Around the 1800s House: The Coffee Mill

May 16, 2012

Around the House Post: The Coffee Mill

I don’t drink coffee, but recently I got to roast some coffee beans in an old-fashioned coffee roaster and then grind them in a coffee mill. The roasting took quite a bit of time. I had to constantly spin the handle over some ashes pulled out from the fire. The ashes slowly toasted the beans.

Once the beans were ready they were transferred into a coffee mill where they were ground and then finally coffee could be made. This coffee mill is approximately six inches by six inches. On top is the grinder mechanism. The beans were placed in the top. The grinder hand cranked and the grounds would fall down into the little drawer at the bottom of the box.


The American Spelling Book

March 28, 2012

I have a replica of The American Spelling Book: Containing the Rudiments of the English Language for the Use of Schools in the United States (whew…that’s a mouthful of a title) by Noah Webster published in 1824. I’m sure when we all hear the name Noah Webster we think of the man who compiled a dictionary which became a standard for the American English language. He also compiled The America Spelling Book, which was the basic textbook for young readers in the early 19th century.

I am fascinated by the book and have been reading it. The opening lesson starts with the following passage:


IN the English alphabet there are twenty five single characters, that stand as representatives of certain sounds. A, b, c, d, e, f, g, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z. H is not a mark of sound; but it qualifies or gives form to a succeeding sound.*

In order to understand these letters, or rather the sounds they represent, it is necessary to decline the meaning of the words vowel, diphthong and consonant.

A vowel is a simple articulate sound. A simple sound is formed by opening the mouth in a certain manner, without any contact of the parts of it. Whenever a sound can be begun and completed with the same positions of the organs, it is a simple sound.

A diphthong is a union of two simple sounds, pronounced at one breath. To form a diphthong, there are necessarily required two different positions of the organs of speech.

A consonant, or, as it is called by the ancients, a close-letter, forms no distinct articulate sound of itself. In pronouncing most of the English consonants, there is required a contact of the parts of the mouth, and the union of a vowel; though some of the consonants form imperfect syllables of themselves.

This first chapter goes on to explain pronunciation of the letters, combination of letters and talk about accents, emphasis and cadence. Then from there come the charts of words, broken down into lessons. It starts with simple one syllable words and works up to more and more complicated words. If I’d studied this book as a kid my vocabulary would be amazing. I’ve had to look up more words from the later spelling lessons! We’ve lost that eloquent (and sometimes complicated) way of speaking from the 18th and 19th century. From there the book starts to move into reading passages. And this is where I fell in love with this book. I love the observations about life and people, the little history lessons, and most of all the fables.

It’s interesting to see how church and school weren’t separate. There are many passages like the following:

Therefore be not anxious for the good things of this life, but seek the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness, and all things shall be added to you.

The fables are meant to teach children lessons—to obey their elders, to not be greedy and so forth. This is one of my favorites:


WHEN men suffer their imaginations to amuse them with the prospect of distant and uncertain improvement of their condition, they frequently suffer real losses by their inattention to those affairs in which they are immediately concerned.

A country maid was walking very deliberately with a pail of milk upon her head, when she fell into the following train of reflections; The money for which I shall sell this milk, will enable me to increase my flock of eggs to three hundred. These eggs, allowing for what may prove addle, and what may be destroyed by vermin will produce at least two hundred and fifty chickens. The chickens will be fit to carry to market about Christmas, when poultry always bears a good price; so that by May-day I cannot fail of having money enough to purchase a new gown. Green–let me consider–yes, green become my complexion best, and green it shall be. In this dress I will go to the fair, where all the young fellows will strive to have me for a partner; but I shall perhaps refuse every one of them, and with an air of disdain toss from them. Transported with this triumphant thought, she could not forbear acting with her head what passed in her imagination, when down came the pail of milk, and with it all her imaginary happiness.

It’s a book that definitely gives you a sense of the time period and how people thought.  If you’re looking to get a sense of the language and how it was used in the 19th century this is definitely a good book to read.  I recommend reading it for anyone writing a historical piece set in the 1800s.

What is it?

October 26, 2011

Let’s play a game!  I’m going to show you some images and I want you to tell me what you think it is! (A little hint, they’re all from the early 1800s!)




Banking in 1830s New England

April 13, 2011

Thompson Bank from the OSV Village.

New England’s economy in the early 19th century was largely based on credit. Cash was scarce and business needed to be conducted, so other means of doing business were adopted. Farmers and townsfolk kept detailed accounts of what they were owed and what they owed in return and settled accounts through various means of payment, which rarely included cash.

In the early 1800s, the U.S. government minted coins of copper, silver and gold, but didn’t print paper money. The face value of a coin was the actual value of the metal in the coin, which limited the amount of minted currency and made New England a cash poor society. There simply was not enough cash in early 19th century New England for all the business people needed to do. As a result, people frequently purchased items and paid for services with credit. Transactions were recorded in writing at the time of purchase, and debts would be paid back in services or goods from the farmer’s harvest. Banks were not involved. While coin may have been the only legal tender, this didn’t hinder the credit system. A new means of payment was taking hold though with existence of more and more banks—the bank note.

"Bicknell's Counterfeit Detector"

From the late 1820s on, most of the money in circulation in New England was in the form of bank notes. A bank note was a promissory note made by a bank payable to the bearer on demand. However, they were not legal tender and no one had to accept them. Because of this, a bank note was only as good as the reputation of the bank that issued it. In order to give the impression of safety and ensure trust in customers, banks were often built of brick, with plaster facades in the Greek revival style—a style fashionable in the 1830s. A bank was usually a single room with a transaction space and a steel vault—the most important element in the building—built into the wall behind the counter. The vault represented security to the customers, for so long as the vault was closed, anything sealed in it would be safe from fires or any other disaster that could befall the building.

A bank typically employed only one person, a cashier who was usually one of the bank’s principal investors. The cashiers transacted business in the mornings and closed the doors in the afternoon while he spent the rest of the day reviewing bank loan applications, writing business letters and doing bookkeeping.

One bank would usually serve the needs of several adjacent communities; unlike the country store for example, a bank was not a necessity in a rural New England town. Despite bank notes’ popularity, local townsfolk still didn’t use the bank on a day-to-day basis. If a farmer needed a personal loan, he would be more likely to seek out a wealthy individual than the bank. The country store also supplied coins and bank notes to customers who needed small amounts of money. This was a purchase of cash and didn’t involve a loan, which meant no interest. Farmers would exchange goods for the cash.

Reproduction of early paper money.

Bank's vault. As long as this door was sealed if there was a fire, nothin inside would be lost.

Most banks were commercial and primarily served the needs of businessmen—storekeepers, craftsmen and textile manufacturers. Businessmen used banks to acquire loans, referred to as “discounts” in the 1800s. Most discounts were renewable three-month loans at six percent interest that were secured by collateral. The customer actually received a smaller sum than he requested because interest in the 1800s was deducted in advance. A bank used money from its shareholders to give these short-term loans, and in return paid its shareholders from its profits.

New England would remain a community based on credit for years to come. Bank notes continued to be used in place of cash until the National Banking Act of 1863 was established and paper currency was introduced into circulation. The biggest change in the New England countryside though, was the growth of the savings bank, which served the individual and not just the businessman. The savings bank for the first time allowed the small farmers to save money, which in turn received interest—a concept that would continue to grow in popularity through the years.

Banker's work area.

Banks tried to appear strong and reliable in appearance as well.

An Entry Meant to Impress

March 4, 2011

While rural New England farmhouses were modest, the wealthy members of town typically owned large homes, which showed off their wealth and importance.  One of the most important rooms was the entry hallway.  Unlike our concept of “hallways” today, in 1830s the entry hallway was really a room in the house.  It typically was about six to eight feet in width and ran the length of the house with doors off the hall for access to the dining room, front and back parlors and sitting room.  The hallway was the first place a guest entered and it was important for the owner to present a grand entrance to his guests.

The early 1800s was a time of vibrant patterns on the floor, walls and in fabrics.  Elaborate patterns and bold colors were extremely common and a sign of wealth and good taste.

The Walls

Wallpaper was very popular in the 1800s.  This hallway showcases an intricately patterned blue and yellow wallpaper.  By the end of the 1820s, rolls of wallpaper were becoming increasingly more abundant, but at the time this wallpaper was applied, it was made in square sheets. The sheets were painstakingly applied one by one; the pattern seamlessly matched. Also notice the intricate detail of the border that frames the entry into each room and follows the chair rail up the stairs. Another border ran along the ceiling. Together, all these elements resulted in a very elaborate design and rich-feeling space.


While not a major part of the design of the hallway, fabrics were still very important and not chosen lightly when putting a room together.  Guests would surely visit the sitting room or dining room and they needed to be just as splendid as the entry.  Quite often, red was used in the dining room, as it complemented dark furniture and was believed to aid digestion.  Wool damask was often use for slip covers and curtains in the dining room.  Chintz (and glazed chintz, a cotton fabric) was a very popular at the time as well.  Bold patterns with bright colors, especially large animal prints, were popular for use in sitting rooms.  As you see in the picture below, bird prints were extremely popular.  Stairs where also decorated with bright partnered carpet runners.  In this case a stripped pattern of bold colors was used.

The Floor

Floor Cloths were used as the primary floor covering in America from the mid 1700’s to the late 1800’s. These were canvas rugs, oil-painted by hand, that were prized for their beauty, durability and easy care.  Floor cloths were commonly used in entrance halls, not only because they made for a decorative first impression, but also because they were durable and easy to clean.  In a time where roads were made of dirt and horses and oxen were a common means of travel, much muck and grime was tracked into the house.  Floor cloths were much easier to clean and much more durable than rugs.

The floor cloth in the pictures below has been painted with an intricate border.  You’ll notice corner medallions were painted at the door openings to neatly end the border and indicate an opening as well.  Once the design on this floor cloth was painted, layers of varnish were painted over it.  Simply applying new coats of varnish each year or two refreshed this long lasting durable floor covering.


A hallway wasn’t complete without furniture.  A chest, some chairs, artwork and a mirror put the final touches on the space, making it truly feel like a room, a welcoming, opulent room!

By the end of the 1820s, rolls of wallpaper were becoming increasingly more abundant, but at the time this wallpaper was applied, it was made in square sheets. The sheets were painstakingly applied one by one; the pattern seamlessly matched. Also notice the intricate detail of the border that frames the entry into each room and follows the chair rail up the stairs.  Another border ran along the ceilingTogether, all these elements resulted in a very elaborate design and richfeeling space.

So how did we do?

December 10, 2010

Pretty close match wouldn’t you say?

Things we intentionally left out:

  • The stairs up to the porch (we ran out of time!).
  • The chimney.  (Our roof was already having sagging problems.  Adding a chimney would have made matters worse).
  • Some of the fences. (It got too busy, so we simplified a few things.)

Back View

Front View

Side View

Waterwheel View

The Gristmill

December 7, 2010

I know! You were all excited to see our gingerbread gristmill, weren’t you? Well, you’ll have to hold out for one more day. Today, I wanted to take a quick moment to tell you about the real 1800s gristmill our gingerbread one is modeled after. (Told you I’d throw in a history lesson on Monday, now didn’t I?)

OSV Gristmill - This is the building we replicated in gingerbread.

The waterwheel is our favorite part of the building and our GB house.

Grist is grain, or the starchy seed of certain grasses, that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for being ground for use as food. Wheat, oats, rye, corn, Indian corn, and provender were all grains the 1800’s farmer harvested for use, either to feed his family or his animals. By the 1840s, the United States had over 23,000 gristmills. Some were commercial flour mills, but most were neighborhood gristmills that sold their service to nearby farmers. Law in the 1800s stated that a miller could charge a “toll” (or a fee) of 1/16th of the grain brought to him as payment for milling the rest of the grain. However, by the 1830s this practice of charging a toll was changing with the rest of the economy, and millers were starting to charge cash fees in replacement of the traditional tolls.

The gristmill used water power to grind grain into meal. The process was fairly simple and straightforward. When a sluice gate was opened, water would be filtered from a lake (or other water source) to a waterwheel. There were different types of waterwheels, but the one in this example was a “low breast” wheel because water filled the troughs on the wheel’s rim just below the midpoint. The 16 foot high waterwheel’s troughs would fill with water and the weight would cause the wheel to turn, which in turn turned the gears and shafts in the mill’s basement, transmitting power to the millstones.

While the gears and shafts turned in the basement, the millstones were at work on the first floor area of the mill. The gears rotated two 54 inch diameter 3,000 pound millstones. A “runner” stone rotated a slight distance above a stationary “bed” stone in the floor. Both stones had a pattern of grooves cut into their faces. As the runner stone turned above the bed stone, their grooves acted much like scissor blades. Grain was poured into a funnel-like wooden hopper above the millstones. It would filter down through a hole in the spinning runner stone, into the space between the two stones where it would be sheared into meal. The meal then fell into a meal chest in the floor. From there, the miller would scoop the fresh grist into his customer’s bag or barrel.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words is a video worth? Enjoy the following videos of a gristmill in action.

Part 1: Inside

Part 2: Continuation of Inside

Part 3: Outside/Waterwheel