Thursday, November 3, 2011

Seeing the Details

By: Christina Ely, Registrar for Plowline: Images of Rural New York

19th Century Farm Scene, 1880-1890, by W.H. Bell, F0003.2011.  Plowline: Image of Rural New York.  The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

Recently, I used the photograph above with a group of students to discuss looking at agricultural photographs. It proved to be a fruitful and valuable discussion, better than I could have hoped for. Before the session I had spent quite some time looking at this photograph, discovering the details and thinking about the purpose and background of this 19th century image. Here I will discuss a little bit about what I discovered through looking closely at the details and a little research.

When we added this image to the Plowline: Images of Rural New York Collection last January, I thought I had created a fairly comprehensive description.  It wasn’t until a couple weeks ago, that I found there was a lot more to learn about this photograph.  Let’s take a look!

What do you notice first when you look at the photograph? I noticed the barn, five men, the stack of loose hay, the hay on the wagon that the two men stand on, the team of horses and the sleigh. Those seem to be the main features of the photograph for me. When looking a little closer, I noticed there are two sleds turned upside down in the foreground; bales of hay and of course, snow. Here’s what I didn’t notice or think too much about until I was preparing for the class last month. 

As I was thinking about this photo one night at home, I thought “wait, how did they make those hay bales in the photo?” That thought led me to wonder when the hay baler was invented.

Detail, 19th Century Farm Scene. F0003.2011.
I came into work the next morning and immediately took out the photo. I looked closely at the “wagon” of loose hay the two men are standing on and realized that THAT was how they made those hay bales.

Detail, 19th Century Farm Scene. F0003.2011.
It wasn’t a wagon at all. I immediately started researching when the hay baler was invented, and found that the predecessor to the baler (a term coined in the 1920s or 1930s) was a “hay press” and it was invented around 1870. That was a fairly new machine the men were using. There were different types –horse powered and another type that was invented in 1881 which was controlled by a pressure gauge. I am still not sure which type this is as it is difficult to discern what is in the faded recess behind the hay press, horses and men. It could be the pressure gauge press, but there are also clues that this may be a horse powered press.

This led me to thinking more about something else I had researched when the photo came to us - that prominent sleigh so nicely placed in the foreground.  It looks like a very nice sleigh and with a little research; I discovered it’s a VERY nice sleigh.  The sleigh is an “Albany Cutter.” Not only is it an Albany Cutter, but it’s a four seat Cutter! This was the primo sleigh of the time period. It was the “Cadillac” of the day. Upon further research, I learned that just as cars are updated from year to year, so was the cutter. Paint features upon it let people would know approximately when a person purchased the sleigh. This was a very nice thing to own.

Detail, 19th Century Farm Scene. F0003.2011.

These two objects led me to question: why there was such a nice sleigh and hay press with loose hay upon it (not to mention all the other hay and bales we see) outside in the winter? What was the purpose of this photo? The more I looked at the photo and thought about these details the more I realized that this was not a photograph taken by a photographer who just happened by this nice farm scene during a leisurely drive in the county. This was a photo to show prominence, ownership, success. The nice sleigh, the newly-invented hay press, all that hay suggesting a fair amount of land was owned, the strong team of horses - all these show that the farmers were doing pretty well for themselves at the time and they wanted to have a record to show it. Of course, with all these things discovered – I still have a multitude of questions about what I don’t see in the photo or have knowledge of. What type of farm was this- gentleman or dairy, perhaps otherwise? What did the house look like? Who ARE all these men in the photograph? Where exactly was this farm in Cortland County, New York? When was that barn built? How much land was part of the farm? Did they lumber, sugar, ice harvest in the winter and spring months (maybe that’s what they are alluding to with those two small upside-down sledges)?

When we look closely and think about the details in a photograph, the purpose of the photograph, the photographer’s and subject’s intent, and what we DON’T see in the photo we can learn a lot more than we initially might from a simple quick glance. It can be quite a rewarding experience.


Anonymous said...

The team in the background is working a lever arangment which commpesses the hay in the chamber which has been stomped in the chamber prior to being commpacted by the horses.

Anonymous said...

This is a newer hay press. Earlier presses were upright and had to be loaded on a wagon or sleighs to move.
Tthe sleighs were also known as kinivers as they steered on both bobs and get around most anything so they were named after a kiniving person.

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