Doughnuts in Your Socks!

It is Christmas week and many of our readers are waiting on Santa Claus! Do you put up a stocking or receive gifts under a Christmas tree? Or do you have other traditions for giving gifts in the winter months? There are many holidays Iowans celebrate in December where people give gifts.

a home in the wilderness

Did kids a long time ago wait for Santa? In the 1840s, many Iowa kids were pioneers. They lived with their families in log houses in the country away from town. Most of these children did not put up a Christmas tree in their house. But a lot of them did hang their stockings on the end of their bed for presents on Christmas night. Stockings are long wool socks. In 2015, we sometimes make fancy stockings to put up for Santa. In 1840, Christmas stockings were the same socks kids wore on their feet everyday!

kids stockings 1870

Some of these pioneer kids wrote in their diaries about how their family celebrated Christmas. Mary Miller lived in Clinton, Iowa in 1842. She remembered, “We all hung up our stockings. Next morning we were gleeful at finding in each stocking a nice fat, brown doughnut and some pieces of gaily colored calico. I was happy because I knew that my elder sister would make and dress a rag doll for me, just like the one with which she played.” Would these gifts make you happy today? Can you imagine finding a sticky doughnut in your sock?


Doughnuts were a favorite treat for holidays. When pioneers made doughnuts, it didn’t take up a lot of sugar, but it tasted really sweet! You and your family can make these doughnuts too. Pioneers would fry the doughnuts in a kettle over a fire. With an adult’s help, you can fry your doughnuts on top of your stove.

Cooking fire at the 1850 Pioneer Log House

Here is a Pioneer style recipe for this sweet treat. Kids can do the mixing, cutting, and finishing. An adult should do the frying. Always be careful when working around any kind of stove and hot oil!

¼ cup butter

1 cup sugar

4 cups flour

½ tsp salt

4 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup buttermilk

Vegetable oil to fry

Cinnamon, powdered sugar to finish

Cream (that means mix together really well) butter and sugar. Mix in two eggs and vanilla, set these wet ingredients to one side. In a different bowl, sift together flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg. Mix half of these dry ingredients into the butter/sugar, then add a bit of the buttermilk. Then add the other half of the dry ingredients, then the rest of the buttermilk. Mix together until you have a dough. (Chill this dough for a good half hour, if possible.) Roll dough out on a floured table or counter. Roll the dough out 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Cut the doughnut shapes using a biscuit or doughnut cutter—the end of a glass works well too. An adult should preheat a heavy pot with vegetable oil in it. Have an adult fry the doughnuts in the hot oil (approximately 375 degrees) until golden brown on both sides. Place on a towel to cool. Sprinkle with either cinnamon or powdered sugar.

We wish all of our readers a very happy holiday season!


Over the River, and Through the Wood

It is Thanksgiving week in the United States. Many people love this holiday because they can spend time with their family and share favorite foods. It is also a time to think of all the things for which we are grateful. Which holidays are your favorite? Do you spend time with friends or family at Thanksgiving? What is your favorite food to eat?

In 1844, Lydia Maria Child wrote a poem for a children’s magazine called Flowers for Children. Lydia Maria Child was one of America’s first well-known women writers. She was a famous for writing cook books and house help books. She also wrote articles and books about why America should not have slavery. Her poem was called, “A New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.” Lydia wrote the poem about the things she remembered when visiting her grandparents as a little girl.

wagon ride

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

snowy woods

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for ’tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood—
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
as over the ground we go.

snowy barnyard

Over the river, and through the wood—
and straight through the barnyard gate,
We seem to go extremely slow,
it is so hard to wait!

ox in snow

Over the river, and through the wood,
to have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring, “Ting-a-ling-ding!”,
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood—
When Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, “O, dear, the children are here,
bring a pie for everyone.”


Over the river, and through the wood—
now Grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

Lydia’s poem has stayed popular for over one hundred and seventy years. Through the year’s people have changed some of the words and even made a song out of the poem. Some people sing it as, “to Grandmother’s house we go,” instead of Grandfather’s house. Either way, it’s a fun poem to make us think about our own favorite things about Thanksgiving Day.

We hope everyone in your family has a wonderful Thanksgiving this year!

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!

Waiting for Santa Claus!

SantaIt’s Christmas week! Many children are waiting for Santa to come on December 24! Do you think children in the year 1875 waited for Santa? For kids living in houses like the Flynn Mansion or the Tangen Home, kids might indeed be waiting for Santa! 140 years ago, many Iowa children celebrated Christmas with a visit from Santa. He would bring gifts of candy or small toys, leaving them in stockings on Christmas Eve. Some children—especially if they had moved to Iowa from places like Germany or Holland might have a different name for Santa. They might have called him Kris Kringle or St. Nicolas or maybe SinterKlaas. For these children, St. Nicolas sometimes came on December 6. This is the feast day of St. Nicolas.

How do we know what Santa Claus looks like? Well, two men who lived in the 1800s helped kids get an idea of what Santa should look like.  clement mooreOne man wrote a very famous poem about Santa. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his children about a magical visitor who brought presents every year on Christmas Eve. The poem was published in first a newspaper in 1823 and later a book. I bet you know that poem. It starts “Twas the before Christmas and all through the house . . .” This was one of the first descriptions of Santa. It told us he wore fur “from his head to his foot” and that he was a “jolly old elf”. This was also the first place a writer described Santa as having “eight tiny reindeer” and what their names were. Can you name all of these reindeer? This was before Rudolph joined the team. When the poem was first placed into a book, several drawings were made of Santa Claus. At that time, the artist thought he looked like this!Santa, Moore

In the 1860s, another famous artist made more drawings of Santa Claus. This artist’s name was Thomas Nast. Thomas NastHe drew cartoons about politicians in New York City for a magazine called Harper’s Weekly. He drew his first Santa Claus for them in 1863. The picture showed Santa Claus in a coat of stars handing out presents to Union soldiers during the Civil War. Mr. Nast drew pictures of Santa Claus almost every year into the 1880s. Mr. Nast’s drawings helped us understand that Santa Claus kept a list of naughty and nice children, that he lived at the North Pole, and that he had elves to help him make toys. Mr. Nast’s drawings also helped children know they should write letters to Santa telling him what they wanted for Christmas! Mr. Nast’s Santa Claus drawing looked like this! Santa, Nast 1881

Do you leave out cookies and milk for Santa Claus? No one is exactly sure how long children have been leaving cookies for Santa. Some people say that St. Nicolas began snacking on the gingerbread ornaments decorating German Christmas trees back in the middle ages. Some people say Santa started snacking on cookies left out for him by children in the 1930s. No one is quite sure. But just in case you and your family were going to bake cookies for Santa or other friends this week, here is one of our very favorite spice cookie recipes! At Living History Farms, we usually bake this cookie in a wood-burning stove. It will taste very good after being baked in a modern oven too! This is a traditional nineteenth century cookie recipe that is a favorite of our historic kitchens.  Spice cookies and shortbreads were common kinds of “comfort” food cookies for the 19th century, rather than today’s chocolate chip or peanut butter varieties.

cookiesCrinkly Molasses Cookies

¾ cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
4 Tbls. molasses
2 tsp soda
½ tsp salt
2 cups flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
½ tsp cloves

Cream butter; add sugar, egg, and molasses. Sift dry ingredients together and add to butter mixture. Drop onto greased cookie sheet and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees. Keep in airtight canister for crisp cookies, cookie jar for soft cookies.

Have a very Merry Christmas from all of us at Living History Farms!

Merry Christmas

Christmas Cake

Christmas foodsMost families have special food traditions for their December holidays. Is there a recipe that you cook at your house only at this time of year? Do you have a favorite food to eat during holiday times? Today, we think of candy canes, or egg nog, or sugar cookies and gingerbread as some of the foods enjoyed during the Christmas season. One favorite holiday recipe for Iowans in 1875 was a special Christmas cake.

Today we like our birthday cakes and wedding cakes to be light and fluffy. Most of us like lots of frosting on our cake and a lot of people love chocolate cake the best. What is your favorite kind of cake? Do you put frosting on it? How about sprinkles?

FruitcakesultanasChristmas cake in 1875 was a bit different. Instead of light and fluffy, Christmas cake was heavy, spongy and thick. Inside the cake, there were dried pieces of fruit or candied fruit peel for extra flavor. Can you think of a dried fruit that you enjoy today? If you guessed raisins, you are right! Raisins, which are dried grapes, were also very popular in the Victorian era because they were a fruit that could last a long time. Some raisins had fancy names like sultanas–golden raisins or currants–a tiny, dried variety of grape called the Black Corinth.

Christmas cakes were a type of fruitcake. candied orange peelDark fruitcakes were made with brown sugar, molasses, and spices like cinnamon, clove and allspice. These are some of the same spices we put in gingerbread cookies. There were also light fruitcakes flavored with vanilla. They both would include nuts, like walnuts or almonds, and lots of dried fruits like raisins. Some recipes call for the peels of lemons or oranges. The peels were boiled in sugar syrup to make them sweeter. This was an extra special ingredient because lemons and oranges were expensive in 1875. Christmas fruit cake was special because it used these fancy ingredients that parents might only buy as a treat at Christmas time.

Here is a recipe for a Christmas cake from a cookbook called Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was written over 150 years ago!

Book of Household ManagementSome things about the recipe are different from what you might read today. Instead of using cups and teaspoons, cooks measured things by weighing them out on a scale. (For example, half a pound of butter is one cup or two sticks.) You can still make this recipe at home though! If you don’t have a kitchen scale, you can find lists of how much flour and sugar weigh in cookbooks or on the Internet –here or here.

Mrs. Beeton’s Christmas Cake

½ lb. of butter, softened
½ lb. of castor sugar (powdered sugar)
½ lb. of sultanas (golden raisins)
½ lb. of dried currants
6 oz. mixed candied lemon or orange peel
1 lb. of flour
¼ oz. baking powder
4 eggs

Sift together the flour and baking powder then add the dried fruit and candied peel. In a separate bowl, cream butter and sugar, and add eggs one at a time, beating well after the addition of each egg. Add flour and fruit mixture, then enough milk to make the consistency of a batter. Bake in greased round pans or loaf pans in a 350 degree oven for 3-4 hours or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. May be frosted or decorated once it has been cooled.

FruitcakeToday, we sometimes make fun of fruitcakes. People don’t make them at home very often and sometimes the store-bought cakes are too sweet or sticky. The Christmas Cake was such a tradition in the 1880s that people made fun of them then too! In the 1880s, music was published in several places for a tune making fun of an Irish young lady’s Christmas Cake.

Sometimes the song is called Miss Hoolihan’s Christmas Cake and sometimes Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake. You can hear a famous Irish band called The Irish Rover’s sing this song here. You can also see the words and music here at the Library of Congress website. The words to the song go like this:

Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake by C. Frank Horn and William Fogarty sheet musicShaw, 1883.

Verse: As I sat in my window last evening, The letterman brought it to me A little gilt-edged invitation sayin’ “Gilhooley come over to tea” I knew that the Fogarties sent it. So I went just for old friendships sake. The first thing they gave me to tackle Was a slice of Miss Fogarty’s cake.

Chorus: There were plums and prunes and cherries, There were citrons and raisins and cinnamon, too There was nutmeg, cloves and berries And a crust that was nailed on with glue There were caraway seeds in abundance Such that work up a fine stomach ache That could kill a man twice after eating a slice Of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake.

Verse: Miss Mulligan wanted to try it, But really it wasn’t no use For we worked in it over an hour And we couldn’t get none of it loose Till Murphy came in with a hatchet And Kelly came in with a saw That cake was enough by the powers above For to paralyze any man’s jaws

Verse: Miss Fogarty proud as a peacock, Kept smiling and blinking away Till she tripped over Flanagans brogans And she spilt the whole brewing of tea “Aye Gilhooley,” she says, “you’re not eatin, Try a little bit more for me sake.” “And no Miss Fogarty,” says I, “For I’ve had quite enough of your cake.”

Verse: Maloney was took with the colic, O’Donald’s a pain in his head Mc’Naughton lay down on the sofa, And he swore that he wished he was dead Miss Bailey went into hysterics And there she did wriggle and shake And everyone swore they were poisoned Just from eating Miss Fogarty’s cake.fruitcake

Christmas is Coming!

Flynn Mansion Christmas tree  Church of the Land

Christmas is coming! For some people, that means it is time to decorate the house and to cook special foods. In our last post, we talked about traditions or past-times. A tradition is doing something every year the way our parents and grand-parents did. Some families have decorations that they only put up in December every year. Is there a stocking or a wreath at your house every year? Do you have a party at your house or go to a party at school or church?

Christmas tree

In the year 1875, kids had holiday past-times, too. Even though it was over 140 years ago! Many Iowa families went to parties at Christmas time. The party could be at their town’s school or their church. The townspeople would decorate a Christmas tree at the school or church instead of in their own home. They might even call the party a “Christmas Tree” party. Gifts for all the school’s children would be on the tree or around it. Decorations for a school or church tree would be made by students and parents. People would thread a needle and string pieces of popcorn, wooden beads, and maybe even cranberries into garland. They could also make paper chains to decorate the tree.

string of popcorn and cranberries

Paper scraps were glued into pretty ornaments and cones to hold candy and presents. At the school party, kids would read poems and sing songs for their family. Do you know any Christmas poems to read? Do you know the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas?” I bet you do! It starts, “’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…” This poem was written a very long time ago in 1823! How about, “Dashing through the snow in a One Horse Open Sleigh”? That song was written in 1857! You might call it “Jingle Bells”.

Flynn Mansion

Wealthy families, like the Flynn family, might invite people to a “Christmas Tree” party at their own house. The house would be decorated with ribbons and evergreens. The family Christmas tree would go in the parlor. In 1875, it was a new idea to have a Christmas tree at your own home. This was a way for the Flynns to show off to their friends. Their tree would be decorated the day of the party or maybe the night before Christmas. Even the Flynns would make some of their decorations for the tree from popcorn and paper. The Flynns also had enough money to buy fancy glass ornaments shaped like fruit and balls. These ornaments were usually made in Germany and were very expensive. They even had a funny name—kugels!

Christmas tree  glass ornaments

Because there were no electric lights in 1875, Christmas trees had candles on them. The candles were only lit for a few minutes. Everyone stood and admired how pretty the tree looked and the candles were blown out. It was too easy to start a fire if the candles stayed lit for the entire party.

candleFlynn decorations
piano music in the parlor

A Christmas party at the Flynn Mansion could include music at the piano, fun games and stories in the parlor, and fancy food in the dining room. A favorite parlor game at Christmas was Blind Man’s Bluff. Everyone stood in a circle in the center of the room. Whoever was chosen to be “it” was blindfolded and placed in the middle of the circle. The other players danced and played tag around this person. The “Blind Man” had to try and catch another player and to guess who the person was without looking.

For kids and adults, a Christmas party was a great place to tell ghost stories! We think of scary stories for Halloween, but a long time ago, people told scary stories at the end of the year at Christmas! Think of stories like “A Christmas Carol” written by Charles Dickens. This story was meant to be a scary ghost story for Christmas!A Christmas Carol

If you’d like to learn more about how Christmas was celebrated 140 years ago, join us this Saturday, December 6 for our Family Christmas Event!

Horse-drawn wagon rides

Caregivers: Living History Farms will be open on December 6, from 4-8 pm for a Family Christmas! Guests can visit the Flynn Mansion, the Church of the Land, and the Visitor Center. At the Flynn Mansion, you can help trim the tree and make a Christmas card to celebrate the season!

Family ChristmasChildren's craftsChristmas trees

In the Church of the Land, everyone will enjoy dancing and music by the Barn Owl Band, and kids can decorate cookies in the church basement. Children will also enjoy crafts and taffy pulling in the Visitor Center. If weather permits, there will be horse-drawn wagon rides between the buildings.

You can get advanced tickets at

Advance tickets: $5.50/person, $4.00/LHF member
At the Door: $6.00/person; $4.75/LHF member

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy ThanksgivingThis Thursday is a special day in Iowa. Many people will celebrate Thanksgiving. It is a time when lots of people have a big dinner with their family and friends. They eat together and say “Thank You” for the special people and things in their life. Having a day to say “Thank You” is an old idea. At Living History Farms, we like to remember how people in Iowa have said thank you in the fall every year.venisonIn the year 1700, the Ioway people held big meals together in the fall. They had a party to be happy for a good garden and plenty of food for the winter. Their harvest dinners might have pumpkin, corn, beans, deer, and buffalo!

1850 mealBy the year 1850, new settlers had moved to Iowa. Many of these people had moved here from states in the east, like Massachusetts. They had grown up having a fall party called Thanksgiving. In 1844, John Chambers—he was a territorial governor for Iowa and an important guy—decided to have Thanksgiving as a holiday in Iowa, too. He said in the Iowa City newspaper, “We believe this is the first Thanksgiving Proclamation ever issued in Iowa; we are glad to welcome the good old Pilgrim custom to our midst . . .” Many settlers were still living in log houses in the country. They did not have a lot of money to spend on fancy foods. Their meal was still pumpkin, corn and potatoes. They might roast deer and wild turkeys. This Thanksgiving meal might be for friends and neighbors and just the people who lived right there. People could not travel very far. Remember they did not have cars or planes!

1875 mealtangen cake

Later in 1875, people who lived in towns like Walnut Hill also had Thanksgiving parties. Having family visit and eating a special meal were pretty important by then. A man in Iowa named Thomas Terrill wrote in his diary in 1871, “Thanksgiving Day . . . Folks here for dinner. Had a turkey roast.” In 1880, Thomas wrote, “Took our Thanksgiving dinner at home consisting of a stuffed hen and other good things. Were thankful that we had so much.” Trains could bring fancy foods to Iowa stores from faraway places. A fancy restaurant in Des Moines in 1870 let guests choose from oysters, trout, turkey, chicken, duck, goose, buffalo, and deer. All kinds of cake, nuts and fruit were for dessert. Trains would have brought most of these foods to Des Moines for the cooks at the restaurant.

1900 Farm mealIowa farmers did grow many foods right here to eat at Thanksgiving. An Iowa farm lady near Iowa City, Iowa wrote about raising turkeys on her farm and selling them every year for people to have at Thanksgiving. Miranda Cline wrote in her diary in 1895, “I sold Turkeys at 5 cents per pound, brought home 8 dollars.” In 1900, farm wives might have cooked turkey, and mashed potatoes, squash, chicken pie, pumpkin and apple pie, and might have even served ice cream at dessert to be fancy. One 1887 cookbook did suggest just serving “cold roast turkey” for supper that night. Even then there were leftovers!

Happy Thanksgiving from Living History Farms!All of these foods and parties became something people had every year. Doing something over and over the way our parents and grand-parents did is called a tradition. What traditions do you have for Thanksgiving at your house? Do you eat a big meal? Do you watch football? Or a parade? Whatever your family’s tradition is for this holiday, everyone here at Living History Farms hopes you have a wonderful day! Happy Thanksgiving!