Photographing Appalachia–And Its Foodways!

I’m hard a work on a new resource guide for students (one that is about Appalachian resources, and will include content on food & foodways!). I am hoping to have mostly finished during the start of classes next week, so it’s been my focus for the last day or so. I’m including in it one of my favorite pictures from the Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025):

Women cooking apple butter, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)
Women cooking apple butter, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)

When I sat down to write a blog post this morning, I though, “huh, why not Earl Palmer?” It’s not strictly food. To be honest, it’s not even primarily about food, but it’s a significant collection when it comes to Appalachia and there are some connections to be made.

Earl Palmer was born in Kentucky in 1905. He received his first camera at age 7, which launched a life-long love of photography. By the time he was 19, his images were already appearing in local papers and travel magazines. In 1945, he moved to Cambria (now part of Christiansburg) and his photos were in national magazines. Billing himself the “Blue Ridge Mountains’ Roamin’ Camera Man”, Palmer concentrated on the people and places of Appalachia, particularly the region’s traditional culture. Though based in southwestern Virginia, Palmer traveled the mountain regions of Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia in search of subjects. From 1954 to 1964 (when Cambria merged with Christiansburg), Palmer was Cambria’s mayor. In 1972, he retired from the grocery business to devote more time to photography. During his many trips, Palmer also collected a number of artifacts associated with traditional mountain life, including wagon wheels, handicrafts, a moonshine still and tools. He died in 1996.

The Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025) contains about 750 photographs taken by Palmer, as well as a small group of printed materials relating to his photography, and a large selection of artifacts. A full description of the collection is online. But first, a few more photographs!

Peaks of Otter
Peaks of Otter, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)
Corn shucks in a field, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)
Corn shucks in a field, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)
Newton Hylton whittling a miniature ox-yoke, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)
Newton Hylton whittling a miniature ox-yoke, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)

The photograph portion of the collection has been digitized and is available online. You can search within the folio by keyword (for example, “apple butter” or “landscape”) or you can simply browse. While it’s broad in scope and captures many aspects of Appalachia, you will find image relating to food, agriculture/farming, social customs, and handicrafts, all of which can be tied to food and drink history in various ways

In addition to the photos, there is a series of artifacts, which includes items collected by Palmer, that are associated with traditional Appalachian folk culture. The series includes such items as a moonshine still, wagon wheels, ox yokes and hand-made brooms, as well as items associated with coal mining and railroading and small collection of cameras and photography equipment. Special Collections is not a museum and while we have some artifacts, the size and scope of the number in this collection made them difficult to manage. With the exception of a few small items, the majority of the artifacts reside permanently with the Appalachian Studies program at Virginia Tech and are on display at Solitude, like these:

Large wooden yoke, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)
Large wooden yoke, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)
Wooden cheese boxes, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)
Wooden cheese boxes, Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection (Ms1989-025)

There’s a complete list of artifacts in the “Contents List” of the finding aid. As you can see, there are cornstalk carvings, farming equipment, household items, kitchenware, and even a moonshine still!

Photographs aren’t necessarily an obvious connection to food and drink history, but the fact of the matter is that images like these, captured by Earl Palmer and other photographers have as much of a story to tell as a handwritten receipt book or a community cookbook. Whether they capture a how an ingredient got started on the farm, how it was cooked, or what people used to store it, photographs can be a key element to studying culinary practices.

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Cheers (To the Designers of These Great Cocktail Artifacts)!

Artifact (in an archival context): a man-made, physical object

While Special Collections isn’t artifact-driven–that is, we don’t go out of our way specifically to find artifacts–that doesn’t mean they don’t find us. Between a Civil War-era rifled musket, Corps of Cadet sabers, a football trophy, and more recently, a snare drum from a student who attended VPI in the 1940s, we do have a range of museum-type items. If we’re talking food history, we even have a 19th century stove here! Most of the food-related artifacts are on the smaller size: toys sets to teach nutrition to children, an old cast iron kettle, or, for the Hokie-spirited, an empty bottle from a Hokie-branded beer (probably from an event several decades ago). Last week’s post, though, alluded to some new cocktail artifacts and let’s face it, I couldn’t wait to share them. In the last month or so, we’ve acquired a handful of unique early and mid-20th century cocktail artifacts. Here are a couple of them…

This vintage faux cocktail shaker is about 5 1/4 inches tall. It’s chrome on the outside and the rotary on the inside features early Bakelite panels (Bakelite was created in the late 1910s) and is probably just pre-Prohibition era in terms of its date.

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Each of the remaining 23 panels contains a cocktail recipe:

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Basically, there’s a mini-rolodex inside and twisting the knob drops a new panel into view until it cycles through and starts again. Of course, the panels are small, so there are no directions, other than the list of ingredients. But, for the most part, these are traditionally shaken cocktails: Pour all the ingredients over ice, shake, strain, and enjoy!

The second item dates from about 1940:

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This is a long scroll on two spindles. You can turn either knob to “scroll” forward and backward. In it’s original case and box, this is leather over a case of metal and plastic. “Baron Fougner’s Bar Guide: Standard Recipes for Cocktails, Mixed Drinks, Canapes” came with two choice of colors: walnut or mahogany (ours is the latter). “Baron Fougner” was actually G. Selmer Fougner (1885-1941), a journalist and columnist. From 1933 to 1941, he wrote a daily column for the New York Sun called “Along the Wine Trail” that covered wine, food, and even recipes. He also wrote several books including New York City restaurant guides and a history of his role in several “dining societies.”

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The panel on the back contains an index to the sections and kinds of drinks and food included. (Unfortunately, it didn’t photograph too well through the textured and slightly wrinkly surface.)

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Our bar guide came with a pamphlet pointing out its use, efficiency in the home bar (look, it’s spill-proof, unlike those pesky books!), and what it includes. And it’s in the original 1940s box.

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So, “cool” factor aside, there really is research value to items like these. They can clue us into popular cocktails of a time period, show us who the “authorities” in the cocktail world were, what kinds of quirky items people were collecting, and, in the case of these items, how the “home bartenders” were learning their skills. In addition to these items, we’ve also recently acquired a retractable tape measure with inches on one side and cocktail recipes on the other; a key-chain with cocktail recipes on small cards inside a metal case; a glass tube with recipes on long narrow cards (which are protected from spills by the glass); and an Art Deco era cocktail betting game (more on that one another day). It turns out collecting and researching cocktail history is even more fun than you might have guessed! If you’d like to learn more, you’re always welcome to drop by and check these items out in person–we’ll be here!