Archive for September, 2010

From the Archive: Mail Order Catalogs

by Tiffani Righero, Research Assistant, Local History Archive

Do you order items from catalogs? For many, catalog shopping is a thing of the past.  Instead, customers today are shopping online, and as a result, many companies have stopped printing catalogs.  However, a hundred years ago mail order catalogs were essential in many American lives.

In the late 1800s, Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears, Roebuck and Co., headquartered in Chicago, distributed their catalogs across the nation and provided a way for long distance customers to purchase their products.  For companies like Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail order catalogs increased sales greatly.  By 1895, Sears, Roebuck and Co. printed a 532-page catalog which brought sales to $750,000, nearly doubling from $400,000 just two years earlier.  Since specialized stores did not exist outside major cities, these catalogs offered rural residents, especially settlers in the West, a wide assortment of products so they could enjoy the same material items that city dwellers purchased.

Here are a few of the items available for purchase in 1894 and 1900. Need some handcuff for the local police department? Sears’ catalog was the place to look.

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How about a new reed organ for the parlor?  This one comes with a free 30 trial offer.

Men, notice some balding that needs covering? Ladies, need some bangs or a pompadour? This page, complete with a wig buying guide, was the answer to any hair woes.

How about some exercise equipment? Montgomery Ward & Co. offered Chest Weights on a pulley system similar to equipment you see in gyms today.

Have you ever noticed the same grave stones at cemeteries across the nation? That’s because many Americans ordered their stones from a catalog. Here are the options Sears, Roebuck & Co. offered.

You may be wondering about shipping costs on some of these considerably heavy items. Both Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs encouraged club orders.  Customers could get together with neighbors, friends, and family to combine their orders and save on shipping.

Take a look though these catalogs at the Local History Archive to determine what you might have purchased from a catalog over a hundred years ago.

Run for your lives, it’s an Army of Frogs!

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

An "Army" of Frogs

After last week’s research revealed that a group of grasshoppers is called a “cloud,” I was interested to learn what other creative names are given to aggregations of animals. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Alligators: congretation
  • Bears: sloth (sadly, a group of sloths is not called a “bear.”)
  • Buffalo: obstinancy
  • Catterpillars: army
  • Cockroaches: intrusion
  • Ducks: paddling
  • Emus: mob
  • Flamingos: flamboyance
  • Flies: business
  • Goldfish: troubling
  • Jellyfish: smack
  • Lizards: lounge
  • Moles: labor
  • Parrots: pandemonium
  • Porcupines: prickle
  • Rattlesnakes: rhumba
  • Rhinoceroses : crash
  • Wombats: wisdom

For more animal group names, be sure to read The San Diego Zoo’s great list.

Do you have any favorite “groups o’ animals” names? Have you always thought a group should have a name different than they do? Many of us here at the museum could come up with a few names for the group of squirrels that live in our courtyard, but those really aren’t appropriate to print…

StoryCorps

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

As a museum, one of our primary goals is preservation. We preserve tangible evidence of our world and our lives through artifacts, specimens, documents and photographs. But we also work to preserve the intangibles that come with our collections: the stories. That’s my favorite part, not just the “what” that identifies an object, but the “why” that tells me why it matters. That’s why I love StoryCorps.

StoryCorps, an independent non-profit, has been working since 2003 to collect the stories that people want to share. In just seven years, StoryCorps has added 30,000 oral history interviews to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The organization is involved in a variety of oral history initiatives, but anyone can share a story. You can hear StoryCorps‘ interviews on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” listen online, subscribe to their podcast, or watch animated shorts of their interviews on the StoryCorps Youtube Channel.

What stories would you want to share?

From the Archive: Mr. Steak

by Lesley Drayton, Curator, Fort Collins Local History Archive

I was going through some postcards here in the Archive and came across this gem from Mr. Steak, a restaurant located at 2712 South College Avenue in Fort Collins from around 1968 to 1988. My guess is this postcard dates from when they first opened in Fort Collins and started serving up, according to the back of the postcard, “perfectly aged USDA Choice corn-fed beef, char-broiled the way you like ‘em.”

Mr. Steak Postcard

Mr. Steak building, circa 1970

I really wish I could have gone to Mr. Steak. Doesn’t it look cozy?

By the way, the Local History Archive has hundreds of historic Fort Collins postcards. Stop by sometime and take a look!

Keep Looking Up

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

The week holds a plethora of sky gazing opportunities.

First off, Saturday, September 18th will debut the very first International Observe the Moon Night. The evening is an offshoot of many programs that exist to explore and study Earth’s closest neighbor, including the very successful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which has been sending back detailed images of the lunar surface. The moon will be in its waxing gibbous phase on Saturday, moving from a quarter to a full moon by Thursday, the 23rd of September.

As the moon moves through its phases, there will be a few objects competing for your attention in the night sky. Monday evening, September 20th and Tuesday morning, September 21st, will see Jupiter at its closest proximity to Earth in over 40 years. This will make Jupiter the second brightest object in the night sky after the moon. Jupiter will be visible throughout the evening, appearing almost directly overhead at midnight. As you’re looking for Jupiter you may also be able to see Uranus just above the giant planet. Unlike Jupiter, which is visible to the unaided eye, you’ll need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope to make out the tiny blue green Uranus.

If staying up until midnight isn’t your cup of tea, there’s also the chance for some early morning observations over the next few days with Mercury appearing low in the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise. The best days for viewing Mercury will be September 18, 19, & 20th. While Mercury will look like a pinkish colored light to the naked eye, a telescope may allow you to see the planet pass through a quick change of phases similar to those of our much slower moving moon.

Don’t worry if you don’t have your own telescope, because on Friday, September 24th, The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, along with the Astronomy Department of Front Range Community College, will host the Star Nights program at the Stargazer Observatory. The event runs from 8:00 to 10:00 PM on Friday evening and will include the StarLab Planetarium program, access to the telescope at the Stargazer Observatory, and other hands-on activities. The program is offered free to the public, although registration is required due to limited availability. To make a reservation, please contact Toby Swaford at 970-416-2705, extension 2.

The Rocky Mountain Locust

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

During our recent grasshopper emergence, I’ve heard several people refer to our abundance of insects as a “plague.” Well, they’re sort of right. The correct term for a group of generic grasshoppers is a “cloud,” not a “plague,” but the term for a group of locusts, the swarming phase of grasshoppers in the family Acrididae, is a “plague.” Locusts are differentiated from other grasshoppers by their destructive, migratory behavior. With huge and rapid population increases, locusts consume all the vegetation within a region and then, en masse, migrate to the next abundant supply of food.

The most famous locust to plague this part of North America? Melanoplus spretus, the Rocky Mountain locust.

Rocky Mountain locust

As European settlers from the east began moving further west during the mid 1800s, locusts from the west were moving east and the two groups met in the middle. Normally, M. spretus maintained its range in the Rocky Mountains, but when the species’ population became too large, that range expanded out onto the prairie. Accounts of grasshoppers in numbers so great they blocked out the sun began to come out of the Great Plains.

The Cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers.Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm – Laura Ingles Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

From July 20 to July 30 of 1874, a plague of locusts was recorded over the prairie that covered 198,000 square miles (approximately twice the size of Colorado!) and contained at least 12.5 trillion individuals weighing approximately 27.5 million tons.* The locusts ate everything: crops, grass, trees, clothing, leather, dead animals, and even each other. The number of insect bodies on the ground became so great that they literally stopped railroad traffic: the tracks around Colorado Springs became so slick with locusts that the train wheels couldn’t roll over them.

Range of the Rocky Mountain locust

The largest recorded swarms of the Rocky Mountain locust peaked from 1873-1877, the same time people were actively settling the west. People tried everything to get rid of the insects: burning fields, blasting land with gunpowder, bringing in locust predators and parasites, and building mechanical contraptions to collect and destroy the insects.

However, as quickly as the insect and reports of its destruction had spread across the prairie, the Rocky Mountain locust disappeared just as quickly. The last confirmed sighting of a living specimen was in 1902.

There’s debate over what factors contributed to the extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust. The most accepted theory is that the very settlers the locusts wrecked havoc on ended up, inadvertently, destroying the species by destroying the insects’ breeding ground to plant crops.

Because locusts are a behavioral form of grasshoppers that emerge when populations reach high enough densities, there is a theory that other grasshopper population can become “locust-ized” and behave like M. spretus if conditions are right. However, DNA testing from museum specimens of the Rocky Mountain locust suggests that M. spretus was a distinct, and now extinct, species and the days of the locust on the scale of 12.5 trillion individuals are gone.

If you do still want to find Rocky Mountain locusts, the best place to look (other than in a museum) is in a glacier. Throughout the west there are glaciers that have preserved the frozen bodies of locusts that once flew over them.

Mummified locust from a glacier

For an excellent exploration of the natural and cultural history of the locust, I recommend reading Jeffrey A. Lockwood’s Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier.

*Because of this plague, M. spretus holds a place in The Guinness Book of World Records as “the greatest concentration of animals.”

Science Wednesday: Invasion of the Grasshoppers

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

For the past month, Fort Collins has been full of grasshoppers. They’re everywhere: on walls, windows, sidewalks, signs, and, last Thursday, rather boldly crawling up my leg.

Grasshopper on the window of Nature's Own

Last year, the USDA conducted a grasshopper survey of the western states and found that population numbers were quite high. Because a large population = a large number of eggs laid for the following year, the USDA predicted that 2010 could see the largest grasshopper population in decades. Well, it looks like the prediction was right.

Not only did last year’s grasshoppers lay a lot of eggs, but during the three-week hatching period for those eggs earlier this summer, conditions were perfect to help most of those hatchlings survive this summer. The end result? Colorado is full of grasshoppers.

There are over 100 different species of grasshoppers in Colorado, and the insects eat everything from grasses and sedges to the flowers, vegetables and other plants you grow in your garden. In the 1930s and 1940s the grasshopper populations were so bad that Fort Collins residents brought in turkeys to help control the grasshopper populations eating their crops!

Turkeys on the Akin Farm, brought in to eat the grasshoppers

As much as people may complain about the grasshoppers (or jump up and down, shaking one leg as I did), they are beneficial organisms. Because grasshoppers are voracious eaters, they’re also abundant poopers and that nutrient-rich waste is good for the soil. So are the grasshoppers’ bodies, which decompose when generations die. Finally, many grasshoppers are able to eat poisonous plants that might otherwise be ingested by other organisms, and are themselves an abundant source of food for birds and other predators.

The last big outbreak of grasshoppers in northern Colorado happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and there is a chance that the high population levels this year could lead to another season full of grasshoppers next summer. However, its rare to have several years of high grasshopper populations in a row, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Either way, the first good frost will be the end of this year’s grasshoppers and we can once again walk the streets without fear of leg hitchhikers.


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