Archaeology and the Age of Plastics: Bakelite in the Brody Dump

Mirror from the Brody/Emmons complex.

Mirror from the Brody/Emmons complex.

Take a moment to think about what kinds of materials you’d expect to find in a garbage dump from 2018. Did plastic immediately spring to mind? About 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year, only about 10% of which is recycled (1). Since mass production of plastic took off around 1950 an estimated 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste has been produced, much of which has ended up in landfills (1). We don’t encounter much plastic at the oldest sites on MSU’s campus. At sites dating to the 19th century, like Saints’ Rest and College Hall, we more frequently find glass, metal, and ceramics. At more recent sites, however, we begin to see more plastic in the archaeological record, reflecting the increased availability and use of plastic in everyday items. Several plastic artifacts were excavated at the Brody-Emmons Complex, the site of the East Lansing city landfill in the early 20th century.

Humans have long used natural substances with plastic properties, such as rubber and shellac, but man-made plastics are a fairly recent innovation. The first man-made plastic is attributed to British chemist Alexander Parkes (2). In 1856, Parkes acquired a patent for a product made from a plant material called cellulose treated with nitric acid and other chemicals. The product, called Parkesine, exhibited many useful properties: when hot it could be easily molded into various shapes, but when cool it was sturdy and durable. Unlike rubber, it could be industrially produced in large quantities (2).

Early plastics such as Parkesine and its successor, celluloid, involved the addition of chemicals to naturally occurring polymers (3). The first fully synthetic plastic wasn’t invented until 1907 when American chemist Leo Baekeland produced a plastic material through a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. He called his phenolic resin “Bakelite,” polyoxybenzylmethyleneglycoanhydride to the chemistry nerds out there. Unlike celluloid, Bakelite is thermosetting; once molded, it retains its shape even if heated again (3).

Baekeland patented Bakelite in 1909 and formed the General Bakelite Company around 1910 (3). The company adopted the infinity symbol as its logo to match its slogan “a material of a thousand uses.” In fact, Bakelite did prove to have many uses. Due to its resistance to heat and electricity, it was particularly useful in the automotive and electrical industries. The earliest commercial use of Bakelite was in insulating bushings manufactured for the Weston Electrical Instrument Corporation in 1908. During World War I, Bakelite was used in everything from electrical systems to airplane propellers. As plastic began to be incorporated in electronics such as telephones and radios, these products became cheaper and thus more widely accessible (3). There were also many decorative and aesthetic uses for Bakelite. Blocks of Bakelite could be carved to create items like pipe stems, cigarette holders, and even jewelry (3). The look, weight, and sound of Bakelite pieces struck together are similar to ivory (4). For this reason, phenolic resins are still used in items such as billiard balls, dominos, and chess pieces (3).

One of the plastic artifacts associated with the East Lansing landfill is a small hand-held mirror we suspected might be made of Bakelite. People who have handled a lot of Bakelite can make an assessment based on subtle clues like sound and feel. Since I have not handled much of it myself, I turned to some of the other “tests” for Bakelite.

Testing with Formula 409

Testing with Formula 409

First I tried the smell test. This method involves heating the object – either by running it under hot water or rubbing it vigorously–and sniffing. Bakelite gives off a telltale formaldehyde smell (4). As I wanted to avoid damaging the artifact, I tried the rubbing approach. The mirror definitely smelled “weird” to me, but it was too faint for me to discern a specific scent.

Next I decided to try one of the visual methods for testing Bakelite. These methods involve swabbing a Q-Tip or white cloth dampened with certain chemicals against the object in question. If the object is Bakelite, it will turn the Q-tip yellow (4). Other early plastics, such as Lucite, do not produce this result. Chemicals typically used for testing Bakelite are Formula 409 and Simichrome metal polish (4). I couldn’t find Simichrome at my local hardware store, so I opted to try Formula 409. After gently cleaning the mirror to remove any dirt, Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright and I swabbed a Q-Tip sprayed with 409 against the back of the mirror. The Q-Tip turned faintly yellow, which seemed promising. After a bit of research, I discovered that some people have successfully used baking soda to test for Bakelite (5). I decided to try this method too, and added a bit of baking soda to a damp white paper towel. Voila! The paper towel turned yellow where it contacted the plastic. These tests seem to indicate that the mirror is Bakelite, which makes it the second Bakelite artifact identified in the Brody assemblage. A Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand with a Bakelite lid was also recovered in 2011.

Testing with baking soda

Testing with baking soda

Bakelite was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society in 1993 (3). As the world’s first synthetic plastic Bakelite is credited with ushering in the Polymer Age, also called the Age of Plastics (3). It is interesting to observe that we can see this landmark—and evidence of the dawn of the Age of Plastics —in the archaeological record of our campus.

 

References

 

 

The Many Faces of Cowles House, MSU’s Oldest Building

This summer, Cowles House, MSU’s oldest standing building, is due to get a facelift. As part of this remodeling, crews will remove a few trees from around and inside the building and expand the west wing.  In preparation for this work, I have been researching the history of this building, as well as what previous CAP excavations have recovered in the area.

Completed in 1857, Cowles House was one of four homes built to house the earliest faculty members and administrators of MSU.  Some of the most prominent individuals in MSU’s history, such as Williams, Abbot, Beal, Bessey, Hannah, and McPherson, all lived in this house during their tenure at the college (Brock 2009; Kuhn 1955).  From 1857-1874, Cowles House served as the residence of the college president.  After 1874, Cowles House, then known as Faculty Row No. 7, functioned as the home of the professor of Botany (Beal 1915:35, 267; http://archives.msu.edu/collections/buildings.php).

A View of Cowles House ca. 1920

A View of Cowles House ca. 1920. Image Source.

During these early decades, Cowles house was not only a place of residence, but was also a hub of campus entertainment. Early on, no organized social life existed on MSU’s campus.  Students instead gravitated towards faculty homes, where faculty and staff would regularly host small get-togethers (Kuhn 1955:127). The Abbot’s, who lived in Cowles House during their time at the college, frequently invited students and guests into their home. As documented by Kuhn, Abbot had students come to his home weekly to read and discuss literature.  They also entertained on the weekends: “On Saturday nights the Abbot home was open to students; twenty or thirty would gather about the fire to eat apples and to talk of politics, of ethics, and of literature” (Kuhn 1955:90).

By the early 1900s, Cowles House had been repurposed to serve a broader function.  On a 1927 map of campus (MSU archives: http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-114F/map-of-msu-campus-and-buildings-1927/), Cowles House is labeled as “Secretary’s House,” indicating a switch from residential space to a more administrative one.  I have not been able to discover more about what this label entails, such as if the house was entirely office space during this time, but it is clear that the space was no longer reserved for faculty use.

In 1941, under the Hannah administration, Cowles House once again became the home of the president of the university.  As such, the building underwent major renovations after the end of World War II, during which much of the building was rebuilt and a new wing was added to the west end (Kuhn 1955:402).  Recently, Cowles House has functioned as an entertainment and banquet space, as recent presidents have decided to live off campus (Brock 2009).

A View of Cowles House Today

A View of Cowles House Today. Image source

Artifacts from south of Cowles House, Shovel Test Pit G1

Artifacts from south of Cowles House, Shovel Test Pit G1

Cowles House has been of great interest to Campus Archaeology due to its location within the Sacred Space.  As little has changed in this part of campus, this area has the potential for preserving intact archaeological deposits from the earliest days of campus.  CAP has conducted numerous surveys around the building, including in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2014 (CAP Reports 7, 11, and 15), but we are yet to find any clear features or concentrations of materials. Instead, only a diffuse scatter of artifacts has been found around the building. Brick fragments, window glass, nails, and other construction debris are the most common objects found, while a few ceramic sherds, animal bones, bottle glass, and two golf balls have also been recovered. In general, this record is likely the result of construction and remodeling episodes, mixed in with trash from everyday life.  While CAP has tested extensively around the building, we have not investigated every area, and plan to survey and monitor intently as renovations take place this summer.  We are always on the look-out for that rare deposit that can provide us insights into the lives of the early MSU faculty and presidents!

References Cited

Beal, W.J.
1915   History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors.  Michigan Agricultural College, East Lansing

Brock, Terry
2009   “Survey Spot: Cowles House”  Blog posted on CAP website, Sept. 9, 2009.

CAP Report 7
2009   Music Building and Cowles House Survey.  Campus Archaeology Program.

CAP Report 11
2011   Walter Adams Field Survey: Archaeological Report.  Campus Archaeology Program.

CAP Report 15
2012   West Circle Steam I Survey: Archaeological Report.  Campus Archaeology Program.

Kuhn, Madison
1955   Michigan State: The First Hundred Years.  The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.

MSU Archives and Historical Collections:

Gone but Not Forgotten: Campus Buildings that No Longer Exist.  Online Exhibit. http://archives.msu.edu/collections/buildings.php

Map of MSU Campus and Buildings, 1927. http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-114F/map-of-msu-campus-and-buildings-1927/

Continuing Preparations for Summer Construction on Campus

As the weather warms and summer gets closer, the Campus Archaeology Program is gearing up for yet another busy season.

While our excavations occur primarily in the summer, months of planning and preparation take place before the first trowel is stuck in the dirt. Many different factors come into play when planning for an archaeological field season, particularly in Michigan during the Spring. Continue reading

Campus Archaeology “On-The-Go”: Delivering Historic Meals to the Public

As our regular readers know, the Campus Archaeology Program has been deeply engaged in chronicling the culinary past of our forebears at Michigan State University. Our work involving archaeological analysis of food remains found on campus and archival research detailing historic foodways on campus culminated last year in an 1860s MSU luncheon reconstruction (detailed here and here). Prepared by MSU Culinary Services and MSU Bakers, we had a delectable spread of historically-based dishes upon which to dine and enjoy.

Cod fish balls and potato croquettes served at the luncheon.

Cod fish balls and potato croquettes served at the luncheon.

The one downfall of the historic luncheon was the limited guest list. While we were able to invite people from across the campus, our budget limited us to about thirty guests. One of the primary objectives of the Campus Archaeology Program is public outreach, and although we documented the luncheon on our blog and on other social media (such as Facebook and Snapchat), this still deprived the general public of the opportunity to taste these dishes and interact with the past on a sensory level. Chef Jay Makowski, who helped prepare the luncheon, came up with the brilliant idea to feature certain dishes in the MSU ON-THE-GO Food Truck. We thought this was a modern, trendy, and accessible way to help MSU students, faculty, and other members of public connect with the past.

Eat at State On-The-Go Food Truck. Image Source

Eat at State On-The-Go Food Truck. Image Source

Therefore, in collaboration with MSU Culinary Services, we are excited to announce that variations of historic dishes will be available as options of the MSU Eat At State ON-THE-GO Food Truck. These “Throwback Thursday” and “Flashback Friday” special lunch events will feature versions of some of the foods served in the 1860s luncheon.

The menus include a few favorites from last year’s lunch: potato croquettes (deep-fried balls of mashed potatoes), codfish balls (basically potato croquettes with cod mixed in), and chow-chow (a delicious sweet vegetable relish).

A new menu item is the “shooter sandwich” with roast turkey, a pressed meat sandwich that was a popular during the early 1900s. We featured roast turkey with oyster stuffing at the original historic luncheon, and this is a convenient “on-the-go” version of the dish. Another new dish includes a pressed beef epigram. An epigram is traditionally a breaded and fried cutlet of lamb; our version features a twist by using pressed beef, a popular dish that was served at 19th-century MSU banquets. Other hearty, traditional foods featured include smoked chicken drumsticks and a pork sausage roll.

Check out the MSU Food Truck and picnic like it's 1909

Check out the MSU Food Truck and picnic like it’s 1909! Image source.

We hope this will be a great way to engage with the public and make learning about the past an exciting experience. If you would like to “taste the past,” then come by the MSU ON-THE-GO Food Truck for some Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday fun!

The ON-THE-GO Food Truck serves lunch from 11:30am – 1:30pm. The Rock is located just north of the Red Cedar River on Farm Lane, and 1855 Place is located at 550 S Harrison Rd, East Lansing. The menu schedule is listed below:

ON-THE-GO Food Truck “Throwback Thursday”/“Flashback Friday” Schedule

Thursday, March 29 (at the Rock)
Potato Croquette with Chow Chow
Shooter Sandwich with Roast Turkey
Smoked Chicken Drumstick with Herb Roasted Red Skin Potato

Friday, April 13 (at 1855 Place)
Potato Croquette with Chow Chow
Shooter Sandwich with Roast Turkey
Fresh Pork Sausage with Chow Chow on Pub Roll

Thursday, April 19 (at the Rock)
Codfish Balls with dipping sauce
Pressed Beef Epigram
Smoked Chicken Drumstick with Herb Roasted Red Skin Potato

Friday, April 27 (at 1855 Place)
Codfish Balls with dipping sauce
Pressed Beef Epigram
Fresh Pork Sausage with Chow Chow on Pub Roll

(And don’t worry – if throwback foods aren’t your thing, the Food Truck will also feature their famous smoked cheddar burger each of these days.)

Archaeology Post-Natural Disaster

Flooding at the baseball stadium

Flooding at the baseball stadium. Image Source

Flooding over Red Cedar Road with Spartan Stadium in the background. Image Source

Flooding over Red Cedar Road with Spartan Stadium in the background. Image Source

Water levels nearly reaching the bottom of the pedestrian bridge to the library. Image source.

Water levels nearly reaching the bottom of the pedestrian bridge to the library. Image source.

A few weeks ago, at the end of February, areas surrounding the Red Cedar River flooded causing substantial damage to many homes, businesses, and areas of MSU. The combination of unseasonably warm weather (which melted the prior weeks heavy snow) and heavy rains resulted in the Lansing area experiencing some of its heaviest flooding in 40 years (the Red Cedar River was nearly 4 feet over flood stage). Roads were closed, states of emergency were declared, and on campus IPF worked to mitigate the flood impact to critical buildings on north campus. No structures on campus were critically damaged, but the floodwaters did leave a substantial amount of damage. At least 4 inches of additional silt along the riverbanks was deposited and unfortunately due to the contaminated nature of flood water (from drainage overflow and system purges from upriver) the debris has the potential for some biological contamination. I was out of town at a conference so when I heard about the flooding my first thought was “is my house ok?”, and the second was “what is this flood going to do to archaeological sites in the area?”.

This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last time the Red Cedar River floods. Floods and storms can add to the areas ground surface (like the silt deposition did along the Red Cedar) or can erode away river banks and cliff sides.  This can expose new parts of previously known sites, uncover unknown archaeological resources (like this historic canoe that washed up after Hurricane Irma, or the skeleton found under a tree knocked over by Hurricane Ophelia), or the alluvial deposition can bury sites.

The river floods in 1904. Old Wells Hall can be seen in the background. Image Source.

The river floods in 1904. Old Wells Hall can be seen in the background. Image Source.

Students play baseball in canoes during the 1948 flood. Image source.

Students play baseball in canoes during the 1948 flood. Image source.

Manzanita covered hillside cleared of green vegetation after the American Fire. Photo credit: Kristina Crawford

Manzanita covered hillside cleared of green vegetation after the American Fire. Photo credit: Kristina Crawford

Although we thankfully haven’t had to deal with this on campus, wildfires are a common occurrence in the Western United States. Wildfires can damage archaeological sites by physically damaging the artifacts or features, or by exposing sites to the elements and erosion. Fires are also known to expose undocumented sites and expose new portions of previously recorded sites. With the increase in wildfires across the western United States, many archaeologists are finding themselves studying fire archaeology (archaeologicalconservancy.org). It’s important for archaeologists to survey areas of fire damage to record and sometimes recover artifacts before looters arrive, or animals, people, or the elements further damage the objects/site. The recovered artifacts also help to establish the boundaries of a site.

Fire also clears areas that may have previously been too densely covered by vegetation to survey. For example the American Fire in August of 2013 (located in Northern California) burned away Manzanita (an incredibly dense brush that is absolutely horrible to survey through) allowing for the documentation of the late 19th century trash scatter and gold mining prospectors pits (as seen in the photo). The fire also exposed this historic cabin (seen below and also from the 1800s), but the fire didn’t burn the foundation timbers because they were covered in a thick layer of vegetation. Additionally the fire was fast moving and cool in this area. The fire also uncovered a large trash scatter around the cabin that was previously unobservable.

Foundation of a historic cabin that was further revealed by the fire. Photo Credit: Kristina Crawford

Foundation of a historic cabin that was further revealed by the fire. Photo Credit: Kristina Crawford

This picture shows the tea cup and saucer as well as two complete bottles found at the cabin site that would never have been found except the fire burned off the brush and overburden debris.

This picture shows the tea cup and saucer as well as two complete bottles found at the cabin site that would never have been found except the fire burned off the brush and overburden debris. Photo credit: Kristina Crawford

Sunken ferry boat exposed by record low river levels in 2008. Photo credit: Kristina Crawford

Sunken ferry boat exposed by record low river levels in 2008. Photo credit: Kristina Crawford

Archaeologists have also been working to document the impact of climate change on archaeological resources.  Changing water levels due to drought can expose objects previously covered by water, like this ferry boat in California.  The poles and brush in a row at the toe of the levee (where the vegetation ends) was where normal water flow levels hit.  Conversely the rising sea levels are putting costal sites in danger of destruction.  Archaeologists are racing to document and salvage these important resources, such as this commission in California. Thawing permafrost is also exposing and damaging sites caught in the melt.

Here at CAP much of our work focuses on planned campus construction, so this flood serves to remind us to always be prepared for the unexpected.  Stay turned to the blog and our social media pages as we conduct a pedestrian survey of the flooded area later this month.

References:

http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/02/msu_kayak.html

https://www.hcn.org/articles/wildfire-archeology-exposes-treasures-of-the-dead

https://www.archaeologicalconservancy.org/california-wildfires-borax-lake-archaeology/

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/09/hurricane-irma-update-ravaged-barbuda-archaeology-center-tries-pick-pieces

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/canoe-hurricane-irma-historical-artifact_us_59be70a6e4b02da0e1429d17

http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/after-storm-hurricane-ophelia-reveals-ancient-mystery-skeleton-ireland-021675

Bagwell, Margaret 2009 After the Storm, Destruction and Reconstruction: The Potential for an  Archaeology of Hurricane Katrina. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 5(1):280-292.

https://archive.archaeology.org/0903/etc/climate_change.html

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/glacier-archaeology-norway-oppland-mountains-climate-change-melting-ice-spd/

If You’d Like to Make a Call…: The Michigan Bell Telephone Sign from the Brody Dump

As technology constantly changes, so too does the constructed landscape to accommodate those changes.  One major notable change that has occurred in recent memory is the mass-production and availability of cell phones in the 1990s and 2000s.  Cell phones allow people to talk to anyone else no matter where they are.  Apart from major social and cultural changes that this brought about, the wide-spread use of cell phones resulted in public telephones and telephone booths to drastically dwindle with estimates of around 2.5 million pay phones in the U.S. in the mid-late 90s down to about 243,000 in 2012 [1].  Pay phones are no longer a commonly seen component of our cities; phone booths sit stripped and empty in older buildings.  So much has this changed that some people from younger generations have probably never even seen a pay phone!

Michigan Bell Telephone Company sign found in the Brody/Emmons Complex.

Michigan Bell Telephone Company sign found in the Brody/Emmons Complex.

Excavations at the Brody/Emmons dump site revealed an old public telephone sign.  Measuring about 30cm X 28cm, the sign is made of a square-cut piece of metal with porcelain enamel on both sides which each reads ‘MICHIGAN BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY’ and “AMERICAN TELEPHONE AND TELEGRAPH” in a ring around the image of a bell which itself has the words ‘BELL SYSTEM’ on it.  The sign also has a flange on one side indicating that it was originally intended to be fixed onto a surface and project outwards.  An exact date for the sign is not known, but signs of this design were commonly seen on public pay phones during the 1920s-1940s.  Michigan Bell Telephone Company was once a subsidiary of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company – commonly known as AT&T [2].  While both companies still technically are around, they are no longer connected to one another in the same way when Michigan Bell was founded (a little more on that later).  In doing the research for this artifact, I decided to focus on the unexpectedly tumultuous history of the Bell Telephone Company and its role in both the social lives of the American people as well as its place in politics.

Michigan Bell Telephone Crew ca. 1890. Image source

Michigan Bell Telephone Crew ca. 1890. Image source

As is common knowledge, Alexander Graham Bell patented the first practical telephone in 1876 (although in 2002 Congress officially recognized Antonio Meucci as the true inventor of the telephone) [2, 3].  It took a while for telephones to become a common item as they originally were large and clunky, expensive to subscribe to, difficult to operate, and had poor sound quality.  The first telephone in Michigan went to one of Bell’s good friends in Grand Rapids in 1877.  After public demonstrations were held with the prototype phones, the first commercial phone line was set up in Detroit between a drugstore and its chemical laboratories a couple miles away [5].  Interestingly, a large portion of the early users/subscribers were physicians who used them to be informed of incoming patients so as to more quickly and adequately prepare for their arrival and treatment [4].  Still, the use of telephones became more popular with Bell’s public demonstrations.

The Bell Telephone Company (and its subsidiary-turned parent corporation, AT&T) held an almost entire monopoly on the telephone business until Bell’s patent expired in 1893, after which thousands of small companies popped up to get in on the business [4].  This resulted in prices and rates plummeting which made the technology more publicly available and affordable.  Expansion into rural areas and smaller towns created a boom in telephone subscriptions as well as the advent of public phones.  Unlike household phones, early public phones were initially free to use.  These public phones were predominantly located in/around pharmacies since many physicians already had them in place and were used as a way to get people to come into their stores.  However, it appears that free phone calls caused lingering crowds and constantly tied-up phone lines which angered pharmacists and store owners enough that nickel slots were installed by the turn of the century [2, 4].

AT&T Telephone ad from1931 convincing customers to keep their phone service. Image source

AT&T Telephone ad from1931 convincing customers to keep their phone service. Image source

By the 1920s, AT&T started acquired many of the smaller phone companies and services which the dwindling number of non-AT&T companies required.  Although AT&T did not own all of the smaller companies, by 1930, 80% of all phones in the United States were Bell phones and of those that were not, 98% were connected to Bell lines.  However, the Depression hit the phone industry hard with over 2 million households canceling subscriptions between 1930 and 1933 [4, 6].  AT&T even revamped their marketing strategy during this time and instead of advertising to entice new subscribers, they focused on convincing current subscribers not to cancel by arguing that a phone subscription is a necessity that only costs a few cents a day.  By this point, the telephone was a common everyday item for many Americans, but one that (unlike today it seems) people were able to drop.  Public pay phones thus allowed the public to still use the service for a small price per call without requiring monthly subscriptions that could be used for more necessary items.

Bell Telephone ad from 1948 marketing Bell telephones with patriotism. Image source

Bell Telephone ad from 1948 marketing Bell telephones with patriotism. Image source

After 1933, phone subscriptions began to climb once again with the industry meeting pre-Depression Era subscriptions by 1939.  After rate freezes during World War II, AT&T again began consolidating it grip on the industry.  By the 1970s, the company once again had a monopoly on telephone service, resulting in a federal antitrust lawsuit beginning in 1974 [4].  The outcome of this court case required a divestiture of the mega parent company into seven regional large companies.  Michigan Bell was reorganized, along with other Bell operating companies in the Midwest as a subsidiary of Americtech Corp [7].  This company was then merged with SBC Teleholdings and the Ameritech branch was renamed to AT&T Teleholdings.  Although this is a relatively recent history of Bell companies which took place decades after the Michigan Bell pay phone sign was placed in the East Lansing Dump, it is interesting to see the path taken by the iconic company.  Who knew that the ability to make a simple phone call, whether on your cell phone or on a pay phone, had such a volatile history or was so deeply enmeshed in political quagmire?  Rich histories such as these can only come from conducting this type of historical research on objects we think we know enough about.  The phone we know of today is not just a phone, but is the totality of over 125 years of history wrapped in ingenuity, inventions, patent lawsuits, intense government intervention and oversight, and corporate dealings, which has allowed us to call our loved ones from (almost) anywhere on the planet.

 

References

[1]       Andreatta, D. 2013. As pay phones vanish, so does lifeline for many. USA Today. Published online 17 December, 2013.

[2]       Brooks, J. 1976. Telephone: The First Hundred Years. Harper & Row, New York.

[3] Campanella, A. J. 2007. Antonio meucci, the speaking telegraph, and the first telephone. Acoustics Today, 3(2):37-45.

[4] Fischer, C.S., 1992. America calling: a social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley University of California Press, Berkeley.

[5] History of the Telephone in Michigan. 1969.  Detroit: Michigan Bell Telephone Co.

[6] Angelo State University Library, 2018. Telephone Goes To War 1930-1950. Blog. http://www.angelo.edu/services/library/wtcoll/verizon/pages/Timeline/tel_war/tel_war_tx.php

[7] Coll, S. 1986. The deal of the century: The breakup of AT&T (1st ed.). New York, Atheneum.

Not Ready for this Jelly Juice Glass

Mason jars are having a moment. If you’ve attended a wedding (particularly the barn variety) or eaten at a brunch establishment in the last decade, chances are you’ve consumed a beverage out of a Mason jar. What the youngest among us may not realize is that drinking out of jars isn’t a radical new trend. Look no further than the Mason jar’s less Instagrammable cousin: the jelly juice glass. Perhaps you remember drinking your morning OJ out of a repurposed jelly jar printed with characters from Howdy Doody, the Peanuts, or Pokémon. Perhaps you’ve always wondered why those were a “thing”. If so, read on to explore the ingenious marriage of packaging and marketing that led to the jelly glass, including one CAP recovered from the site of the former East Lansing city dump during excavations at the Brody Complex.

Swanky Swigs tumblers produced by Kraft. Image source

Swanky Swigs tulip pattern tumblers produced by Kraft. Image source

In 1916, America’s first self-service grocery store, a Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis, Tennessee (1). Before self-service stores, customers went to their local grocer and handed the clerk their shopping list (2). The clerk then retrieved these items behind the counter and packaged them for the customer to take home. Self-service stores allowed customers to peruse aisles of pre-packaged items before making their selections. As this business model boomed, point of sale factors such as the appeal of a product’s packaging became increasingly important in influencing customer purchases (2). As such, packaging became a key point of interaction between mass production and modern supermarkets (3).

Commercial glassmakers played an important role in producing appealing packages. Before the rise of plastic, mass-produced products such as jam, jelly, peanut butter, and dairy products were packaged in glass containers called packers. After these products were consumed, packers could be reused as drinking glasses (4). Knowing this, glassmakers designed packers that doubled as attractive tumblers. Small tumblers such as those for jams and jellies were the perfect size for juice (5). Products packaged in tumblers were an appealing choice to consumers who were more likely to buy if they were getting a premium with their purchase (3).

In order to make them more marketable, packer tumblers were often decorated in eye-catching and collectible designs. Early tumblers were molded into different patterns. Later designs were hand-painted or applied using a silkscreen process (5). In the 1930s, Kraft spreadable cheeses were famously packaged in tumblers marketed as “Swanky Swigs” (6). Swanky Swigs were decorated with pretty, neutral patterns such as bands, stars, and flowers. Brand loyalty was encouraged as customers repurchased products to acquire a complete set. This was an effective marketing strategy during the Depression, when companies had to adapt to sell products to a nation with little money to waste (6). In the 1950s, companies like Welch’s began featuring cartoon characters (5, 7). Various character glasses have been produced since.

Capstan tumbler from Brody/Emmons Complex.

Capstan tumbler from Brody/Emmons Complex.

In contrast to Swanky Swigs, the tumbler from the Brody dump is plain, the only decorative element being a small band of vertical ridges below the rim. The bottom of the glass is embossed with an image of a capstan, the spool-like machine used to haul ropes and cables on ships and docks. This distinctive logo belonged to the Capstan Glass Company, a subsidiary of the Anchor Cap & Closure Corporation from April 1918 until February 1938 (8). Anchor Cap purchased the Ripley & Co. glass factory in South Connellsville, Pennsylvania in 1917 and replaced all the old equipment for hand-blown and pressed glassware with new automatic machinery (9). Capstan’s operations at the plant began in 1919 with the first load of tumblers shipped on June 9 of that year (3). By 1927, Capstan’s plant employed 500 workers with shipments averaging from seven to twelve carloads a day (3,9). Business was so strong that Capstan’s president claimed the operation to be the world’s largest exclusive manufacturer of commercial packers’ glassware (3). After a series of mergers between 1928 and 1937, Anchor Cap and Closure acquired Capstan and became the Anchor Hocking Glass Corporation. Container production continued at the South Connellsville plant under the Capstan name until February 18th, 1938, when it reopened as Anchor-Hocking (3).

Bottom of tumbler showing Capstan makers mark and date stamp.

Bottom of tumbler showing Capstan makers mark and date stamp.

The history of Capstan Glass indicates that the tumbler from the Brody Dump dates between 1918 and 1938. These dates are consistent with other items recovered from the same context. The bottom of the Brody glass features the Capstan logo with “1C” above and “5” below. According to Barry Bernas, who has written substantially about Capstan, the letter C was used to identify their line of plain tumblers (3). Bernas writes that this line came in twenty sizes ranging in volume from one to sixteen ounces and was advertised from at least 1922 until January 1935 (3). The American Stores Company employed plain Capstan tumblers of this style as jackets for ASCO brand products peanut butter (3). However, these tumblers were likely used for a variety of brands and products, as they were not marked with a particular brand name.

Jelly juice jars are simple, yet fascinating items. They are located at the nexus of mass production and consumption, yet they are also a brilliant example of reusable packaging. Jury’s still out on whether you can expect to start seeing jelly glasses replace Mason jars at wedding receptions. If you do, now you’ll have an instant conversation topic. You’re welcome.

 

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piggly_Wiggly
  2. http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2011/10/food-culture.html
  3. http://www.fohbc.org/PDF_Files/CapstanTumblersJarsBottlers4AmerStoresCo.pdf
  4. https://www.collectorsweekly.com/glassware/hazel-atlas
  5. https://www.thespruce.com/what-makes-a-swig-swanky-149101
  6. https://retroreclaimations.com/blogs/vintage-glassware-history/vintage-glassware-swanky-swigs
  7. http://www.jellyjammers.org/index.html
  8. https://sha.org/bottle/pdffiles/CapstanGlassCo.pdf
  9. http://theantiquarian.us/Hist.%20Ripley%20Glass.htm

The Life of a Bed: Not as Boring as One Might Think

Take a long look at the objects in the picture below. What do you think they are?

"Mystery" artifacts from Saints' Rest

“Mystery” artifacts from Saints’ Rest

I bet that your first guess was just a little bit off. They are not small hand-cuffs (as they were originally labeled in the lab!), buckles, or tiny horseshoes. They are actually hardware from a little discussed, yet constantly used, object found in every home: a bed stand! If you were wrong, don’t feel bad, I did not know the correct answer either until Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright pushed me toward the solution.

Beds have been around for a very long time. They can be found in most households, and are used every day, yet they are rarely discussed unless you have back problems (Wright 1962).  Especially in college dorms, where beds are one of the few pieces of furniture present, they are essential for every day life. Everything from eating to studying, writing, relaxing, or posing for photos with eleven of your best friends all take place on a bed. They are also the perfect platforms for pranks. Speaking from experience, nothing is better than waking up your friend once he has been thoroughly plastic wrapped to his bed. As such, beds have a story to tell about the past, a perspective that helps us to understand the experiences of early students at MSU.

Several college friends posing for a photo in an Abbot Hall dorm room, 1901.

Several college friends posing for a photo in an Abbot Hall dorm room, 1901. Image Source.

Recovered during excavations at Saint’s Rest, the objects above provide one of our few glimpses of early beds on MSU’s campus. These “D”-shaped fixtures, typically made from cast iron, were one half of a two-part system to hold pieces of a bed stand together. The circular end was fitted into a similar shaped slot in the side rail, so that the short square protrusions faced outward. These protrusions then slotted into a metal face plate attached to the bed post, forming the first tool-free bed stand (Taylor 2016). This technology, invented after the civil war, made bed stands more portable, as they were easy to break down and re-build in a different location. But, since the hardware was made of heavy metal, it was costly to ship. By around 1900, a lighter version, similar to those used today, was invented (Taylor 2011).

Example of how this “D”-shaped hardware system works

Example of how this “D”-shaped hardware system works. Image Source

In these early days, dorm rooms were often filled to the brim with students. Up to 4 students would sleep in a room in Saint’s Rest, using only two beds. Two young men would share one bed, continuing (I assume begrudgingly) the family tradition of sleeping together (MSU Archives Exhibit 2012; Wright 1962). Unfortunately, few images from within Saint’s Rest exist, so it is unknown what type of mattresses these bed frames supported, or what other activities may have taken place on them.

Image of two gentlemen admiring their handy work after stacking another student’s room. 

Image of two gentlemen admiring their handy work after stacking another student’s room. Image Source

While it is clear that they were used for sleeping, easily dis-assembled bed frames also aided in at least one early MSU tradition, room stacking. An ingenious form of initiation, freshmen new to the campus would occasionally return to their rooms to find all of their things stacked into one large tower of furniture and personal belongings (MSU Archives Exhibit 2012). Not only were their possessions stacked, but it was done in such a way as to make re-assembling the room and sleeping in it difficult.  As one student who returned to a stacked room recounts, “It was past twelve o’clock that night before I got my bed down so as to sleep on it” (MSU Archives Scrapbook Page, 1902).

Oh, the tales these beds could tell if we could only re-create a bit more of their life histories!

References Cited

MSU Archives and Historical Collections:
2012   Exhibit- Dormitory Life: The First One-Hundred Years of Students Living on Campus. Created by Kim Toorenaar.  http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Exhibit/1-6-D/dormitory-life/
1902    Scrapbook Page about Room Stacking Pranks, 1902. Created by George Newnes.  http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-1156/scrapbook-page-about-room-stacking-pranks-1902/

Taylor, Fred
2011   “Furniture Detective: Hardware on Vintage Beds Crucial to Its Design and Function” http://www.antiquetrader.com/antiques/vintage_brass_bed_hardware_design/
2016   “The Nuts and Bolts of Bedding Down Through the Ages” https://www.liveauctioneers.com/news/columns-and-international/fred-taylor/nuts-bolts-bedding-ages/

Wright, Lawrence
1962   War and Snug: The History of the Bed.  Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

99 Colors of Beer Glass on the Wall: A Short History Bottle Colors

Why are there different colored beer bottles and what does it mean? Today, beer bottles are manufactured in a number of colors, but has that always occurred? These are the questions I have been asking myself as I have been looking through Campus Archaeology artifacts, especially the several beer bottles curated in our collections.

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“Club Cheese” Chronicles: If You Think That Sounds Grate, Just Wait, It Gets Cheddar

Kaukauna Cheese Crock from the Brody/Emmons site

Kaukauna Cheese Crock from the Brody/Emmons site

While a great many treasures have come from the Brody/Emmons complex (aka the East Lansing dump), the one that spoke to my heart will be of little surprise to our regular readers. It is a small stoneware crock with blue lettering that says “Kaukauna Klub, Man’f’d By South Kaukauna Dairy Company, Kaukauna, Wisconsin.” Since I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, I have written extensively about the history of dairy at MSU and other products historically imported from my home state to campus, but this artifact combined all the things I love into one li’l crock o’ creamy joy.

Peter Fassbender moved to the United States from Prussia in 1856, and, after settling in Kaukauna, a city located between Green Bay and Appleton, WI, he slowly grew his dairy and built a cheese factory in 1887. His son, Hubert, inherited the factory in 1901, thereafter expanding it into one of the largest creameries and cheese factories in the region. In 1918 he officially founded the South Kaukauna Dairy Company, which facilitated nation-wide distribution of his factory’s products.

Hubert Fassbender (left) with his brother Henry ca. 1930

Hubert Fassbender (left) with his brother Henry ca. 1930. Image source

Kaukauna crock with original wire bail lid

Kaukauna crock with original wire bail lid. Image source

Hubert invented cold pack cheese, a spreadable cheese made by combining finely ground cheese with whey solids, dry milk, and flavorings. After the end of Prohibition, Fassbender got into the beer distribution game as well, and offered businesses, such as taverns, clubs, and hotels, free cold pack cheese with substantial beer purchases. The cheese become popular among patrons, who began to refer to it as “club cheese.” Thus, in 1933, Fassbender began mass-marketing the product in its signature gray crock with a wire bail lid. Kaukauna Klub cheese became a nationwide model for other spreadable cheese products due to It popularity.

Kaukauna cheese spread on crackers still makes a tasty snack (and yes, I did use this blog as an excuse to eat cheese)

Kaukauna cheese spread on crackers still makes a tasty snack (and yes, I did use this blog as an excuse to eat cheese)

In 1973, the operation moved to a larger factory in nearby Little Chute, WI, and expanded business by adding cheese balls and cheese logs to its repertoire. After changing hands between several parent companies in subsequent decades, Kaukauna was purchased by Bel Cheese USA, the American subsidiary of Fromageries Bel, a Paris-based company. Today, Bel Brands also sells the popular Babybel and Laughing Cow cheeses, cornering the market on spreadable cheese snacks.

So, when was our li’l crock of joy originally enjoyed by some lucky East Lansing resident? The original 1930s crocks were labeled with the motto “It Spreads Like Butter” and featured a diagonal placement of the brand name. The crock discovered by CAP at the Brody Dump most likely was manufactured a bit later, probably in the late 1930s, with more embellished crocks used in later decades. And how can you get your hands on Kaukauna cheese today? Their products are currently available in Meijer and Kroger stores in East Lansing and Lansing. The original cheese spread is still sold in flavors like sharp cheddar, port wine, and garden vegetable (although now in plastic tubs rather than crocks) and cheese balls and logs likewise come in a variety of flavors. So if you want to be a member of Club Cheese like East Lansing residents of the past, buy your own li’l crock of joy today.

Cheese balls and cheese logs are other delicious Kaukauna products​

Cheese balls and cheese logs are other delicious Kaukauna products​. Image source

Sources:

http://www.kaukaunacheese.com/About-Our-Company.aspx

https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/belkaukauna-usa

http://www.belbrandsusa.com/our-brands/