Connections to the Past
Mailing a letter to log cabins
I have heard it said many times there is nothing new under the sun. While this statement is not literally correct, it is understandable, and I acquired my understanding when I began teaching school. The students were always asking questions like, “How is this information going to help me?” Or, “How will I use this?” It is at times like these that teachers have to make connections, that is, they have to find parallels in common everyday matters where they can show knowing this information will come in handy. It is probably easier for math teachers to make these connections than for history and social study teachers. Learning what went on one or two hundred years ago seems on the surface to have little relation to today. I have found that there are very real connections easily made making history relevant.
Let’s look at things in our daily life that connect to history. Matters like mailing a letter, the post office or mail box, the general store, log cabins, livery stables, automobile rental agencies, parking garages, fire alarms, fire plugs, and Grey Hound busses connect some things today with our history. After making these connections we can answer the question, is there is really anything new under the sun?
Did you ever wonder where the word post office, mailbox, or postman originated? Mail was sent years ago by horse and rider to and from the farms and cities. There was a horse and rider, and perhaps several that covered a postal route to collect and deliver mail. Someplace in our pioneer past, often near a cross road, there would be placed a sturdy post sunk deep into the ground. On the post would be a box where mail that was to be sent would be picked up by the horseman, known as a postman because of the posts to which he rode along his route. Mail that was to be sent would be left in the box, and mail that was placed there by the postman would be received. As time went on mail became an increasingly important matter; and, as schools were built and more people could read and write, post offices came into being. The postman could pick up letters for people on his route where they were presorted for him, and he could then deliver to the farms themselves. He left the mail in the private mail box similar to what we have today, or sometimes at general stores where people collected their mail. These general stores were the first rural post offices. Even if he had no mail to deliver, if the flag on a box was up the postman stopped to pick up a letter. Even today we still say post office boxes, post offices, and postmen, and we call the stamps we put on letters postage, all of which derives from a box on a post where letters could be sent and received during colonial times. Slowly we are replacing the term postman with mailman.
The general store came into being to supply rural communities with things they couldn’t make or procure on the farm. Coffee, Coal Oil, certain canned goods, some tools and farm implements, coffin liner, needles and thread, stoves, metal buckets, tubs and the like as well as some tools were products the general stores provided. Many general stores became the first post offices. General stores sold dried meat, hams, and cheese as well as crackers and pickles stored in barrels. Stick candy was carried as well as tobacco products. Rolling papers were carried because there were no factory made cigarettes. When I was a child there was usually a gas pump in front of the general store. It had a glass tube marked in gallons, and you pumped a lever that would fill the tube by the gallon. You would pump the liquid to the desired level, place the nozzle of the hose in your gas tank, and turn a switch and gravity would let the gas flow into your car. A refrigerated case would hold cold cuts and cheese, and the store would make you a sandwich. Today the general store is scarce, but the parallel connection is the convenience store. There are gas pumps in front of them and you can always buy stamps and money orders at them. Their product line is changed, but sandwiches and other food stuff is there and while they are more plentiful than the general stores, they are usually situated at a crossroad or other prominent intersection. Many of them will make you a sandwich, and although cigarette tobacco may not be found, rolling papers often are. I guess not much difference really.
When I mention log cabins and their modern connection, the first thing that comes to mind are the new big log homes built today, but that’s not the connection. Today’s log houses only imitate the log cabins and they take as much time to build as a modern brick house, three months or more. Log cabins began to dot Meade County, indeed all of Kentucky, during the 1700’s. They were built for two reasons: Firstly they could be built by a three or four man construction team, with one horse or mule and a few wood working tools, and completed and moved into within a week. They were quick to build, and the materials coming from the land on which they were built, made them economical. The floors were often hard packed dirt or puncheons (boards split from logs). There were seldom windows, and most cabins were held together by the weight of the logs. An open door served as an air conditioner, and the fireplace in one end of the cabin served as the furnace and cook stove. The need for quick low-cost housing has never been greater than it is today. So what is the parallel connection?
Today the prefabricated mobile home is our closest type of housing that satisfies the basic need of the original log cabins. Mobile homes are prefabricated and can be moved onto property ready to accept them in a matter of days, not months. Because they are made on a mass produced basis with standard floor plans they represent a lower cost dwelling. Over years the mobile home may not hold up as well as a conventional house, and will need repair and maintenance. So did the log cabins. The point is that for a starter home, or people who need a new house in a hurry can purchase one and set it up on their property. When I see a mobile home setting on a farm lot, I think about how things have evolved from one form of dwelling to another, but the reason for the dwelling is the same in 2015 as it was in 1770, speed of construction and economy.
Livery Stables, firefighting, to mass transportation
In making connections to the past you must think about what existed in history to satisfy a need, and contrast that with how we satisfy that need today. For example we drive cars and trucks for transportation. In bygone times, not that long off people rode horses and used horse drawn wagons. When you got off a train in town, and had miles to go to get to your final destination, you went to the livery stable where there would be horses for rent as well as buggies and wagons. The livery stable was the Hertz or Avis auto rental agency of their day, but a little more than that. If you were going to leave a town by railroad and you had to ride your horse or drive your buggy to get to the train station, you would board your horse at the livery where it would be fed and watered. On your return you would claim your horse and equipment, pay the boarding fee, and ride back home. How is this different from airport parking lots today? The only significant difference is that the automobile does not require food and water as did the horse. Thus, the parallel connection is made between the livery and the parking lot and car rental agencies today. While different, it is the same principle at work.
Fire alarms and fire plugs deserve some special mention when we connect them to today’s fire alarms and modern fire hydrants. Farm houses were situated on acreage often 160 acres called a homestead. Different quarters of the property were called the north 40 or south 40 or the east or west 40. The houses or cabins would often be placed on high ground, near the center of the property and an iron bell would be placed on a post in the yard. The bell when rung could be heard on neighboring farms. When there was a fire the bell would be rung continuously to call the men in from the fields and neighboring farms to fight the fire. Buckets of water would be passed along a line of volunteers to quench the fire. There is still a bell ringing at the firehouses and on the fire trucks today, although a blaring horn is often used as well. Very little has changed from the 1700’s with the exception of the modern equipment including the water mains and fire hydrants. Before the invention of fire hydrants there were fire plugs and fire cisterns.
The cities had buildings very close together, sometimes abutting each other. Except for small back yards, the rear of the buildings and houses faced an alley, commonly used for deliveries and garbage removal. Commercial buildings fronted on a sidewalk. Houses usually had a very small front yard and there was no way for a well to be dug for each building. Therefore, early on in cities like Louisville water mains were made from hollowed logs and buried on the south and west sides of streets and roads. Other utilities like natural gas and buried cables are on the east and north sides. These logs were drilled and tapped with threads. Water lines of lead or iron were screwed into the threads and run to the house or business. For this service you paid a tapping fee.
For fire protection, at intervals spaced along the wooden water mains, a larger hole was drilled into the hollow-log-water main. A wooden plug was hammered into the hole, and the wooden pipe and plug were buried. Once the plug was covered about two or three feet deep, a wooden post was driven into the ground to mark the place. The top of this post was painted red. This stake marked the location of the fire plug. The firemen’s first duty was to take shovels and uncover the plug. They knocked the plug out of the hole and the excavation filled with water. The pumper pumped by hand, with one end of its hose in the excavated hole and the other end with the nozzle held by the fireman, streamed water onto the fire. Today, located along iron mains, at about the same intervals, modern fire hydrants with valves that can be turned on and off, have been installed. Many people call these hydrants fire plugs even today. Brick lined cisterns were also installed at various intersections and storm water could be pumped from them onto a fire if one was close enough. Today our volunteer firemen still use private cisterns to save a house from burning. Have things really changed that much? Not really.
Lastly let’s discuss the matter of mass transportation. Today we have modern busses that carry us long distances from city to city, county to county, and state to state. The reason to use mass transportation today is not really different than the reason people required it one or two hundred years ago. Reasons to use mass transportation include not having an automobile or, in times past a horse, in sufficient shape to make the trip, the cost of a ticket is usually less than the cost of driving yourself and the driver knows the way and gets you there on time.
How did people 100 to 200 years ago satisfy this need? What is the parallel connection? In many parts of the United States the “stage coach” lines ran until the early 1900’s. They were the mass transportation of the time. You bought a ticket at the stage station, sometimes in a hotel, and as the horses needed water, rest or food, the stage would make periodic stops that provided that need and a respite for the passengers. Most coaches could offer a ride to six or eight passengers. The stage coach, made regular runs, and there was always one on which to ride. When I sometimes see a bus I think back to the time when they were horse drawn. In the cities open sided horse drawn trollies were employed to move people to and from places. These trollies were changed to overhead electrical powered vehicles in the late 1800’s and were in use until sometime in the 1940’s. I was born in 1945, and as a child, I rode on an old trolley a few times. These trollies gave way to the first city busses, which employed the same overhead electric lines. There was a pole affixed to the bus that connected to an overhead-electric line feeding electricity to a motor that powered the trolley and bus. Soon, after WWII the buses were fitted with gasoline or diesel engines. Now, once again, they are being replaced by battery powered electric motors. The major change in our mass transportation has been the replacement of the horse. So, when you see a city bus or a Grey Hound, remember these are just upgraded versions of the old stage coach.
To answer the question, “Is there really anything new under the Sun,” the answer must be yes and no, but the question really should be have our basic needs over the centuries changed? The answer to that is no! The manner in which we satisfy our needs of supplying ourselves with food, clothing and shelter have changed, but the need remains. I am sometimes amused when I visit a museum and watch and listen to the people as they comment over the exhibits and remark on how primitive our ancestors were. Not so! At one point in human development the first chipped stone spear point was a technological breakthrough that rivals the splitting of the atom today. Everything we have evolved from that ancient invention. We really aren’t as advanced as we think, our means of solving our basic needs have changed, but as a people we’re just as needy. The reputed last wild Indian in America was Ishi, a California Yana Indian. Ishi, who in the early 1900’s could not speak English, was amazed by all of our, then, modern inventions, and though impressed, he was surprised at how little we actually knew. He considered us as we would view very bright children, smart but not wise. All of this makes you wonder how much wisdom has been lost as we have advanced technologically, and what new means to satisfy an end will come next. I can’t wait to see, but I hope we don’t lose more wisdom in the process. GWF