Ingenuity can take so many forms, and I encountered several today in my adventures in New Jersey. The Canal Day celebration in Historic Waterloo Village gave me the impetus to finally make it to the Stickley and Automaton Museums. What ingenuity all.
I started by touring the recreated Lenni Lenape village on the same grounds as the Waterloo Village, getting a sense of their ingenuity. An elk shoulder bone becomes a hoe. Clay becomes the longhouse. If you’re looking for a gift for your mother, look no further than a long, flat stone. It makes a wonderful griddle. The Three Sisters take care of the Lenni Lenape. Beans, corn, and squash are the Three Sisters. Corn grows tall and strong, beans give a hug, and squash can go a long time without water.
Canal Day turns out to be an opportunity to see the rescue of a mostly intact historic village, left to fall to pieces. Recent state money gives this place a chance, and I have my fingers crossed.
I arrived early, so didn’t have to fight any crowds at the festival, which included a pontoon boat ride on the canal. The village is at the midpoint of the 102.5 mile Morris Canal that opened in 1831 and stretched from the Hudson to the Delaware River. Great shortcut for moving goods through the early Republic, so fortunes were at the ready.
One fellow, Smith, owned the smithy, the hotel, the general store, and the grist and saw mills, so basically the entire village. He showed off his wealth by building a Victorian-style mansion, see above.
By the Civil War and its aftermath, the town was booming. Sharon Kuechelmann told me how the Smith women would want to be seen in the latest fashions. You can see the gorgeous dress she’s wearing, advertising her seamstress skills.
I didn’t realize that Singer had been around since 1851. The better story comes with the ingenuity of Elias Howe, Jr., who patented an interlocking stitch accomplished on a machine. When he didn’t have much luck selling his invention in the US, he went to Europe, and found all kinds of patent infringement, including by Singer, upon his return. His successful suit resulted in an award of $25 for every sewing machine sold by all the makers, until the patent expired. There is some justice in the world.
Singer became the thing because, when sewing machines could cost $100 and the average annual wage was $500, how could anyone afford a machine? Singer initiated the installment plan, like the first credit card. Still Sharon prefers her White Rotary, less temperamental. It sews like “greased glass,” she tells me. it will sew any weight or thickness, even carpet, compared to a contemporary plastic model. The vintage works much better.
And here’s the Mary Potts iron. New to me, as I don’t believe in ironing, but the Mary Potts makes a lot of sense. She invented the removable wood handle. So now, you can heat up your four or five irons on the fire, all at the same time, and attach your cool wooden handle and work right through all the irons you got hot. Pretty clever time saver, Mary Potts! Perfect for cotton, not so great for polyester, as you can’t control the heat on a Mary Potts. Keep that in mind when you’re ironing, but still, pretty ingenious.
Gustav Stickley was clever, too. His simple craftsmen furniture answered a need after a typhoid epidemic. Turns out, the streamlined furniture was easy to keep clean. Very appealing. He had a hit on his hands, and along with clever merchandising–the catalog–he created beautiful and affordable furniture that made him a wealthy man.
Not far from Waterloo Village is the Stickley Museum, the house and 650 acres Stickley intended as a boys school–his way of giving back. There, students would get general education, yes, but also learn a craft. They’d never be without a way to earn a living. Great idea, except tuition was $1000 per student. Yes, really! Mr. Stickley was none too clever with money, as evidenced by the outrageous tuition, so he never got the school going. Instead he moved his family into the house he designed and built, while continuing to commute into Manhattan for his showroom, store, and restaurant.
Soon his working farm there was generating vegetables, fruit, eggs, and cheese for the restaurant, carted to the city seven days a week.
The house and land were meant as Stickley’s own Utopia, and he did wander in the woods each day after working in New York. He had a communal dream of a Craftsman Village. But money literally doesn’t grow on trees, or in fields, and five years after moving in, in 1916, Stickley went bankrupt. The end of the dream.
The house and land were sold for $100,000, and apparently, oppressed by that dark interior that was so Stickley, the new owners whitewashed the log walls. It took the restorers five years to remove that whitewash and resurrect Stickley’s vision of bringing the outdoors inside. Each window is framed like a picture frame, with views that change seasonally. No art adorns the walls and isn’t needed with the captured nature. The color palette of brown, gold, and green was deepened by the lighting strategy of using 20 watt bulbs to simulate candlelight. I can tell you, on this bright day, the current 60 watt bulbs still make for a dim interior.
It is evocative though of the Craftsman style that is Stickley, a man as obsessive about details as Frank Lloyd Wright. He dictated the color palette, all the furniture, and its placement in his four daughters’ bedroom they shared. But they must have tolerated it because they had their own private bathroom–a happy luxury!
I liked how each room, long and narrow, was multipurpose. One featured the library, parlor, and sitting room. The other the dining room, serving area, and the Inglenook for relaxing, all in one. The furniture was all available for sale in his catalog or the showroom. An Eastman Chair went for $58.50 in the catalog. Today? Shwew!
I liked the high-backed ‘settle’, which I guess was meant to settle into, in front of the fire, with the high back holding in the heat. The $3 per year subscription to Craftsman magazine came with a free set of blueprints for a Stickley house. Seems like a good deal to me!
It was Stickley’s shop mark Als ik Kan, or All I Can, from either the Dutch or Flemish, that spoke most to me. As good a mantra as I can imagine–to do All I Can.
Our demonstration started with a bit of chronology. Although music boxes had been around for centuries, only royalty could afford them. By the early 1800s, clock and watch shops got into making pipe or barrel organs, so that now a great mass of wealthy people could have music on demand.
Here you see the drum or barrel of the organ, the brass cylinder, that has pin holes meticulously drilled in by hand, generally by women. Hand cranking operates the bellows that rotates the drum over a steel-toothed comb. Got that? I can tell you, this London-made music box still sounds great, 200 years later, with its pipes, triangle, and drum. Take a listen:
The sound can be altered with the stops. So by “pulling out all the stops” (get it?), you get full sound.
Innovations continued, so that the size decreased, and elements were mass produced bringing the price down some. By the 1880s, this German disc music box cost $285 at the time. Still a lot of money.
Still using a windup start, now we have a punched metal disc. With “all the bells and whistles.” Guess who got an idea from the removable discs? Yes, Thomas Edison, and the phonograph goes a long way to putting the music box world out of business.
Not to worry. By 1900, you could get an organette, widely available by saving your soap box tops or for $3.50 in the Sears Roebuck catalog. Top of the line? $15.
The French have a different idea. They produce one-of-a-kind, competition, living dolls. Yes, automatons were popular for the elite of Paris from about 1850 to 1900, and collectors vied to get these unique pieces. The makers were from clock and watch stores, no longer competing with factory-made, music box manufacturers. Now they vied to top each other with popular motifs like street performers, magicians, animals, ‘exotic’ foreigners, royalty made into monkeys, and fairy tale figures.
Some had music, some not. But each is a work of art in and of itself. I was mesmerized by each one.
Here’s a modern automaton that shows a bit of how they work. For those of you watching “Humans” this summer, you’ll be interested in the fact that these figures, these living dolls are precursors to robots.
Which takes us to the most intricate of robotics. Here’s an 1890s trapeze artist. All the ‘energy’ runs up a rung of the ladder to the shoulder. Pretty incredible.
And the sketch artist, who turns his book to us to show us what he’s done, then proceeds to sketch you.
The tour wrapped with a look at some of the larger Fair Organs and learning how they work by peeking inside. This Limonaire Brothers organ, with 115 pipes, is only 5′ across. One in a private Connecticut home is 30′ across. Yikes. Still, you can tell how loud this one is. To work outside, the punch roller is replaced by the sturdier, thick punch card book, featuring only one song. Now electric, the organ works by feeding the book through to read the punch card. Now start thinking computer.
I know the video is dark, but hopefully you get a sense of just how fun this and all the other wonders of this day were. Ingenuity is everywhere. Als ik Kan. A call for us to do All We Can to create and bring our genius to the world!