Category Archives: Uncategorized

Let Sears, Roebuck & Co. be your architect

Posted by | October 2, 2015

A headline on page 594 of the 1908 Sears Catalog probably startled readers used to page after page of plows, obesity powders, sewing machines, and cook stoves. It announced: “$100 set of building plans free. Let us be your architect without cost to you.” From 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Company sold roughly 75,000 homes nationwide through their mail-order Modern Homes program. Illinois probably has the largest collection in the US, but Sears homes are located in all 48 contiguous states.

Over that time Sears designed 447 different housing styles, from the elaborate multistory Ivanhoe, with its elegant French doors and art glass windows, to the simpler Goldenrod, which served as a quaint, three-room and no-bath cottage for summer vacationers.

Sears mail order homesCustomers could choose a house to suit their individual tastes and budgets. A few weeks after the customer selected a home and placed the order, two railway boxcars containing 30,000 pieces of house – everything from doorknobs and carved staircases to varnish and roof shingles – would arrive at the nearest train depot.

How to get it from the station to the lot was up to the new homeowner. In the early days, people made trip after trip between the building site and the railroad station. Since it would have been difficult to transport all that material long distances, Sears homes were often located within a mile or two of train tracks and in cities that were reachable by rail.

Karen Hudson, of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, reports the results of a 1992 survey the Center conducted in the New River Gorge region of West Virginia to describe that area’s built environment:

“The survey revealed a much more diverse landscape than has been described in the past,” she notes. “While it was easy for project researchers to locate log cabins and abandoned coal towns, we also found many cinder block bungalows, glazed tile barns and silos, Lustron houses, concrete block churches, Sears mail order homes, and geodesic domes. Contrary to past reports, the New River Gorge cultural landscape reflects the history of a community that designed, built, and used its buildings according to individual tastes and principles.”

In 1932, Sears Modern Homes department began operating at a loss for the first time since 1912. The company’s annual report stated that sales of the mail-order homes had dropped 40 percent in one year.

Sears closed the Modern Homes department in 1934. At a time when the average Sears house cost well under $3,000 (and mortgages were typically a fraction of that amount), this was a staggering sum. Foreclosing on (and evicting) customers from their homes became a public-relations nightmare. The Modern Homes department was reopened the following year, but the days of Sears “easy payment” mortgages were over.

Between 1932 and 1940, Sears probably sold another 15,000 to 20,000 homes, perhaps fewer. When the last Sears Modern Homes catalog was issued in 1940, Americans had purchased an estimated 75,000 homes.



They would work up the apples the next day

Posted by | October 1, 2015

“Pa bought a mountain farm of about eighty acres that was located about five miles up Coon Creek from where the state road went from Pikeville, Kentucky to Williamson, W. Va. This farm had a framed four-room house on it, but Pa was never satisfied with it, as it was all hillside except maybe two acres.

“Pa and Ma both worked hard and were good managers. They raked and scraped and saved all they could, and didn’t waste anything. Pa was a great hand to set out fruit trees, so naturally he had an apple orchard. They canned apples in fruit jars, dried apples over a kiln, and made apple butter. Of course there were other fruit trees on the place, such as a cherry tree, several peach trees and some pear trees. They made use of all the fruit. When apples were ripe, they would peel a couple of bushels at night by kerosene lamplight, then they would work them up the next day.

Sorting fruit in Kentucky
“Pa was intelligent and he had about fifth grade education at three or four months per school term. Women in those days rarely attended school as it was considered useless as a woman’s place was in the home. So naturally Ma could neither read nor write. Pa taught her to read, write and count. He used a blue-backed speller as a textbook. Ma would practice writing or printing the words from the speller, and soon she could read her bible and the mail order catalog.

“Ma was an intelligent woman and had great pride in her manners, cleanliness and character. She always had a smile for every one and never downed people. They seemed to prosper right along, and they vowed they would send their children to school and educate them. This they did.

“Bertha completed eighth grade, took six weeks of high school, took a Normal Course Examination and received her certificate to teach school. She taught school for three years on Brushy Fork of John’s Creek. Orrison completed high school at Pikeville, and went to the University Of Kentucky at Lexington, where he graduated with a Law degree. He was admitted to the Bar in Kentucky, and set up his practice in Pikeville. John completed high school in Pikeville, and was an outstanding basketball player. After high school, he went into business with Garfield Blackburn, selling White Sewing Machines.”

By Ireland Everett Layne
Coon Creek, KY


Pikeville+KY Apple+harvesting appalachia appalachia+history appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia


She had one husband, four children, and four legs

Posted by | September 30, 2015

Myrtle Corbin was known far and wide in the late nineteenth century as the Four-Legged Woman. While at a glance one could plainly see four legs dangling beyond the hem of her dress – only one pair belonged to her, the other set to her dipygus twin sister.

Born in Lincoln County, TN in 1868, the girl with the incredibly rare condition spent most of her childhood in Blount County, AL. The tiny body of her twin was only fully developed from the waist down and even then it was malformed – tiny and possessing only three toes on each foot. Myrtle was able to control the limbs of her sister but was unable to use them for walking and she herself had a difficult time getting around as she was born with a clubbed foot. Technically, the ‘Four-Legged Woman’ only had one good, usable leg.

Myrtle became an exhibit at thirteen. Her first promotional pamphlet (Biography of Myrtle Corbin, 1881) describes her as “gentle of disposition as the summer sunshine and as happy as the day is long.”

Myrtle was a popular attraction with P.T. Barnum, and later with Ringling Bros. and at Coney Island. Her popularity was likely linked to her showmanship – she would often dress the extra limbs with socks and shoes matching her own and this gave her a truly surreal appearance. Myrtle was so popular that she was able to earn as much as $450 dollars a week, a handsome sum in that era.

Myrtle’s younger sister, Willie Ann, married Hiram Locke Bicknell in 1885. Hiram’s brother Dr. James Clinton Bicknell proposed to Myrtle shortly afterward, and the two were wed in June 1886.

It’s clear that James Bicknell married Myrtle for love, and not for money, for upon their marriage he insisted she leave show business. It was then that other aspects of her bizarre anatomy became evident. It seems that her twin sister was also fully sexually formed – thus Myrtle possessed two vaginas.

Myrtle Corbin, 4 legged womanJames, Myrtle & daughter Lillian in 1915.

In the early 1890’s, James & Myrtle moved their family from Blount County, AL to Johnson County, TX, settling near and finally moving to Cleburne City. The farming couple lived happily and over time produced a brood of eight children, half of whom died in infancy. The 1900 census for Johnson County states that Myrtle was the mother of five children, only three then living. The 1910 census for the same county states that she had had eight children, four then living. The surviving Bicknell children were Nancy Estelle, Francis Clinton, Ruby, and Lillian J.

It has been rumored that three of Myrtle’s children were born from one set of organs and two from the other. Whether this is true or not, it is medically possible. In ‘Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine,’ by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle it was observed that both vaginas menstruated – thus indicating both were possibly sexually functional.

We don’t know the specifics of the Bicknell family’s economic situation, but it must have deteriorated severely. Showpeople like Myrtle came out of retirement simply because they needed the money. Just so, the Four-Legged Girl from Cleburne, TX was back in the business appearing at Huber’s Museum in New York in 1909 at age 41.

The family no doubt intended this new turn of events to be temporary. But then 1910 turned into 1915: Dreamland Circus Sideshow, Coney Island. Riverview Park, Chicago. Myrtle worked the circuit and Myrtle made money. It had been more than 20 years since she last exhibited. She appears to have finally stopped exhibiting around 1915.

In 1928 Myrtle developed a skin infection on her right leg. When it failed to heal she finally went to a doctor in Cleburne. He diagnosed her as having erysipilas – a streptococcal skin infection. These days, a simple round of antibiotics would have eliminated the problem and Mrs. Bicknell would be on her way. Unfortunately, Myrtle lived in those days.

On May 6, less than a week after being diagnosed, Josephine Myrtle Corbin-Bicknell was dead.

Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, by Robert Bogdan, University of Chicago Press, 1990


For no reason he knew of he was coming alive with the garden

Posted by | September 29, 2015

But, strange as it seemed to him, there were minutes — sometimes half-hours — when, without his knowing why, the black burden seemed to lift itself again and he knew he was a living man and not a dead one. Slowly — slowly — for no reason that he knew of — he was “coming alive” with the garden.
—The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) left an indelible mark on children’s literature, providing a path to the secret garden in all of us that is often lost in adulthood. But her own childhood was far from idyllic. Frances’ widowed mother Eliza moved with her five children from England to Knoxville, TN in 1865 where her brother had earlier moved and was struggling to keep a dry goods store going. He next moved Eliza and the children to New Market, where he had a cabin.

This was a dramatic shift for the Hodgson family. Frances had been born in Cheetham Hill, outside of Manchester. In late 1849 Manchester was a thriving textile center fueled by the success of the cotton mills. Edwin and Eliza Hodgson had a successful home furnishings business, providing customers with such products as chandeliers, ironwork, and brass door fittings.

But it all changed dramatically in 1854 when Edwin died at age 38 of a stroke. Eliza tried to keep the business going but the start of the Civil War in the United States affected cotton imports and the textile industry experienced a tremendous rate of unemployment.

And so the Hodgsons were hurled from upper middle class comfort in Manchester to hard scrabble poverty in New Market, now often going to bed hungry. And yet the move from industrial England to rural America was for young Frances a journey to the green, natural world that would become a central theme in many of her later works, including ‘The Secret Garden.’

Frances Hodgson BurnettThe move would also prove instrumental in Frances’ development as a writer. Although she had always been obsessed with storytelling and often amused her schoolmates by acting out tales of adventure and romance, the financial strain of the emigration caused her to turn to writing as a means of supplementing the family’s income.

The Hodgson’s neighbors were Dr. John and Lydia Burnett and their son Swan, whose great-grandfather was Adam Peck, the earliest settler of what would become Jefferson City. Frances and Swan would spend much time together and would begin a relationship that would lead to marriage in 1873.

Frances Burnett’s first published story, “Miss Carruthers’ Engagement,” appeared in a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1868. Her paper and postage-stamps for the venture had to be earned by picking and selling wild grapes. She began to write five or six stories each month, for $10 apiece and supported her family by writing. As stories began to be published in Harper’s, Atlantic, Scribner’s Monthly, and Peterson’s Ladies’ Magazine, she earned enough money to move her family back to Knoxville in 1869.

After the death of her mother in 1872, the family became increasingly dependent on Frances’ writing income. She accelerated her career as a popular writer. Swan, whom she married the following year, was preparing to specialize in the treatment of the eye and ear. He wished to further his specialty by studying in Europe, and Frances financed his wish, once again becoming responsible for the bulk of her family’s income. After the birth of their first son Lionel on September 20, 1874 in Knoxville, they left Tennessee, never to return.

Over the course of her life, Burnett wrote more than forty books, for both adults and children. While her adult novels are considered to be quite sentimental, her children’s books have withstood the fickleness of literary fashions. ‘The Secret Garden,’ the story of how Mary Lennox and her friends find independence as they tend their garden, has been described as one of the most satisfying children’s books ever written.



Company Store Scrip

Posted by | September 28, 2015

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

‘Sixteen Tons’
Tennessee Ernie Ford

Until the late 1950’s, when changes in federal and state laws, along with changing economic realities doomed the practice, many companies issued tokens, or scrip, for use by their employees in company run stores. This was especially widespread in the coal fields of Appalachia, where many miners also lived in company owned towns. In these company towns, or “coal camps,” the only store in town was usually owned or run on behalf of the coal company.

In theory, scrip was an advance against unearned wages and usable only by the employee to whom it was issued. In practice, many miners were never able to fully retire their debt to the company store and scrip became the unofficial currency of the community, even being placed in the collection plates of some coal town churches.

coal mine scrip Tierney Mining Co., Inc. Stone, Ky. Insurance Credit System

Scrip in the very beginning was more a trade credit or demand deposit at the single local general store. Ledger credit scrip, however, gave way to scrip coupon books, which eliminated the tedious bookkeeping chores involved in over the counter credit – transactions that must be followed by ledger entries.

The institutions that supplied coupon scrip were companies already in business printing tickets, tokens, and metal tags for various other kinds of enterprises. They advertised extensively in mining catalogues during the first half of the twentieth century touting the advantages of their own scrip systems.

The Allison Company of Indianapolis, for example, noted that when one of its coupon books was issued to an employee, he signed for it on the form provided on the first leaf of the book, which the store keeper tore out and retained for the company time keeper, who deducted the amount from the man’s next time-check. Then when the employee bought goods from the company store, he paid in coupons, just as he would pay in cash.

Other scrip producing ticket companies emphasized the safety of the scrip coupon system in coal mining communities where little or no police protection was available.

The Arcus Ticket Company of Chicago advertised a list of advantages of scrip for both the employer and employee, one of which for the employer was the fostering of employee good-will by eliminating misunderstandings on charge accounts. The advantages to the employee included keeping the head of the house better informed as to the purchases made by his family from day to day. This frequently put a check on extravagance and debt. Local scrip of this type was very similar to modern day traveler’s checks.

The transaction costs of coupon scrip eventually encouraged the increased use of metal scrip. This medium became cheaper overall than coupon scrip, in spite of metal’s higher initial costs, largely due to the invention and development of the cash register after 1880. Pantographic machines also were instrumental in reducing the unit costs of metal tokens.

In addition to metal tokens, there exist numerous examples of tokens made from “compressed fibre,” a paper-like substance, most issued during World War II to save the metals for the war effort.

coal company store, Harland County KYMiners and their families gather around the company store and office. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky. Sept 12, 1946.

Scrip was usually denominated in the same values as U.S. currency. However, at least two companies issued a piece denominated three cents. The largest tokens were most frequently $1.00 face value. Pieces with a higher face value are very common. Special tokens, called “exploders,” were used to facilitate the issuance of blasting powder, caps, and dynamite.

The obverse of the token usually indicated the name of the company or store issuing the scrip, and the value of the piece. A place name frequently appeared, not always where the token was used. Sometimes, the location of the general offices of the coal or store company appeared instead.

The reverse of the scrip usually contained the name and logo; designs changed fairly frequently. Other information, such as value and name of the issuing company is sometimes added. Pieces with no manufacturer identification exist in abundance and are termed “unattributed.”


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