A Step Back in Time

I have to tell you, I admire people who create things, really cool things, like gunpowder and pantyhose, people who’ve figured out how to harness water to make energy, to run machines and make wrinkle free clothes.  Scientists, I bow to you.

My mind just doesn’t work that way.  I can’t comprehend things likes sound waves and telephones and radios.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand how these things work in theory, yet, I don’t really understand how voices travel through wires, or how broadcast signals can be turned into images.  It’s definitely not something I would ever imagine. Thankfully, there are people in this world who can and do.

A visit, yesterday, to the Hagley Museum in Delaware, got me thinking about all this. It’s a really neat place.  The grounds are beautiful and the history interesting. The DuPonts, the powerhouse inventors that they were (and now employ), have created everything from gunpowder to pantyhose, to Teflon, to practically everything in an astronauts space suit, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Much to little lady’s delight, they sponsor Jeff Gordon, too.  

On the grounds of Hagley, is the well preserved house of the gun powder mill foreman, John Gibbons. The tour, given I’m sure, by one of those unpaid interns that The Sunday Morning show highlighted, took us through the small house that was home to eight people, six children and their parents.

On the ground floor of the house, was the kitchen and a laundry room.  The kitchen was interesting in that the stove, a true workhorse, served as the hot water heater, iron warmer and general heater for the whole house.  It’s simplicity, yet utter usefulness, left me thinking about how wasteful we’ve become. We now have, at least five things that need electricity, to do the job of that one stove.

Now, lest you think I’m romanticizing the past, let me tell you a quick story that happens to correlate with my visit to Hagley.  The morning before we left, I had a plumber in the house looking at my sink, you know the vomiting sink, that smells terrible.  Well, in the most non-judgemental way possible, he told me that I was using my garbage disposal just a tad too much, which in his opinion, meant at all.  As a plumber and a son of a plumber, he was against garbage disposals. He said food, no matter how small it’s ground up, is not meant to be flushed down the pipes.

I listened politely and then said, “I’m not giving up my garbage disposal.  Can you fix it?” Because while I admire the resourcefulness of the 1800’s, I’m not ready to go back in time, ever.

From the tour, I’m also inclined to think that weight problems were probably not an issue during the 1800’s.  The refrigerator, no bigger than a large cardboard box, left no room for storage, though, with the absence of a grocery store, I guess one was not storing much. All I can say, is if I feel like I’m on a never ending hamster wheel of feeding and cleaning up after my family, and that’s with all my energy hogging appliances and vomiting garbage disposal, I can’t imagine what these women must have felt making every meal from scratch and washing every dish by hand, all while feeding wood into a stove all day. Can you say cereal for dinner?

The other room in the downstairs of the house was dedicated to laundry, another rigorous, mind-numbing task.  The children were asked to take turns.  The novelty of the machine prompting one of the children (not mine) on the tour to say, “This is so much cooler than how we do laundry.”  To which the guide said, “I don’t know if you would feel that way after eight hours.”  To which I thought, Amen sister!  As a boy, he probably wouldn’t have had anything to do with the laundry anyway.  No, he would probably be out working in the mills from morning to night, lucky bastard.

Needless to say, these people weren’t wearing clean clothes everyday, or changing outfits mid-day, or throwing their clothes around, walking around half naked, like some people I know. It must have been a neat, yet, stinky house for sure.

Which makes me wonder, why was it that they could figure out how to harness water’s energy to make gears work, to in turn make machines work, so that they could make money supplying the US government with half of the gunpowder it used, but nobody could figure out a better way to do laundry? (And furthermore, was it really necessary to do all this work in a long skirt?)  Surely, if one of the DuPont men had been given the task of laundry, I have a feeling something would have been invented a little sooner than 1874, when William Blackstone presented his wife with a little machine he made, that actually washed away the dirt, for her birthday.  Now that’s true love!

After we walked up the small, dangerously narrow stairs to the master shoebox/nursery and sitting room, (we weren’t allowed in the scary, supposedly haunted attic, where all the children slept), I couldn’t help but think, how did everyone survive in this space. Were the children fighting over who was going to play the organ next, knocking over oil lamps?  Was it a fight for chairs?  Were they running back and forth asking for batteries and screwdrivers for every toy they own, ripping cushions off the couch having pillow fights?  I think not.  I need to know, exactly what the hell was going on in those living rooms?

I get it, everyone, including most of the children, worked all the time, and I’m sure spent a lot of time outside, so they were exhausted.  Which then left me to wonder, if the people of that time really had it so wrong? Maybe work is the answer, maybe kids need a job.  If it would stop my kids from fighting, I’m in.

I also wonder if people were happy back then, without their iPods and computers and giant tv’s?  Or, was Mrs. Gibbons saying, if I have to crank this laundry machine one more time, I’m going to shoot myself?  Everyone can do their own damn laundry.  Or, did she find solace in the monotony of the crank, crank, crank?  Somehow, I think the former.

Of course, you know who was probably really happy?  The DuPonts.  I’m pretty sure they weren’t out there working the mines, though I could be wrong, and I’m sure their wives weren’t doing the laundry.  I will say that the DuPonts were benevolent people, paying for the children of their workers to go to school (and the feathers and ink they used for writing), one day a week, Sunday, when they weren’t working, and the Gibbons lived in their house for free, a perk of being a foreman.  But still, it pays to be the inventor.

…Here’s some more pictures, for my sister, who was off enjoying a mini-vacation for her birthday. Happy Birthday!  Next year, I want to make it to the big house, the Dupont quarters.  The grounds are large and our five, non-working (spoiled) children haven’t been able to make it that far yet!This one, ever the fashionista, refused to wear sneakers!  And from what I hear, is secretly happy that her aunt, after insisting that she at least bring her sneakers with the understanding that I would carry them, just in case, accidentally took them home with her.  Her sister, hand on hip, is following in her footsteps!

One thought on “A Step Back in Time

  1. Thanks for the pictures – it was great seeing what you guys did when we were gone. I have thought all the same things that you wrote about from a time long ago especially after I have spent a long day outside working in the yard. But then I think, I’m doing this for pleasure and some maintenance but it’s not my everyday, working life. And I would definitely miss air conditioning!

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