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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
- Books consulted for this blog post – Harper Trophy edition (first published 1971)
- Online source for image of Pa playing his fiddle: http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2014/julyaugust/feature/reading-laura-ingalls-wilder-not-the-same-when-youre-parent
- Online source for berry button imgage: http://buttonfloozies.blogspot.com/2012/01/vintage-buttons-and-giveaway.html