Featherbeds, Rushlights, Brooms: The History of Household Objects

featherbed day

A very well documented and illustrated website on the history of everyday home life, housekeeping and domestic objects: Old & Interesting. A few examples:

Featherbeds were only for the rich in the 14th century, but by the 19th century they were a comfort that ordinary people could aspire to – especially if they kept a few geese. The beds, also called feather ticks or feather mattresses, were valuable possessions. People made wills promising them to the next generation, and emigrants travelling to the New World from Europe packed up bulky featherbeds and took them on the voyage. If you didn’t inherit one, you needed to buy up to 50 pounds of feathers, or save feathers from years of plucking until there were enough for a new bed.”

“For centuries in small cottages there were people who could not afford any kind of candle. For them a cheap alternative was a rushlight made from a rush dipped in grease, or a burning splinter of wood. These were held pinched in a nip like pliers or tongs on a stand. Nips were also called nippers or a pair of nips. They could be combined with a candle-holder for people who used both kinds of light, depending on their needs and budget at different times.”

“When you stop and think about it, you probably realise that brooms got their name because they used to be made of branches of broom, a yellow-flowering shrub – except when they were made of birch or heather. Many other shrubby plants have been used across the world for sweeping and brushing. Tie a bundle of good local twigs together, with a tight, narrow grip at one end, and you can whisk dirt away. If you attach the broom to a broomstick, so much the better.”

More: Old & Interesting

Illustrated Inventory of Antique Farm Tools (1600 – 1940)

Rotary seed drill Peter Charles Dorrington collected and restored over 750 antique farm tools between 1985 and 2001. Most of these tools were agricultural hand implements and fenland tools that were used in England, Wales and Scotland, dating from about 1600 to 1940, for example: “chaff cutters”, “flails”, scythes”, “dibbers” and “breast ploughs”. Antique Farm Tools. On the picture: a rotary seed drill. Related: the museum of old techniques.

Covered Bridges: How to Build and Rebuild Them

covered bridges how to build and rebuild them“This manual is intended to provide comprehensive support to those involved with maintaining, assessing, strengthening, or rehabilitating covered bridges, especially heavy timber truss bridges. At one time, the United States reportedly had 14,000 of these unique bridges dotting the countryside over a surprisingly large area. Now, fewer than 900 of the historic structures survive.

Timber bridges initially were built without coverings and failed in just a few years because of rot and deterioration, because chemical wood preservatives were not available or used. Builders familiar with the construction of houses, barns, and large community structures naturally added siding and roofs to help protect the bridge. They understood that the covering would soon pay for itself. They believed that regular maintenance and occasional replacement of the light covering was far easier and cheaper than building an entirely new bridge. North American covered bridges still serve after nearly 200 years, due in part to the continued soundness of the trusses, which was possible only with these protective coverings.”

Covered Bridge Manual“, 327 pages, US Department of Transportation, 2005. Via Arquitectura y madera. Previously: wooden bridges / wooden pipelines. Picture by Rainer Ebert.

Hand Powered Apple Peelers

hand powered apple peeler

Hand powered apple peelers can peel, core and cut apples with amazing speed and precision. They were available in a surprisingly large variety.

The 18th and 19th century saw a growing need for apples as a winter staple for both food and drink. Apples needed to be processed for winter storage. Paring, coring, and cutting enough apples for winter was difficult and time consuming.

Farmers used their creative skills to make wooden machines that made the process quick and efficient. Industrialization and the use of iron during the 19th century witnessed an explosion of patented creativity. More than 100 patents were granted from 1850 to 1890. Apple peelers were also used as a kitchen device.

There is a full website dedicated to hand powered apple peelers, explaining in detail the use, history and workings of the devices and showing many pictures and videos.

Hand Operated Vacuum Cleaners


hand operated vacuum cleaner“The easiest way to utilize pump vacuums (picture below, left) was to have two people operate them. One person would pump the vacuum while a second would use the hose and wand or tools to clean. A common sight was a daughter pumping the handle while mom did the cleaning. Most early vacuum cleaners were expensive for the time. The well-to-do often would purchase the cleaning contraptions to ease the workload of their servants or housekeepers.”


Bellows operated vacuums appeared in several styles and shapes. Some early vacuums utilized a single bellows. This made the cleaner less efficient because there was no suction as the bellows closed. Suction was produced only as air rushed into the bellows as it opened. To make the machines more useful, bellows were installed in pairs and offset to allow one to open while the other closed.” Picture right: a bellow-operated Star Vacuum Cleaner.

Hand operated vacuum cleaner 1“In their day, wheel operated vacuums approached the cutting edge of early technology.  They exhibited a sophistication that was not present in earlier vacuum designs.  This style of machine provided powerful and continuous suction for its user.  The increase in vacuum even allowed for larger diameter hoses and bigger cleaning tools.  Typically, one person cranked the wheel while another cleaned with a wand or hand tool.”

Friction vacuum cleaners are based on an ingenious concept conceived by James Kirby. They utilize the driving force of the rear wheels to power the cleaner. This style of vacuum derives its power when the operator pushes it across the floor. The wheels contact the floor and turn the axle. This energy is transferred to the fan via a worm gear during every forward motion of the machine. The front wheels are connected to a brush roller to create a sweeping action. These machines look like an early electric upright vacuum, but do not need electrical current to run. As a result, they have no electric motor, cord, plug, or switch. This makes them lightweight, quiet, and cost free to use. Friction vacuums were popular well into the 1940’s in communities where electricity was not available.”

More: VacHunter galleries. Thank you, Adriana.

Cash Ropeway in South Africa

cash ropeway in south africa

Low-tech Magazine editor Shameez Joubert spotted this cash ropeway in Grahamstown, South Africa.

Cash ropeways were used in shops from the 1880s to the 1960s. They worked in a similar manner to large-scale cargo ropeways. Bicable cash transportation systems were powered by a catapult device or by separation of the wires, monocable systems were operated by a small electric motor.

The Cash Railway Website is dedicated to cash ropeways and similar systems, but it does not mention any ropeway still in use. The system in the South African shop was installed in the 1960s and it still works. Thank you, Shameez!

Horse-Drawn Public Transportation

“For a hundred years, from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, Europe and America had cities of at least a million people that ran on a massive, sophisticated network of carriages and streetcars. By 1880, according to historian John H. White, Jr., US cities had 415 horse-drawn railways running, with 18,000 cars on 3,000 miles of track, carrying 1.2 billion passengers a year. Most of these lines continued decades into the age of electricity and coal, simply because the horses worked better than any other option.” Read: Horse-drawn public tranportation. Thanks, Johan. Previously: Bring back the horses.

Ship mills

Ship mills on the rhine anton woensam

Boat mills: water powered, floating factories” at Low-tech Magazine. Some extra images below:

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Exhibiting the Latest Progress in Machines, Motors, and the Transmission of Power (1892)

Exhibiting the Latest Progress in Machines, Motors, and the Transmission of Power

Modern mechanism; exhibiting the latest progress in machines, motors, and the transmission of power“, Benjamin Park (1892).

Parts of 1909 Automobiles

Rambler price list rear axle Rambler price list steer wheeling
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