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Hands on History

Try these hands on activities to get a glimpse of life in old time Portsmouth.

Have you ever tried carding wool, using a washboard to clean clothes or cutting a lawn with a reel mower?  Would you like the opportunity to do a gravestone rubbing without intruding on a cemetery?  The whole family can try these hands on activities (and more) at the Portsmouth Historical Society's Harvest Social next Sunday (Oct. 14th) from 2 to 4 PM.  These activities will give you a glimpse of life in old time Portsmouth.  It is a great warm up for Portsmouth's 375th celebration next year.

In the one room school house you can try your hand at making an old fashioned toy.  A whirligig is a homemade toy consisting of a length of string threaded through the two holes in a large button and tied in a continuous loop. When the string is wound up, then pulled apart, then brought back in repeatedly, the button spins quickly, winding and unwinding the string again and again. As a craft toy, the whirligig has perhaps been around long before buttons were commonly used. Evidence indicates that whirligigs were common toys for many centuries in cultures around the world. It was an easy toy for children to make.  

Outside the Old Town Hall you can try to push a reel mower.  Reel mowers have been around since at least October 25th, 1830, when Edwin Beard Budding patented the first known design. He described his reel mower as “a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping or shearing the vegetable surfaces of lawns, grass-plats and pleasure grounds.” One of the things he pointed out in his patent is that “country gentlemen may find in using my machine themselves an amusing, useful and healthy exercise.”

By the horse-drawn hearse in the Old Town Hall, you can do a rubbing of the gravestone of Joseph Cook.  Joseph died in 1726 and this broken stone has beautiful engravings.  When the Puritans settled in the New World in the 1600s, they brought with them a religion that feared the afterlife. They believed only a chosen few called the "elect" would go to heaven. A less pleasant fate awaited the rest, who were sinners in the hands of an angry God. Gravestone symbols in the colonial period reflect this religious belief system. The "death head," a skull with or without wings, was the standard gravestone engraving and can be seen in many old New England cemeteries. As the concept of the afterlife shifted to a heavenly paradise, we begin to see the weeping willow replace the death head.

Towards the back of the Old Town Hall you can try carding wool.  From colonial days in Portsmouth,  wool was a major source of income, and being able to spin and weave it meant a woman could provide warm clothing for her family. Carding wool is the process by which wool fibers are separated and prepared for spinning. Carding wool by hand takes practice. The carder takes two carding combs, which have upstanding teeth, and loads one with the wool fibers. Using a back and forth motion, the person places one carder on top and "combs" the carder through the wool on the lower carding comb. When all the carding wool has been transferred from the bottom carder to the top, the carding combs are flipped over and the process is reversed. When the wool fibers are separate the fibers are rolled for use on a spinning wheel.

What is it like to wash your clothes by hand?  Washboards are still used to do laundry in many areas of the world. Clothes are soaked in hot soapy water in a washtub or sink, then squeezed and rubbed against the ridged surface of the washboard to force the cleansing fluid through the cloth to carry away dirt. A washboards is portable and could be taken to wash clothes in a river. The rubbing has a similar effect to beating the clothes and household linen on rocks, an ancient method, but the washboard is less damaging to the clothes.  

If you like to sing old fashioned songs like "Daisy" or "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," you can participate in a "singing school" in the Upper Church. The Portsmouth Historical Society's building was once the Union Church and the church believed that everyone should learn to sing.  

If you have never been to the museum, this is a great time to visit.  If you have seen the museum, this is a special occasion with hands on activities and docents to guide you.  This is the traditional Harvest Social fundraiser, so there is a $5 donation for individuals or $10 for a family.  Refreshments will be served and there will be a sale of home baked goods.  This is the closing activity for the historical society for this year.  Check the Portsmouth Historical Society website for more information - www.portsmouthhistorical.com

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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