Little House in the Archeology Lab: How Laura Ingalls Wilder Made Me a Historical Archeologist

I would embarrass myself if I tried to explain here exactly how much I love the Little House books.  I read them when I was eight years old, am reading them again now 30 years later, and have read them about a hundred times in between.  It’s a different experience as an adult.  I understand the historical, social, and economic context in which Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her stories.  I am also aware of devastating family tragedies that she purposefully left out of her books.  Nevertheless, for me and many other readers, the magic of these books is timeless:  I am a forever fan.

wilder wikimedia commons

Laura Ingalls Wilder ca. 1894.  Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite things about Wilder’s stories is her detailed, loving references to the family’s stuff – the few, cherished material things that accompanied them throughout their travels, hardships, and triumphs.  Think of Pa’s fiddle, which sang the girls to sleep in the snug cabin in the Big Woods and under the stars on the open prairie.  Or the red-checkered tablecloth, which, when placed on the table in any of the family’s dwellings, provided the final step in making a house a home.  And of course Ma’s precious china shepherdess, always on a shelf out of reach, Ma’s single bit of finery in a rustic pioneer world.   As Wilder wrote in On the Banks of Plum Creek, “Ma allowed no one else to touch the shepherdess” (315).  If you love these books like I do, you know these objects well.  To me, they are infused with such personality and importance by Wilder’s writing that they become characters in the stories just as much as Ma, Pa, and their girls.

fiddle

Pa plays his fiddle as Mary and Laura look on in Little House in the Big Woods. Illustration by Garth Williams, image source listed at end of post.

Thankfully, Pa’s fiddle is preserved today at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.  I don’t know what’s become of the checkered tablecloth or the china shepherdess, and finding out would require detective work that is beyond the scope of this post.  (But oh, what fun that would be!)  What I do know, however, is that many artifacts similar to those written about in the Little House books are preserved in your National Park Service archeology collections.  As I read through the books this time around, I find myself coming across references to many objects that I have encountered at work in the NMSC archeology lab.  Butter molds, tin cups, picket pins, shoe buttons…I am lucky in that because of my work I can clearly picture these items as I read their names on the page.  And because of Wilder’s vivid descriptions of their appearance, use, and necessity, the books help me to better appreciate and understand these wonderful, commonplace objects within the context of modest 19th-century home life.

Thimbles

The Ingalls family made do with very little, and Laura and Mary enjoyed playing with things like pigs’ bladders, corn husks, and Ma’s thimbles.  “Laura and Mary were allowed to take Ma’s thimble and make pretty patterns of circles in the frost on the glass.” (Little House in the Big Woods, page 27)

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Brass thimbles from the archeology collection at Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

 

Milk Pans

Although meals were simple and often modest, Wilder’s writing portrays the family’s gratefulness for and delight in Ma’s resourceful cooking.  “In the middle of the table she set a milk-pan full of beautiful brown baked beans.”  (On the Banks of Plum Creek, page 338)

National Park Service

Redware milk pan from the archeology collection at Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

 

Bullets

Laura and Mary loved to sit and watch when Pa made his bullets.  You don’t associate bullet production with cozy, fire-side family time?  Wilder’s writing may change your mind.    “First he melted the bits of lead in the big spoon held in the coals. When the lead was melted, he poured it carefully from the spoon into the little hole in the bullet-mold. He waited a minute, then he opened the mold, and out dropped a bright new bullet onto the hearth.”   (Little House in the Big Woods, pages 45-46)

bullet sama

Lead bullet from archeology collection at Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Buttons

Mary and Laura were in awe of Ma and their aunts when the women donned their fancy clothes for the dance in the Big Woods.  How, after reading these words, could a button ever again be just a button? “Aunt Docia’s dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it. The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them.”  (Little House in the Big Woods, page 140)

BERRY BUTTON

We found this image online while searching for a blackberry button. This button is not from an NPS archeology collection. Image source listed at end of post.

Although we’ve never come across a blackberry button in the lab, we have seen quite a few very special, beautiful buttons from NPS archeology collections that were undoubtedly admired by other 19th-century little girls.

Sleigh Bells

The Ingalls family relied on their horse-drawn sleigh for getting around the Big Woods in the wintertime.  “The horses shook their heads and pranced, making the sleigh bells ring merrily, and away they went on the road through the Big Woods to Grandpa’s.”  (Little House in the Big Woods, page 132)

IMG_0048

Sleigh bells from the archeology collection at Saratoga National Historical Park.  Want to learn more?  Check out our 2012 post.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

 

Nails

We come across a lot of 19th-century, machine-cut nails here in the lab.  They may not look glamorous or exciting, but Wilder reminds us that they were a precious commodity for many Americans.  When Pa lost a nail while building their home in Kansas, “Mary and Laura watched it fall and they searched in the grass till they found it. Sometimes it was bent.  Then Pa carefully pounded it straight again.  It would never do to lose or waste a nail.”  (Little House on the Prairie page 126)

nails hamp

19th-century machine-cut nails from the archeology collection at Hampton National Historic Site. Photo by NMSC staff.

 

Dishes

Blue transfer-ware was extremely popular during the second half of the 19th century. Maybe a “crackling little pig” doesn’t sound appetizing to you for Christmas dinner (and I’m with you there), but can’t you just see this blue platter?  “He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth.” (Farmer Boy, page 324)

 

comb mary

 

Illustration by Garth Williams.

 

Combs

Pa brought home small gifts for the family whenever he ventured to town for supplies.  On his return from Independence, Kansas, he brought the girls combs for their hair.  “They were made of black rubber and curved to fit over the top of a little girl’s head.  And over the top of the comb lay a flat piece of black rubber, with curving slits cut in it, and in the very middle of it, a little five-pointed star was cut out.  A bright colored ribbon was drawn underneath, and the color showed through…they laughed with joy.  They had never seen anything so pretty.”  (Little House on the Prairie pages 270-271)

 

comb lowell

Celluloid hair comb from the archeology collection at Lowell National Historical Park. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.  Why is this comb a little sad? Check out 2014 blog post about deterioration of celluloid and natural rubber.

 

I like to think of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kind of literary historical archeologist, bringing to light and celebrating the wonderful minutia of everyday life.  I firmly believe that my own love for old things – and especially those used and cherished by everyday, hardworking people – was fostered in great part by her careful, attentive writing about the material culture she grew up with.  Thank you, Mrs. Wilder, for bringing the past so clearly and colorfully alive for children (and grown ups!) everywhere, and for introducing my little eight-year-old self to the wonders of historical archeology.

 

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About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
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19 Responses to Little House in the Archeology Lab: How Laura Ingalls Wilder Made Me a Historical Archeologist

  1. Thank you for the great post. The shepherdess is lost. My understanding is that after Ma died, Mary went to live with Carrier and her family in South Dakota. When Mary died, Carrie inherited the house in DeSmet and its contents. A lot of the contents, including the shepherdess, were stored in a bedroom and locked up, and then the house was rented out. All of this happened long before Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote and published her Little House books and before the Ingalls family became famous. Over time, a lot of the contents were lost, sold, etc.

    • JessicaC says:

      Thank you for this history, Ruby! How sad to learn that many of these objects have been lost. We’re so glad that you enjoyed our post and hope you will stay tuned to our blog!

  2. Jill offidani showell says:

    It was great to read your post about the material culture of the Ingalls family. I loved the stories too and still do. Great blog! Thanks!

  3. Melanie says:

    What a lovely post, Jessica! Ruby is correct about the inheritance of the house in DeSmet going to Carrie (and Laura). Much of its contents were given away or discarded. In 1924, Caroline died, and shortly after, Mary went across South Dakota to live in Keystone, SD with Carrie. Mary died in 1928. At that point, Carrie and Laura were the only members of the immediate Ingalls family left. The house in DeSmet was rented, and much of the family’s possessions was dispersed. Things which stayed in the house were stored in an upstairs bedroom for many years, but when Carrie died in 1946, that, too, was emptied. Apparently a truck was backed up to the side of the house, and a crew of workers was dumping things out the window. Some things were rescued from that dumping–locals who had known the family realized that some items might have value or they wanted a “piece” of local fame, since by then LIW was quite the celebrity. Some items eventually found their way back to the various LIW homesite museums over the decades.

    The china shepherdess is a mystery. In Keystone, where Carrie lived, there is a collection of Carrie’s personal items housed at the Keystone Historical Society Museum, which is the historic 1898 school. An attempt to make a museum out of Carrie’s former home was thwarted in the mid-1970s when the home burned to the ground, so the artifacts associated with Carrie are now at the KHS Museum. You’ll find books, jewelry, knickknacks, letters, etc. Among this collection is a little statuette which *may* be the Shepherdess, but there is argument between various LIW scholars about the authenticity due to the physical appearance of the statuette vs. the description Laura gave. However, in a letter to a fan who asked what became of the shepherdess, Laura replied that Carrie had it. Still, this particular statuette may or may not be the original. For all we know, the original was lost long before, or perhaps it was an invention for the sake of storytelling. Even if it at one time did exist, it was very much the fashion to have “Colonial Revival” decor in one’s bome in the mid-20th century. So, it is possible that this little figure was purchased as a reminder of the original, and not the actual shepherdess. We may never know!

    • JessicaC says:

      Thank you for this information, Melanie! What an excellent point about the possibility that the shepherdess may have been fictional, but still such an important “character” in Wilder’s stories. We are glad that you enjoyed our blog and appreciate your thoughtful comment!

  4. Marc says:

    Thank you for this fantastic post! I love how you weave the NPS collections into your personal experience in such a clear and engaging style. Bravo!

  5. Sara B says:

    I just reread these books over Christmas break and as a historical archaeologist was just completely entranced by Laura’s descriptions of their material things. And now as an adult I was able to understand the cultural and political context of the times and it made the books even more meaningful for me! Great post!

    • JessicaC says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Sara! Each time I read these books I enjoy them more and take something new from the experience. Wouldn’t the Little House books be great standard reading for historical archeology students? Thank you for reading and we’re glad you enjoyed the post!

  6. juliaspahn says:

    Thank you for an interesting post, and for the wonderful comments from the readers.

    • JessicaC says:

      Thank you for reading Julia! We are so glad you enjoyed the post and we agree – we are thankful for such kind and thoughtful comments!

  7. Pingback: Around the Web Digest: Week of January 31 | Savage Minds

  8. Sigrid says:

    The books have inspired me add an archaeologist too. There are so many insights to the material culture of the homesteaders–especially the domestic world of women and children. I am very interested in these thimbles having just recovered one from a Minnesota battlefield. Can you tell me if they were found in a combat setting?

    • JessicaC says:

      Thank you for checking out our blog! The two thimbles featured in this post were recovered from the City Point Unit of Petersburg National Battlefield. They were recovered during an excavation around a summer kitchen that dates to the early 19th century. City Point is perhaps best known as General Grant’s headquarters during the Civil War.

  9. The Yakima Kid says:

    BTW, I would like to point out that harness bells were used at all times of the year in order to warn others on the road of one’s approach. In winter they were critical as a sleigh or sledge pulled by horses could be terrifyingly silent on a snowy day, and then suddenly appear out of the gloom too late to avoid a collision. I believe they were required by law in many area, often year around. As a child, I heard from the old people about their childhood experiences when stages still ran in some areas, and how at night the team bells told them when the stage was coming when they couldn’t see it in the dark.

    Have any of the historical archeologists here ever found any celluloids from harnesses? Farmers and ranchers used to prefer harnesses decorated with white celluloid rings.

    • JessicaC says:

      Thanks so much for this great information! We are not aware of any celluloid harness accessories from NPS archeology collections but will certainly keep an eye out and consider this possibility when we come across “indeterminate” celluloid items!

  10. Pingback: Little House in the Archeology Lab: How Laura Ingalls Wilder Made Me a Historical Archeologist — NMSC Archeology & Museum Blog | decidedly read

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