Fancy Dress for Halloween!

Fall has arrived in Iowa! The leaves are changing colors. It is much cooler out in the mornings. People are pulling out their coats and sweaters. It is the time of year many people pick out our costumes to go Halloween trick-or-treating in our neighborhoods. You might not know, but the idea of going door to door for candy is a pretty recent one.

Halloween Magazine

1920s Halloween Instruction Magazine

In America, it was in the 1920s that kids really started putting on costumes to go out for candy. But, dressing up in costumes to go to a party is a very old tradition! The idea has a long history, although costume choices have changed over time.

Have you ever attended a party where everyone was dressed in a costume? While we may call this a “Halloween party”, people used to call it a “fancy dress” party. Fancy dress is just another way to say that someone is in a costume, a fanciful, dress-up costume. People long ago used to have big parties and all the guests at the party wore some form of costume. These parties were said to begin in Venice, Italy about 500 years ago! That’s before Columbus sailed to America. At first, guests would wear just a very fancy mask to cover their face. This kind of party was called a Masquerade ball.

Venetian Masquerade

As time progressed, masks began to include full costumes. In the 1500s, people in France were the first to turn Masquerades into fancier Fancy Dress parties.


Party guests were encouraged to dress up like famous people in history—like the ancient Greeks, Trojans, and even shepherds. These fancy dress parties were usually just for adults—not kids. Could you imagine your parents dressed in togas like an ancient Greek?

Victorian Costumes

In the 1800s, these fancy dress parties became more for all ages of people. Adults still had fancy dress parties just for adults; but kids began to have parties with costumes too! By the 1870s, which is the time we show in the museum’s town of Walnut Hill, having a costume party was pretty common—at Halloween, and also for New Year’s Eve or even for Spring Holidays! A popular fashion magazine printed this picture of costumes for kids in 1873.

Fancy Dress for Kids

Nowadays we tend to dress up as superheroes or cartoon characters. Long ago, boys usually dressed as military officers or old historical figures and girls were dressed as things found in nature, anything from bees to snowballs.

Bee Halloween Costume Even their dogs were dressed in costume! Look at the small dog at the bottom of this picture from a magazine from 1872; the dog is dressed like a King for Halloween.


While today you may buy your costume from a store, kids long ago had to make their costumes at home. People had to be creative and use whatever they could find. If you lived in a big city after 1900, your parents may have bought their costume from a store, but many kids still made costumes at home. This website has several photos of kids and adults dressing up in costumes in the late 19th and 20th century.

trick or treat

The biggest difference between costumes of the past and the ones we wear now is what we do in them once they are on. Today we mainly go trick-or-treating in our costumes so they need to be warm and able to go outside from house to house. Long ago, people wore their costumes inside at a party; the costume could be fancy and light because it didn’t have to travel. One good way to think about this idea is that people in the theater wear costumes for show just like people long ago. Now go out and get some candy this Halloween! Store bought or homemade costuming is fine!


If you are joining us for the Living History Farms Family Halloween event this week, we hope you will dress up in a “fancy dress” costume! But we do think it should be a warm costume so you can walk around outside and trick-or-treat in Walnut Hill!


Fun at the Fair!

The Iowa State Fair started last week and people around town have been talking about when they are going to go to the fair and what things they like to see. The very first Iowa State Fair was held in a little town called Fairfield, all the way back in 1854. This year, 161 years after that first fair, over one million people will come to Des Moines to celebrate an event that is very well-known, not just in Iowa, but around the United States. People from around the world come to Iowa to visit our fair, and everyone has something they like to do there.

grandstand state fair

The Grandstand at the Iowa State Fair. (Iowa State Fair Photo)

Some people like to go to concerts and see the shows at the fair. There are talent shows and radio shows and big stars that play at the grandstand. There are pageants and art demonstrations, and animal shows, when 4-H students show their chickens and sheep and cows.

But that is the modern fair, and not how it was when it started. The people who started the fair way back in the 19th century wanted to have a place where people could learn about Agriculture – that is farming – and help consumers – those are people who buy food – to learn about where their food comes from.

Iowa state fair

Young cattle exhibitor. (Iowa State Fair Photo)

There were some of the same contests when it started. Farmers were judged on their crops and livestock they brought to show at the fair. In 2015, farmers still bring sheep, pigs, cows, chickens, and even rabbits and goats to be judged. It gives them a chance to show off their products.

Pioneer Hall

Pioneer Hall. (Iowa State Fair Photo)

In 1886, the Iowa State Fair moved to Des Moines, to the place where everyone comes to visit today. Many of the older buildings that you walk past are from this time. If you want to see what kids who went to the fair around the turn of the century saw, take a walk through Pioneer Hall, it sits on top of the hill by the Sky Glider. The Livestock Pavilion, where they hold a lot of the animal shows, was built in 1902, but improved with air conditioning in 2011. It is a nice place to take a break during a hot day.

The rides at the Midway weren’t always at the fair. Early on, there wasn’t as much fun stuff to do. Ye Old Mill, which is the oldest ride at the fair, wasn’t complete until 1924! Still, there were fun things to see and do, and good foods to eat.

State fair

Caramel Apple on a stick. (Iowa State Fair Photo)

Do you have a favorite food at the fair? It might be fried, or on a stick. Sweet or savory, everyone usually has something that they really like to eat. The corn dog is a 20th century invention. It is delicious, sure, but people who went to the first fairs, or even the 21st fair were not eating corn dogs. They were more likely to eat fried chicken! There was no bucket of chocolate chip cookies, either. Families may have brought their own food to the first fairs, and picnicked with the pigs!

Iowa state fair

So enjoy the fair, if you get to go this year. Good luck if you are showing anything in the competitions. Come see the Living History Farms booth, just down from the butter cow in the Agriculture Building. And if you can’t make it this year, don’t worry. The fair will be around next August as well!state fair


Summer has officially begun and it has been hot outside! Have you been swimming to have fun and stay cool? Maybe you have a favorite swimsuit you like to wear. People who lived a long time ago also liked to swim, but their swimsuits looked very different from yours.

godeys suits

People started wearing swimsuits over 200 years ago. For a long time, swimsuits looked a lot like normal clothes. It wasn’t considered proper for very much of your skin to be showing, so swimsuits were very long and had long sleeves. In fact, swimming was the only time women were allowed to wear pants along with their dresses!

The problem with the swimsuits people wore was that when they got wet, they didn’t dry very fast. Instead of making swimsuits out of cotton, which is what your t-shirts are made out of, they started making swimsuits out of wool. Wool comes from sheep! Wool dries faster, but it is very heavy and warm. It would be like wearing a winter sweater at the pool! Do you know what fabric your swimsuit is made from? Usually, it says on the tag.sheep

As time went by, swimsuit designs started to change and look less like regular clothes. Instead of wearing pants, women wore tights with their swimsuits.

1910s swimwear

Do you think it seems silly to wear all those clothes to go swimming? It seems silly to us today, but one good thing about these swimsuits was that they stopped people from getting sunburns. Do you have to put on sunscreen before you go swimming outside? Sunscreen hadn’t been invented yet in the 1800s! Having their legs and arms covered helped keep people safe.

If you visit Living History Farms, you will not see any swimming pools. In fact, you wouldn’t find very many swimming pools in the 1800s. Most people swam in the ocean, or in ponds, lakes or streams. Sometimes people would jump in a pond to take a bath. There were some indoor swimming pools in big cities, but they weren’t for fun; they were for exercise or for swimming lessons. Have you ever taken swimming lessons, or are you taking them now? Just like you, people in the 1800s learned how to swim so they would be safe in the water.

So what did kids do to have fun in the summer if they couldn’t go play at the pool? Many things! Kids spent time playing outside with their brothers and sisters. There were lots of games to play like baseball, croquet, and graces. Graces is a game kind of like catch, played with sticks and hoops.


Caregivers: Living History Farms is celebrating a Victorian Birthday with historic games and activities on August 8, 2015. If your kids want to try old-fashioned summer fun, come join us!

Candy! Candy! Candy!

Do you love candy? How about chocolate? Chewing gum? Lollipops? Here in Iowa, our grocery stores are starting to put Halloween candy on the shelves. In modern America, candy companies claim that we spend $7 Billion on candy every year! Wow! That’s a lot of chocolate bars and gummy bears!

Do you think kids spent money on candy a long time ago? In a town like Walnut Hill, the 1875 town at Living History Farms, you could have bought candy at the general store or at the drug store. The candy wouldn’t look quite the same as the candy you might buy today though!Candy in the General Store

In 1875, stores like the Greteman General Store sold a lot of penny candy. Kids would pay a penny and the store keeper would scoop the candy out of a jar or bin for them. Kids might get a few pieces of the small candy drops for a penny or maybe one large stick of candy for a penny. A bigger bag of candy could cost a nickel or a dime! A penny was pretty cheap, but a dime was more expensive. A farm worker might only earn one whole dollar every day. A dime was worth over an hour’s worth of work!

What did these penny candies taste like? A lot of penny candies were hard drops or sticks of sugar that kids would suck on. There were some lemon candies and peppermint candies and some other fruity flavors—like cherry drops. Most of us know what lemons taste like. Do you like the red and white striped peppermint candy?

licorice, anise and horehound
You might not have tasted some of the other flavors of candy from a long time ago. Many of the candies were flavored with herbs. Herbs are plants that are used to give things flavor. Herbs like horehound, anise, and licorice were often used in candy. Horehound tastes bitter or sour to many people. Those same herbs could also be used to disguise the harsh taste of medicines. Many early hard candies were even given as medicine! Horehound and lemon drop candies can help your sore throat feel better. Peppermint candies can help an upset stomach.

Do you like jelly beans or gummy worms? These are candies made of sugar that are sticky and chewy. In 1875, kids could buy a few chewy candies. A favorite treat was called Turkish delight. It was a small square or drop of a jelly, made from starches and flavorings. It might be lemon or orange or even flavored with rose water—which sort of tastes like vanilla. It sometimes had nuts on the inside.

gum dropsWe know that kids in the 1870s could buy gum drops and maybe even a sort of jelly bean. Ads in newspapers mention stores selling these things. A  candy-maker in Boston advertised sending jelly beans to Civil War soldiers!

We don’t know if these chewy candies were exactly like the ones we have now. The gum drops were made with different types of gelatin, the stuff that makes them gooey. So we aren’t sure if old-fashioned gum drops were as soft as the ones we eat now. Many of the gum drops were flavored with spices and herbs. Do you like black gum drops? They are licorice flavored.

When you visit the general store at Living History Farms, a candy you won’t be able to find is chocolate bars! In 1875, chocolate was not very popular as a candy. Most people drank chocolate as a hot drink, sort of like the hot cocoa we drink now. Most chocolate drinks would taste bitter compared to modern sweet hot chocolate. Some 1800s cookbooks used chocolate in frostings and a few candies. But most people did not have our modern love of chocolate a hundred years ago.

candy in the General StoreThe general store sold many things and candy was just a small part of the money that the store made. But for a child with a penny in his or her pocket in 1875, penny candy could be pretty important! As your summer comes to an end, come taste a piece of history: Enjoy some candy at the Greteman General Store!

Caregivers and parents! The General Store does not sell Turkish delight–a popular Victorian candy, but you can make it at home. There is a simple recipe for it here. Hot sugar can be dangerous in the kitchen. Kids can help you measure ingredients for this recipe, but should not handle the boiling sugar syrups.

Just a reminder, Living History Farms will be closed August 22-26 for a private rental. Beginning August 27, the museum will begin fall season hours. We are open Wednesday through Saturday from 9 am to 4 pm and Sundays, Noon to 4 pm until October 12, 2014.

Happy Birthday Kitty!

When is your birthday? Do you expect to have a party with all of your friends there? Do you like to have family parties with your grandparents and cousins instead? Do you go somewhere fun to eat? Do you think people will give you presents on your birthday?

birthday cake

If you lived over 100 years ago, birthday parties were usually something held for children in wealthy families. At the Flynn Mansion, Mr. and Mrs. Flynn would have held many birthday parties during the time they lived there. They had ten kids! Five boys and five girls!

On Saturday, August 9, the historic guides at the Flynn Mansion will have a pretend birthday party for one of the Flynn children. They have chosen Kitty (Katherine Flynn) as their birthday child. Kitty would have turned eight years old in 1875.

Flynn GracesIn 1875, a girl with a summer birthday could have a garden party with her friends. They could play croquet or lawn tennis. Or maybe walk on stilts and play a game called graces. Guests to the party did not have to bring a present. Instead, the birthday child gave her guests a small gift, called a favor, for coming to the party.

birthday favors

The Flynn’s didn’t have paper plates and napkins in 1875! For an outdoor party, servants carried glass and china dishes out to a table on the lawn.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey would even bring out rugs and the indoor tables and chairs and put them on the grass for people to sit on! Paper lanterns and ribbons were used as decorations, on the birthday lunch table or in an overhanging tree. Kitty might serve her friends a fruit or nut cake or maybe ice cream at the party. For lunch, the children might have cucumber or jam sandwiches and fancy pickles.

birthday treats

An inside the house party might start in the parlor—a special room for special occasions. Even at a party, everyone had to use their best manners. Guests had to sit on the edge of their chair with their feet on the floor. No tipping the chair back or crossing your legs! Guests might sign the birthday child’s autograph book or leave a poem in their scrapbook. There were no digital cameras to take a photograph of the day. For an indoor party, children might play quieter games in the parlor, such as Hunt the Thimble, 20 questions, charades or even a store purchased card or board game like Old Maid or Snap.


If the Flynn family had a supper party for Kitty, she might get a special treat! Instead of dinner in the kitchen, she could eat at the big dining room table in the fancy red dining room. Young children almost always ate in the kitchen every day until they were able to use good manners for a longer dinner in the dining room. On her birthday, Kitty could sit at the grown-ups table for dinner! She might be able to choose her favorite food for dinner, too. What is your favorite special food? In 1875, Kitty might have roast beef and potatoes, or a fried chicken or maybe even macaroni!

Flynn birthday tableA family party could be simple or very fancy. For a fancier dinner, flowers, ribbons and fancy china would decorate the table. Family members might have a special gift or two for the birthday child. The Flynn’s could afford to give Kitty a store bought present, such as a doll or picture book. Her brothers and sisters might still make her a gift—maybe sewing her name on a handkerchief or carving a whistle for her.

birthday presents

Come out this Saturday and see what presents are shown in the dining room! Cake and lemonade will be served, beginning at 11am while supplies last. Historic guides will have games on the lawn and craft activities inside the mansion from 11am – 3:30pm.


playing pianoDo you know how to play the piano? Do you take music lessons to learn to play a musical instrument? In the 1800s, wealthy children often learned to play musical instruments or sing. If company came to visit, the children could entertain guests with their talent.

Children, especially young ladies, would have learned how to play the piano or violin, as well as to sing. A young lady would be invited to perform at parties for her friends and her parents’ friends! She would need to practice a lot to be able to perform well! Do you practice your music lessons every day? How about when you know you will have a concert or recital?

playing piano in parlor

In the late 1800s, people liked to have music parties called “musicales”. A family would invite friends to come over for an afternoon or evening of music.  The family members could play or sing and guests would also perform. The family would also serve snacks or desserts.

snacks for musicale

You could give a musicale at your house too! Practice a favorite song or two on the piano or practice singing your favorite song. Then invite your family or some friends to come over for a concert! You could have cookies or ice cream and show off your musical talent! Everyone could also sing together!

refreshments for musicale

At the Flynn House at Living History Farms, our guides have been practicing their piano skills this week! We are going to have a musicale on Saturday, July 26 from 1 pm to 3 pm. We hope to have lots of visitors join us in the parlor to listen to the music and maybe sing along to some of well-known songs of the time. We’ve been practicing tunes like “Yankee Doodle”, “Oh, Susannah”, and “Beautiful Dreamer.”

parlor piano

In the front parlor at the Flynn Mansion, we have a beautiful square grand piano that was made by the Chickering Company of Boston in 1871. This piano has 85 keys on the keyboard instead of 88 keys like other pianos. It is sometimes called a “box piano” because it is shaped like a large rectangle. The strings run from left to right instead of up and down like a modern piano. These pianos were very popular in the United States between 1850 and 1900, and cost from $475 to $1200 at that time.

We hope you’ll stop by the Flynn House to sing with us at our musical afternoon on July 26. If you know how to play a tune, we’ll invite you to play the piano, too!

Decoration Day with the Family


Summer vacations are coming! School will soon be over and kids will be able to play outside. Summer holidays are coming, too! Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, and more! What does your family do to celebrate in the summer? Do you have picnics? Do you go to a park? Do you like to play baseball in the summer?

The first summer holiday is on May 26. It is called Memorial Day. Many people have the day off of work and school. They celebrate with a picnic or a barbeque. It’s the beginning of summer fun with our families! Memorial Day has been a holiday for 145 years. That’s a long time! At first, Memorial Day looked a bit different than it does today. It was a day to be serious and to remember important people.


Memorial Day began in 1868 as a day called Decoration Day. This was right after the American Civil War. Over 600,000 soldiers had died during that war. The families of those soldiers did not want anyone to forget what happened. On Decoration Day, these families went to the graveyard with flowers and flags. They decorated the graves of their soldiers who had died.  decoration day da photo 1

Many small towns had parades. Veterans, men who had been in the army or navy, would carry flags and banners. Children walked in these parades carrying flowers.American_Patriotic_Art_Card_Memorial_Day-005

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Sometimes, important men like the mayor or governor would give a speech. Bands would play music and people would sing songs about their country.

decoration day da photo 11

Today, we honor all fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, not just those who died in the Civil War.

American_Art_Vintage_Memorial_Day_Souvenir_Card-01Memorial Day became a day to spend thinking about all of your family. We remember family members who are gone and celebrate family members who are here. Families still go to cemeteries to remember soldiers in their family that have died.

They also spend time with their living family, having picnics and parades and baseball games together. It is still a day to think about important people and remember. And also a day to celebrate and have fun together. How does your family celebrate Memorial Day? Do you decorate the graves of any family members who served in the military? Do you spend extra time with your family that weekend?

decoration day da photo 2

You can see what Decoration Day might have looked like over 100 years ago by visiting Living History Farms on Saturday, May 24. Historical Interpreters will act out a Decoration Day speech and parade at 1:00 pm. Museum guests can walk in the parade and listen to the speeches about Civil War soldiers. At the Decoration Day ceremony, everyone will sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. This was a very popular song for soldiers and their families. You can hear what it sounds like here. What is your favorite song about your country?


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There will also be a historic baseball game on Saturday, May 24 at 1:30 pm. We hope families will come and spend time together then. If you visit for the baseball game, you will need to know the rules! They were a little different in the 1870s.

1875 baseball rules cropped