First Things

Looking Backwards

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When it comes to antique farm equipment, it's easy to get caught up in eye candy. Take a look at a tractor or engine restored to better-than-new condition, and it's completely understandable if your attention is quickly diverted from an ingenuous design to the swimsuit competition.

Not that there's anything wrong with restoration, particularly when it's done well and thoughtfully. The best restoration serves as a primer on the past while it preserves the piece for the edification of another generation. But it can be equally instructive to spend time with pieces in pristine original condition.

I recently had opportunity to wallow in a very, very fine collection of items related to farm life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. While many of the pieces were farm equipment, many others were household artifacts related to cooking, food preservation and laundry - very basic functions of survival. Nearly all of the items were in their original dress, all were unmistakably old and all told a tale of a uniquely American resourcefulness.

It was utterly impossible to overlook each device's singular purpose and ingenuity of design and manufacture. It was just as impossible not to pause and consider the thousands and thousands of inventive minds behind the inventions. For many, the motivation was clearly commercial; for others, it was simply a matter of solving a problem. Either way, the innovation of the period was stunning, whether you look at something as humble as an eggbeater or as sophisticated as a steam engine.

In 1876, the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine opened in Philadelphia. The event celebrated the 100th anniversary of American independence, the country's emergence from Reconstruction and successes in science, industry and cultural exchange.

Although more than 30,000 displays were submitted from every state and many foreign countries, more than a quarter were from the U.S. Covering more than 2 acres, the U.S. exhibit included everything from a nearly overwhelming display of natural history to engineering marvels of the age. For six months, visitors swarmed over the exhibition, gaping at the pace of progress in their world.

We live in an era of rapidly evolving technology, and yet are nearly speechless at the technological advancement of 125 years ago. We take electronics for granted, yet we marvel at early devices. Our eyes stay focused on the future, but looking backward teaches lessons as well. American ingenuity has long been and remains one of this country's greatest resources.

Leslie McManus, Editor
lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com