The Heart of the Kitchen – 19th-Century Cooking Stoves

Stove Section, from the Sears Roebuck Catalog, 1897The central focus in the 19th-century American kitchen was the large black cast-iron cooking stove. The kitchen stove helped improve the American diet in properly cooking and baking foods from the family farm and local markets.  The big black stove also spread warmth from its heated surfaces on a cold winter morning in January, although not so welcomed on a hot afternoon in July.  It also provided convenient comfort and improved health conditions, in the form of access to hot water – for washing, cleaning, and bathing.

The industrialization and expanded commerce of the 19th century built the 100s of foundries and factories that churned out a variety of goods and products. One of these manufactured products was the cast-iron cooking stove, which was produced in the millions and affordable to nearly everyone. Practically every home in America by the late 19th-century had a stand-alone cooking stove in its kitchen. 

Kitchen cooking stoves came in all shapes and sizes.  They could be excessively ornate or plain in decoration.  Another important feature was they were fairly portable.  Shipped in pieces, the stoves were assembled in the home kitchen, much like IKEA furniture today.  There was also a variety of technologies of stoves that burned one of three then common fuel sources; wood, coal or gas. Each system had its benefits and detriments. Wood was plentiful in rural America, it was inexpensive but labor-intensive.  Coal was easier to use, less labor but produced coal dust.  Gas was the most expensive, but produced odors.  It wasn’t until the Federal “Rural Electrification Act” of 1936 did rural America finally switch over to mostly electric stoves in their homes.  Today all four systems are still in use in our kitchens – but with vast improvements over their 19th-century counterparts.

Cast-iron cooking stoves also created an entirely new system of cooking – which in turn provided healthier meals to families.  Cooking recipes soon appeared in newspapers, magazines and in published cookbooks to help American households cook on the new appliance in the kitchen.  We hope to do another chapter on the cultural popularity of cookbooks and how they helped to change the American diet.

Be sure to visit the Farm Manager’s House at the Billings Farm & Museum to see our wood-burning cast-iron cookstove.  We cook a variety of vintage recipes in the kitchen every Friday when we reopen to the public.

“Bag of Fun” Crafts and Activities-to-Go, Virtual Tours: Meet the Animals & Behind the Scenes at the Farm & Museum

Beginning on Thursday, March 19, Billings Farm & Museum will offer options for local families with kids at home, and for folks farther away who want to explore our farm and museum.

The Billings Farm & Museum’s crafts and activities to-go program starts on Thursday, 3/19! We will set up a “drive-through” outside our Visitor Center where you can pick up a “Bag of Fun!” craft and activity kits to take home. We will distribute the kits from 9-10am and 12-1pm, and then on Tuesdays and Thursdays at those same times going forward.

This week’s kit includes: Make a paper bag Jersey, learn about cows and breeds, and instructions on how to make butter at home.

Download kits and the list of supplies on our Billings Farm at Home page

Over the next few weeks, watch our YouTube and Facebook feeds for sketching and art projects, book readings, farmhouse tours and virtual visits with our farm animals.

Get updates on crafts, activties and videos directly from Billings Farm. Email and type “SUBSCRIBE” in the subject. Send us your ideas for future kits and videos, and questions you want answered about our animals, the farm, our exhibits and our collections.

Billings Farm & Museum COVID-19 Statement – March 16, 2020

While Billings Farm & Museum is closed for general visitation, the health and safety of Billings Farm & Museum staff and visitors is of the utmost importance.

FILM SERIES SHOWINGS TO BE RESCHEDULED: The final three films in the Woodstock Vermont Film Series at Billings Farm & Museum – originally scheduled for March 21, April 4, and April 18 – are being rescheduled for dates later this spring. Details will be forthcoming in the near future.

PAINTING ON THE ROCKS TO BE RESCHEDULED: The March 21 Painting on the Rocks event will be rescheduled. Details will be forthcoming in the near future.

BABY FARM ANIMAL CELEBRATION POSTPONED: In following current CDC guidelines to reschedule events with 50 or more people for the next eight weeks, Billings Farm & Museum will postpone Baby Farm Animal Celebration, originally scheduled for April 10 and 11, as well as opening day on April 13.

CDC RECOMMENDED PRECAUTIONS: We remind our staff and the public to continue to follow CDC guidelines for respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene. All sick employees are required to stay home.

We are monitoring the coronavirus situation closely to determine how it may affect our events, activities, and operations. We will communicate any event cancelations, postponements, or shifts in format with registered attendees and will post notifications on our website and Facebook page.

If you purchased a ticket or registered for an event and cannot attend on the rescheduled date, Billings Farm & Museum is pleased to offer a credit or issue a refund. Please also consider converting your registration or ticket fee to a donation to support Billings Farm & Museum’s mission.

We will continue to monitor the most up-to-date developments and recommendations and will follow public health officials’ guidelines.

What’s on Tap? Machine of the Month

By Emily Koetsier, Collections Manager

Welcome to the third installment in our year-long series, “Machine of the Month.” As winter is slowly starting to give way to spring, and Vermont is known as one of the largest producers of a certain product, we are focusing on a small piece of technology used for Maple Sugaring.

  All throughout New England, the practice of gathering sap from maple trees is well underway.  Sap can only be gathered when the nights are freezing cold and the days are warming up.   This freeze-thaw within the trees creates the necessary pressure for the sap to run.  Tapping into the tree and gaining access to the sweet, flowing liquid has evolved and changed over the years, but in many ways has remained the same.

Sap is water within the tree that has taken in the frozen starches the tree stored over winter. Maple trees with higher sugar content in their sap are ideal for sugaring; sugar maples (Acer saccharum), black maples (Acer nigrum), and red maples (Acer rubrum) are varieties that have 2-5% sugar content in their sap. 

To gain access to the sap, the trees are tapped.  Tap holes are drilled one and a half inches deep to reach the sap wood and are no more than half an inch.  Spiles are then tapped into the hole.  Spiles are the spout that will pour the sap from the tree into the gathering implement; buckets and lines are both common today. 

Over time, spiles have changed and evolved as sugaring has evolved.  Spiles began as primitive pieces of reed or concave bark.  Their basic function was to direct the flow of sap into the waiting container.  Spiles soon evolved into whittled pieces of wood that were simple in shape and had the same purpose.  As sugaring practices progressed, spiles started to be made of metal and small rings with hooks were developed to pair with them.  The hooks were added so the spile could support the gathering container; in these cases, sap buckets.  Galvanized spiles were developed with the hooks as part of their design.  In more recent times, plastic spiles are molded in shape to attach to pipelines instead of buckets.  Each evolution of the spile has allowed for a more efficient tapping processes, but has not changed the spile’s purpose: to direct sap out of the tree and into a waiting container. This important step in the sugaring process makes possible the delicious maple syrup we enjoy each spring!

In the year 2020, 36 cultural institutions from every corner of Vermont will collaborate on a suite of exhibitions and events on the theme 2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology.  Billings Farm & Museum will be participating through an installment of Windows to the Past and a Machine of the Month blog posting.  Billings Farm & Museum will reopen April 10th and 11th for our Baby Farm Animal Celebration.  Check in regularly for updates and details on what we have to offer!

The Winter Crop: Harvesting Ice

The Billings Farm ice harvest crew in 1890

By Emily Koetsier, Collections Manager

Welcome to the second installment in our year-long series, Machine of the Month. As January and February are Vermont’s two bitterest and coldest months, we are focused on the technology and tools of ice cutting. 

Winter has settled in and still has weeks before it lets go to warmer weather.  Farmers are idle without fields to tend, or are they?  In Vermont and the northeastern areas of the United States, farmers found a field that could be harvested during the coldest months, at least until refrigerators and freezers came to be.

The Billings Estate in the late 1800s had its own icehouse and access to a fresh water source; The Pogue on Mt. Tom.  The farmers that tended the fields spring to fall, found another field to harvest during January and February.  The ice that The Pogue produced was in their back yard and a downhill trip to the icehouse for storage.  The crew that worked The Pogue harvesting process numbered 20-30 men and used teams of horses from the farm.  The icehouse doubled as a storage space for the harvested ice and had a smaller room that could be used for cool storage for products such as the butter made by the farm.

Before even contemplating a harvest, the ice needed to be thick enough: 2 inches of ice can support a man, 4 inches are necessary to support a horse, and 5 inches to support a horse and equipment (Seavey, 2016).  Ten to fourteen inches of ice was optimal for harvesting; regular ice depth measurements were taken of the ice field by using an auger to drill a hole and inserting a measuring rod with graduated markings. 

Once the harvest got underway, there were a few key pieces of equipment that the men used.  Ice saws were used to hand cut the ice in to strips that were more manageable for later barring into smaller ice cakes.  The desired final ice cake dimension was 22 x 32 inches; a 12-inch thick ice cake weighed about 280 pounds while a 14-inch thick ice cake weighed about 320 pounds.  These hand cuts were previously grooved for easier cutting at widths of 22- or 33-inches, allowing the 4- to 5-foot-long saw to follow a straight path and break off the larger strips of ice.

The teeth of an ice saw were coarse and cut only on the down stroke.  Handles on the saws were perpendicular to the blade’s length, allowing for the sawyer to hold with two hands either side of the blade and keep themselves centered.  The motion the sawyer used was elliptical and an experienced sawyer could cut 1 linear inch of 12-inch-thick ice per stroke using most of the saw blade length (Seavey, 2016).  Working at 15 strokes a minute, a veteran sawyer could cut 75 feet of ice in an hour.

Another piece of equipment used during the harvest was a breaking bar.  Breaking bars had wedge-shaped blades, that when driven into the grooves in the ice strips could split the ice into the desired 22 x 32 inch ice cake.  The wielders of these breaking bars, barmen, would be stationed on a “bar bridge” that spanned the open channel and allowed for them to get the leverage needed.  They would drive their bar into the groove and apply a twisting force.  When the break bar was applied correctly, barmen were able to break the cakes off evenly and cleanly.  A clean break, and subsequently a clean cake, was better for storage.

For more information on icehouses, such as the one at Billings Farm & Museum, come check out our first installation of Windows to the Past, beginning Saturday, February 15th.  This exhibit will be a part of the Vermont Curators Group’s 2020 Vision Project: Seeing the World Through Technology.  In the year 2020, 36 cultural institutions from every corner of Vermont will collaborate on a suite of exhibitions and events on the theme 2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology.  Billings Farm & Museum will be participating through an installment of Windows to the Past and a Machine of the Month blog posting.  Check in regularly for updates and details on what we have to offer!

Works Cited:

Seavey, Aimee. “Cool Tradition: Its Crop Is No Longer Making Its Way to the Caribbean, but for One Maine Town, the Passing of Another New England Winter Is Marked, as It Has Been for Centuries, by the Harvesting of Ice.” Yankee, no. 1, 2016, p. 20. EBSCOhost,

Seymour, Jean, and Bud Seymour. “Ice Harvesting.” Historic Sodus Point, Sodus Bay Historical Society Newsletter, 3 Feb. 2020,

Sleigh Bells Ring: Are You Listening?

By Emily Koetsier, Collections Manager

Come, let us travel back 130 years or so, to the time before automobiles.  Now, imagine walking down a snowy street.  The walkways are tramped down by previous passer-by.  The road is turned and churned by horse hooves and sleigh runners.  The air is crisp and cool, holding the promise of more snow fall.  The shops are lit from within, scattered bits of conversation leaking out when doors are opened.  And tinkling chimes are heard all around; the chimes of sleigh bells.  Bells heralding the coming of a magnificent sleigh, carrying joyous folk and proud horses tacked with the ringing bells.

Bells have various uses and purposes and are as old as time; or at least as old as bronze.  An early bell shape is similar to that of cow bells you may have seen around.  They were shaped like a four-sided pyramid, or quadrangular.  They were made of two plates of iron that were bent to form a corner each and then pieced together with iron rivets and coated in bronze (Hatch 13).  There is an example of one such bell held at the National Museum of Ireland, known as the Clog-an-eadhacta Phatraic or “The Bell of the Will of St. Patrick.”  The legend of the bell is that the sound was so frightful that no snake would have remained in Ireland to listen to the racket St. Patrick would have been making with his Clog-an-eadhacta; especially if they were akin to snakes of oriental origin that were addicted to sweet sounding flute music (Hatch 14).

Alas, we have digressed from the topic of this post; sleigh bells.  Sleigh bells have a different origin, and little has changed from the first.  What we call a sleigh bell was first known as a Crotal.  Spherical in shape with small holes and a ball inside.  The ball was once made of stone but is more commonly metal today (Hatch 15).  Eric Hatch, in his book The Little Book of Bells, notes the longevity and purity of the Crotal bell:

“The Crotal is a true bell form and is the most ancient of all forms.  The marked resemblance between the ancient and modern Crotal is extraordinary.  I cannot think of any other object that was created thousands of years ago in a form so perfect that no one since has been able to find a way of improving it.” (15)

Sleigh bells have had many uses in the past and in modern times.  They became a symbol of status and wealth; decorations on horse harnesses ad tack to display the wealth of the owner.  They were also viewed as good luck charms and wards against evil, disease, and injury.  They also served as a warning to pedestrians and other travelers.  The bells gave an obvious and early warning that there was an oncoming sleigh, giving time for people to get out of the sleigh’s path.  This was important because sleighs were not able to stop quickly, so listening for the bells was a matter of safety.  Vendors using horse drawn conveyances also used bells to signal they were in the area, much like a modern ice cream truck.

Songs such as Jingle Bells and Sleigh Ride use sleigh bells for lyrics as well as instruments for the song.  James Lord Pierpont compose One Horse open Sleigh, more commonly known as Jingle Bells, in 1857.  The chorus of the song an example of onomatopoeia, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,” is one show case of sleigh bells and their sound.  Jingle Bells is making use of the bell sounds to demonstrate the joy and cheer that the sound brings in the wintertime.  Sleigh Ride also uses sleigh bell sounds in the lyrics, “Ring tingle tingling too.”  Sleigh Ride is using the sound of the bells to keep a couple ensconced on their sleigh ride, alone but for each other.  Another classic winter song with sleigh bells is, Winter Wonderland.  Here the lyrics prompt for walkers to listen for the sound of the bells.  This first line, “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” sets the scene and mood for the walkers, prompting happiness; but it is also a nod to listen for the warning of an oncoming sleigh.

In the year 2020, 36 cultural institutions from every corner of Vermont will collaborate on a suite of exhibitions and events on the theme 2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology.  Billings Farm & Museum will be participating through an installment of Windows to the Past and a Machine of the Month blog posting.  Check in regularly for updates and details on what we have to offer!

Works Cited

Hatch, Eric. The Little Book of Bells. First ed., Duell, Sloan, & Pearce, 1964.