Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eureka Moments Revisited Part 1, a Peek Inside a Gold Miner's Cabin Starts a Quest

Nice Digs, But What's Inside ?
Image Courtesy The Daguerreian Society
From the Collection of Matthew R. Isenburg

     While researching the lives of Gold Rush miners, I routinely find contemporary descriptions of what they needed to sustain life. Many journal keepers were constantly complaining about the inflated prices paid for basic necessities like food, clothing and mining tools. While I have a working knowledge of mid-19th century American / California material culture and might even conjure up a mental image of what they were writing about, in many cases, I'm just guessing. What I really want is a "visual" primary resource to help me understand and guide my choices for recreating their world. This post is about one of the better resources I've found.

William D. Peck in His Cabin
A Material Culture Gold Mine
Image Courtesy The Oakland Museum
Oakland California
     Period photographs are amazing documents but among surviving Gold Rush images, the relative absence of interior views leaves a gap in the record. Luckily, an upstate New York folk artist and lithographer by the name of Henry Walton, helped close that gap a little. Henry came to California, swept up in the "Rush" but still found time to ply his trade as an artist.

      His 1853 painting and subsequent lithograph of William D. Peck in his miner's cabin in Rough & Ready, California, is an amazing document of those elusive details and "stuff " of daily life. I have been studying this painting for years since I first saw it in Time /Life's The Old West series edition of "The Forty-Niners". I've seen the original print on display at the Oakland Museum but it's rather small and when I saw it last, hard to view. Lucky for me, thanks to the generosity of my friend Dwain Baughman, I have a very nice reprint of my own.

Close-up View #1
Top Shelf, Left to Right - Rolling Pin /?/ Tin Grater / Retort.

Second Shelf Down -  Wood & Tin Grater (?) /?/ /Spice Box /
Champagne Bottle /?/ Small Tin Cannister /  Large Tin
Cannister /?/  Ginger Jar (?)

Third Shelf Down - Flour or Pepper Box / Wooden Pantry
Box / Sugar or Flour Box /  Small Tin Kettle /  Wine Bottle /
Adam's Grinder / Stoneware Crock (?) / Crock With Loop
Handle and Knobbed Lid (?) / ? on Top of Crock

Close-up View #2
On the Floor,   Clockwise  From the Top of the Picture

Cast Iron Teakettle /  Large Tin Kettle /  Cast Iron Dutch
Oven /  Sheet Iron Frying Pan  /?/  Wash Bowl ( Gold Pan)

Here are a few pieces I've found so far.

My Top Shelf, View #1
Original Retort for Processing
Gold Amalgam


My Third Shelf, View #1
Left to Right, Reproduction Pantry Box, Flour Box and
Tin Kettle. Original Bordeaux Bottle and
 Adams Patented Grinder
      It's easy to be engrossed by the picture, as all the things that surround Mr. Peck are carefully rendered and as important to the portrait as the man himself. The array of objects bear witness to the simple miner's life, covering cooking needs, storage, bedding and mining. Mr. Walton's detailed study has challenged me to identify every element in the picture to the best of my ability, not just for the knowledge but for the purpose of replication or the purchase of similar examples ( what a surprise !). My goal is to display a recreation of the cabin's interior some day, somewhere. In the mean time, I'm just glad to be adding to the collection of objects towards that dream.

My View #2
Reproduction Tin Kettle, Original Dutch Oven,
Original Skillet, Reproduction Gold Pan

      It would be great if readers of this post would comment on what they think the various elements in the painting are. Some of them are pretty straight-forward and some not so. Feel free to voice an opinion or correct my assumptions, as any help would be greatly appreciated. Just remember that the date is 1853 and give it your best shot.


Tea Kettle From the Steamboat Arabia Collection
A Match to the Kettle in the Painting and On My
Wish List


19th-Century Ginger Jar
courtesy ehow images
Another One On My List
    I've included some late research on two objects in the picture. One is the Cast Iron Tea Kettle and the other is an Antique Ginger Jar that resembles the object at the far right of the Second Shelf. On with the quest !

Yeah !!! I just won this cast iron kettle in an online auction.
 It's a nice early one and very close to the one in the image.
One more for the collection !

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Replica of Patty Reed's Doll Celebrates the Courage of a Pioneer Girl

Patty Reed
A Few Years After the Tragedy
Image Courtesy donnerpartydiary.com

     Most people with an interest in Western American History, have heard about the Donner Party tragedy of 1846. Through a series of mishaps, wrong choices and pure bad luck, a Wagon Train of emmigrants, running late after taking Hasting's Cutoff to the California Trail, found themselves stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They were halted in their tracks by the onslaught of one of the worst winters on record. Earlier, as they approached the base of the mountains and knowing well what might lay ahead, it was agreed that everything deemed unecessary should be tossed to lighten the load on the wagons. Even the children were told to leave their toys and that's where this story begins. Nine year old Martha (Patty) Reed could not bear to throw away her little doll she called "Dolly" and secretly tucked it in her dress.

The Original "Dolly"
Photo Courtesy Sutter's Fort SHP
What a Sweetheart !

An Original Mid 19th-Century Peg Doll
Similar to "Dolly", Note the Details
Image From Online Auction
     After the entrapment was certain, the pioneers needed every ounce of courage and determination to face their pending fate. During the worst of what would follow, Patty Reed's love for her little "Dolly" helped her through the months of near starvation and kept her from despair. In the end, 41 people died and 46 were rescued.

     Patty was one of the lucky ones and ended up living a full life in California to the ripe old age of 85. During her entire life, she never parted with her little "Dolly" and in the end, generously willed it to the State of California. It's been one of the most visited relics at Sutter's Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento since the 1940's. It left the State briefly in 1996 to be featured as part of the Smithsonian's "1846 Portrait of the Nation" exhibit. That's how important this tiny doll is. California 4th graders who read Rachel Kelley's "Patty Reed's Doll, The Story of the Donner Party" and are lucky enough to visit the Fort, consider seeing the tiny plaything as the high-point of their trip.

My Replica "Dolly"
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

Another View, Note the Hair
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     My wife has always been fond of  Patty's little peg-doll "Dolly" and her history, which is all the motivation I needed to surprise her with a replica.  A peg-wooden or peg doll is a category of historic dolls based on a construction detail that involves tiny wooden pegs to hold the joints of arms and legs. In the past I had made a couple of similar dolls but I wanted this replica to be as faithful to the original as I could make it. After a visit to the Fort, I learned a little more about the doll's details, having a chance to see her from the side. I'm still unsure if her head is Papier Mache and molded or just carved wood with a coat of Gesso. I decided to go with the gesso, as the doll's clothing hides the evidence of a shoulder plate ala a molded head. The only other info I had is that she is 3 1/2" to 3 3/4" long depending on who you believe. She is a funny little thing with her ungraceful clubby arms and her simple garments but her appeal is undeniable and her importance to our history unquestionable. I hope the viewer enjoys the way my replica turned out. My wife certainly does.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Two Essentials in the Quest for Fire and a Matchsafe with a Twist

The Original "Kindle"
Image Courtesy Camp Augusta
    Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated with the ancient practice of creating fire from a spark. I can still remember as a boy scout, watching my Dad start a fire from a piece of flint and a file. He would make charcloth from cotton flannel by igniting a scrap and then smothering it in a shoe polish tin. After showering it with sparks, the now smoldering scrap would be surrounded with fine shavings and gently blown into a flame. Dear old Dad had nothing against matches but he had every intention of infecting me with the "wonder" of primitive firemaking.

    Even as late as the mid-19th century, when matches were commonly available, people still relied on flint and steel as a fire source. It just makes sense when you consider a little dampness can render matches useless. When I'm at a Gold Rush living history event, I always have a proper flint and steel kit in my belongings and since I'm an early riser at sleep-over events, that morning fire is my baby. For me it's just fun once in awhile to start a fire in a way that takes me back to my childhood but also reminds me of our self-reliant ancestoral past.

Original Flint Striker
Image Source Online Auction
My Replica Flint Striker

     Several years ago, I stumbled on an interesting 19th-century variation of a flint-striker that I felt would be fun to reproduce. The steel is suspended on a rod from the bottom of a gusseted, leather pouch. The pouch was no doubt intended to hold the flint. The original example had needlework panels on both sides, which certainly elevated it beyond the ordinary. For my replica, I chose a plainer path but kept it faithful to the original form, including the cord loop closure and early waistcoat brass button. For the steel, I ground and polished a scrap of an old file. For the steel's suspension loops, I shaped a tab at each end and then after the tabs were annealed, they were bent into loops. I think it turned our nicely and it's a pleasure to use, as the pouch gives you something to grip while you strike the steel with the flint.
Original Tinder Horn
Image Courtesy the Penlee House

My Replica Tinder Horn
With Tinder Fungus and Brimstone Matches
     There's an ongoing discussion these days as to which tinder is period appropriate. Charcloth is out and organic plant matter is in. Lately I've been experimenting with some tinder fungus I purchased from Jas. Townsend & Son. but I'm also interested in ways to store and keep that tinder dry. I'm sure any period style, moisture resistant box with a tight lid would suffice but I was intrigued by what is called a "tinder horn". Just like it sounds, it's basically a section of cowhorn with a plug at one end and a large cork at the other. How simple is that ? Luckily I found a photo of an original on line and similar containers are illustrated in Neumann and Kravic's "Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution".

Original Matchsafe on the Left
My Replica on the Right

      Last in this post is my matchsafe with a twist. Mid 19th-century tin matchsafes are pretty common as many have survived but this particular version has an extra feature. I've always wanted one of these since I saw the first one in "Antique Tin & Tole Ware" by Mary Earle Gould. It's a matchsafe with a fold-out candleholder. Pretty darn sweet.  A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to purchase an original from an online auction. This opportunity gave me the chance to make a careful replica. With such a small candle, it must have been intended as an emergency light, maybe to help you find your way to the privy or something like that. Either way it was a fun and challenging little piece of tin work with three hinges and lots of tiny bends.  It really comes in handy when I'm crawling into my tent in the dark mumbling let there be "period correct" light !!