planting seeds!

Pioneer Farm garden

If you are getting tired of winter, plan an imaginary garden with us! Take a piece of paper and crayons and draw a big circle or square. It can be as big or small as you want it to be! What kinds of vegetables do you like? How many would you plant?


Draw them in your circle or square. Maybe your garden has flowers instead . . . what colors would they be?  Tangen Flower Garden

At Living History Farms, we save some of our seeds from year to year. We also buy our seeds from companies that grow very old kinds of vegetables. If you would like to browse a seed catalog like we do, check out this link. It might help you dream up new things for your imaginary garden plan!

Do you still need some ideas? Here is a blank plan of the garden at the 1850 Pioneer farm. Each rectangle and circle is a planting bed in the garden.


And here is a list of some of the things we plant there! Sometimes the types of vegetables have really funny names! Can you draw the plants on a garden map?

Scarlet Runner Beans
Red Core Carrot
Cayenne Hot Peppers
Bird Peppers
White Icicle Radish
Green Oakleaf Lettuce
Large Red Tomatoes
Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas
White Vienna Kohlrabi
Riesentraub Tomatoes
Glory of Enkhuizen Cabbage
Flat Dutch Cabbage
Soldier Dry Beans
Lazy Wife Beans
Bull Nose Peppers
Golden Beets
Green Nutmeg Melon
Missouri Gold Muskmelon
Silver Rose Garlic
Georgia Rattlesnake Watermelon
White Patty Pan Squash
Russian Cucumber
Rutabaga Red Onions
Early Blood Turnips
Mangle wurzel Beets