Sunday, September 27, 2009

Beef fat, bees, and beetles

I'm not really an 18th century indentured servant. I just play one twice a week at a living history museum in Pennsylvania. Saturday was Fall Fun Day, and my job was to demonstrate to the public how to make tallow candles and how to dye linen.

Here I am stirring a pot of tallow and beeswax. In colonial times, candlemaking was done in the fall when the animals were butchered for their meat.

It took about four hours to render ten pounds of beef fat to make a quart of tallow.

This is the pot of tallow that resulted--all tallow, no liquid underneath (are you proud of me, Zach?)

Colonial farmers would harvest honey and beeswax from their skeps (hives). Beeswax is then added to the tallow as a stabilizer.

Hand-dipping the wicks. Candles are made by building layers. The fat cools and hardens between dips, growing in size. It takes about twenty or so dips to make a candle. Colonial candles are about the width of your pinky finger.

Huzzah, it worked!

This is my lovely assistant and friend, Miss S. Among other things, she helped me fill the dye pot with water. The water source being a distance away made for a lot of work. She's a hard worker, and always smiling, which makes working with her a pleasure.

This is cochineal, a dried insect used as a dye that was obtained by the colonies through trade with Spain. It produces a reddish-purple color.

It took only two ounces of cochineal and two tablespoons of tin (used as a mordent) to make this gorgeous pot of color. The longer the pot simmered over the fire, the deeper the color became.

I forgot to take a picture of the petticoat before it went into the dye pot. It had been a faded brown. I was very happy with the result.
For a 21st century woman, experimenting with 18th century farm chores is a lot of fun. I'm amazed by the ingenuity of our ancestors, and humbled by the fact that what I got to play with for demonstration was a matter of survival for them.


monix said...

How fascinating. I love learning about how things were done in the past and would really enjoy this kind of hands-on experience. I confess, though, that I would be relieved to get home to my modern sanitation and electric lights!

imchosen4worship said...

I'd probably be trying to dye my candles without a wick in my petticoat! SO glad I'm 21st century ...

Zach said...

I am quite proud of you. Rendering animal fat into tallow is extremely labor intensive, even for a small batch. Rendering ten pounds (a smallish batch by ye olde standards) is no small effort. Your entire post does a great job of illustrating and explaining the details of these chores.

I also enjoyed your summation that while you were playing/experimenting, chores like these were a matter of survival in the 18th century. It is hard to comprehend how the colonial farmwife managed. Once she married, she had no property rights or personal legal standing (her personhood became her husband's). On top of that, she followed a grinding year-in year-out cycle of seasonal chores, all labor intensive, all dependent upon the success of the farm's other functions. It is mindnumbing how easy we have it, and scary (at least to me) how few people could cope if we were to suddenly return to such a system with the equivalent technology.

Jodi said...

Monix: I'm happy to get back to my home too. By the end of the day I'm pretty filthy and in need of a hot shower. Once while teaching a group of children how to bake a cake over a fire, I dropped an iron pot on my foot! It took a lot of self-dicipline not to teach them anything that wasn't in the lesson, if you get my meaning. lol!

Jodi said...

imchosen4worship: Funny!

ouburi said...

The color turned out so pretty. Is it still wet in that picture? I hope it stays that color after it dries.

Kid_Logic said...

Thats the best tallow I've even seen, so clean and even looking. The petticoat came out great too, the colour is awesome.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. Jodi,
I love how it looks!!! I love making candles!!! Its such fun! The petticoat came out very pretty. The colour looks totally period. I love to dress up (as you know), and it's such fun to get into the 18th century. But I'm still happy I live now and can play at then instead of living then and playing at... well...hmmm... long before that... medieval (still play at that!! :)) well actually, they probably didn't play at all did they (except for few game for little little kids... hmmm... must think about that... After we finish our medieval movie (lol... like that's gonna happen anytime soon!!!), we should make a Colonial one... we have a colonial graveyard and church next door and we live in a colonial house and we play colonial sometimes so we're pretty set! Wouldn't that be glorious fun?? Anyways, cant wait to see you and your Partener in crime on Saturday... (as well as your mushroom pie!!! Can't WAIT!)
Until then,
-Phyllis :)

Jodi said...

glorious indeed!

Anonymous said...

Wow - loving the dying of the clothes. I would probably would look at dying something other than my petticoat if I was to try it out sometime... I tend to like the colour of my petticoats in the original colour I buy them these days.

- Rhys

Terra said...

You have a fun job, acting as a hardworking homemaker in the 18th century, and the petticoat color is wonderful.

Jodi said...

Rhys: Oh, I'm sure you do. ;)

Jodi said...

Terra: Thank you; the color is lovely, and it's amazing it came from tiny little beetles.


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