Perhaps the largest single item owned by the Conway Public Library, this painting nearly fills one of our reading room walls. Contrary to the common assumption of many casual observers, they are not deep frying a turkey here.
This painting has more to do America’s first patent than with Thanksgiving. To understand this rather odd connection between a painting and a patent, and to mine the meaning of this often misunderstood work of art, we will follow clues from France to Fryeburg to Florida and back again.
So what’s in the pot? Our first clue to this mystery is the wooden barrel in the background near the base of the big tree on the left of the painting. Click your mouse on the picture to enlarge it. Notice how the barrel is raised up on boards above the ground. It is leaning forward away from the stone wall due to a cobble sized stone set under the back of the barrel. There is a wooden board on top and there is a pail underneath. If you lived during the 19th century, you would immediately recognize this as a lye leaching barrel.
How does this barrel make lye? Basically a hole was drilled near the bottom of the barrel and it was filled part way up with layers of straw and gravel.
Ashes from the fireplace were then placed on top of these filters and finally water was poured over the ashes. The water would leach out the lye from the potash in the fireplace ashes.
Potash has been used since ancient times for many things including manufacturing glass, fertilizer, dyeing fabric, baking, wine and gunpowder. But none of that is happening here.
The best water to use was rain water. Rain water is naturally “soft.” Soft water is water in its purer form and contains low concentrations of ions and in particular is low in ions of calcium and magnesium that make the water “hard” after it hits the ground and collects in rivers, lakes or underground aquifers.
Signed by George Washington on July 31, 1790, the first patent issued by the United States government was for the design of a new and improved process for making potash and pearl ash (a refined version of potash) from wood ashes. The original document is now in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society. To read it more clearly click on the image to enlarge it.
The 1790 patent was issued to Samuel Hopkins for his improvement to the traditional process seen in the painting. Instead of just dumping ash into a barrel to be dissolved and leached, Hopkins innovation was to cook the ash first in a furnace, effectively burning the ashes again. This helps rid the ashes of free carbon in the ash by increasing its carbonite load and the resulting ashes had a much greater potash yield. This first American patent was part of a movement towards the industrialization and commercialization of manufacturing. As a result, the item they are making in the pot was no longer made at home on the farm.
But back to our barrel. How can you tell when your lye water is ready? You can’t touch it as the alkaline (base) nature of the solution would burn your skin and irritate your eyes and nose. The traditional way to know when the solution was ready would be to dip a chicken feather into it. It’s ready when the liquid dissolves the feather’s barbs.
So now you have lye ready for the next ingredient for our mystery product and the answer to what they are making in the pot.
To answer this question, let’s consult some old farmers for their advice. By old I mean 15th century medieval French farmers. Over five hundred years ago in medieval France, few people could read, and important lessons were taught in a couple powerful ways that made them easier to remember: one through pictures, the other through rhyme (oral tradition). We will look at an example of each related to our story. Let’s start with an illuminated manuscript from 15th century France.
Les Tres Riches Heures
The semi-circle (tympanum) over the rectangular landscape shows the season through the signs of the zodiac, in this case, depicting Scorpio at left, Sagittarius at right, indicating the month of November. In the center of the tympanum is a classical image of a sun chariot. In this case, the figure can be specifically identified not as Apollo, but as the Emperor Heraclius returning the True Cross to Jerusalem.
The subject of the scene below is the annual late autumn acorn harvest. From left to right, you can see a pig herding dog, a man with a stick, and pigs eating nuts on the ground. In the woods behind you can see more pigs and men with sticks. The men are hitting the tree branches and knocking down acorns to fatten up the pigs.
Pigs were not the only ones enjoying the late autumn harvest of nuts. Nutting was a popular activity especially for children in the past.
Winslow Homer print. Chestnutting.
Nutting parties were a popular pastime during late autumn according to Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of writer James Fenimore Cooper.
In her book, Rural Hours published 1850, she notes that in November, “The children are out nutting; it is the chestnuts which are the chief attraction with them–they are very common here. A merry group of boys and girls were chatting away in the "Chestnut Grove" this afternoon, as we passed. Black walnuts are not so frequent, and the butternuts in this immediate neighborhood are rare; in some parts of the county they abound. Beech-nuts are plenty. Hazel-nuts are rare, and our hickory-nuts are not as good as "Kiskytoms" should be. Still, all things with kernels are "nuts" to boys, and the young rogues make furious attacks upon all the chestnut, walnut, and hickory trees in the neighborhood; they have already stripped the walnut-trees about the village of all their leaves; these are disposed to fall early, but the boys beat the branches so unmercifully that they become quite bare as soon as the fruit is ripe.”
But back to the pigs and what is going on in the pot! We gain gain a little more understanding of the picture Thomas Tusser’s poetry of the 16th century. In a long series of rhyming couplets he offers seasonal farming advice.
Some of his advice for November is:
“Let hog once fat,
lose nothing of that.
When mast is gone,
hog falleth anon.”
lose nothing of that.
When mast is gone,
hog falleth anon.”
Mast refers to the nuts that have fallen in the forest. He is talking about the very process pictured in the illuminated manuscript. The process is to fatten up pigs for butchering.
So how does all this relate to this other ingredient in the pot besides lye that I keep hinting about?
It is about fat pigs, but not about food. It is an important pig product, but it’s not bacon or ham. It has to do with washing up before dinner rather than with dinner itself. It is related to fat pigs.
The answer is pig fat. They are making soap in the large pot by combining soft water, lye leached from fireplace ashes and pig fat. Heating this combination of ingredients over a fire starts a chemical transformation that makes soap.
Of course you could just look at the title of the painting on the little brass plaque attached to the frame at the bottom of the painting, but where’s the fun in that? The label reads
“Making Soap, Painted by Benjamin T. Newman, Gift of the Artist.” The painting is signed and dated “BT Newman 1892” in lower right hand corner.
Happy Thanksgiving from the Henney History Room!
… and don’t forget to wash your hands before dinner.