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University of Vermont Libraries Center for Digital Initiatives
University of Vermont Libraries Center for Digital Initiatives

Scenes From the History of Snow Removal

University of Vermont Libraries Center for Digital Initiatives
University of Vermont Libraries Center for Digital Initiatives

In some areas, the weather outside is pretty frightful. And since you've no place to go but outside to shovel, get cozy and read about snow removal in the good old days.

On A Roll

For a good stretch of American history, getting rid of snow was of no great concern. In fact, people actually wanted it around. While this might blow the minds of modern Northeasterners and Midwesterners, keep in mind that these were the days of the horse-drawn vehicle, not the Prius. To improve travel in winter conditions, horse carts and coaches traded their wheels in for ski-like runners. With those things on, the more packed snow on the roads, the better! Historian and weather geek Eric Sloane wrote that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, "snow was never a threat" to road travel, "but rather it was an asset."

To keep roads in optimal snowy condition, many municipalities employed a "snow warden" to pack and flatten the snow with a crude vehicle called a snow roller—essentially a giant, wide wheel weighed down with rocks and pulled by oxen or horses. A far cry from the winter road work we see today, it was more like maintaining a ski slope or smoothing out an ice rink. Stranger still, snow wardens actually had to install snow on the pathways of covered bridges so that travel would not be interrupted.

Plow About That

Photo Courtesy Schwartz Boiler Shop

By the mid 1800s, several different inventors had patented their own versions of a horse-drawn snow plow meant for clearing alleys and residential streets that saw more foot traffic than carriages. In 1862, Milwaukee became the first major municipality to try one out, and it was a hit. Over the next few years, the plows hit the streets in cities throughout the Snow Belt.

But horse-drawn plows didn't stand a chance against the Blizzard of 1888, which bludgeoned the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay up to Maine. After three days, some places were buried in up to 50 inches of snow, and high winds caused drifts up to 40 feet tall to form. The plow-pulling horses, like everyone else, had no choice but to stay inside and wait for the snow to melt. Cities in the region learned a valuable lesson about preparation, and the following year many implemented measures like hiring more plows and giving them assigned routes, and sending the plows out to start clearing the roads in the early stages of the storm.

Blown Away

The Jull Centrifugal Snow Plough. Photo Courtesy of Made In Canada

Around the same time, on the other side of the country, the rotary snowplow—or as we know it, the snow blower—was getting its start in an unlikely place far removed from the suburban driveways where they're now normally seen. In the Canadian West, railroad men were having a hard time keeping their tracks clear of snow. The railroad snowplows used back east and on the prairies were the wedge-shaped cow-catcher type that pushed the snow to the sides of the track, and they just didn't work in the deep, heavy snow of the western mountains.

J.W. Elliott, a Toronto dentist, had been tinkering with a plow design he thought might work well on a train. His plow had a rotary engine that drove a wheel rimmed with flat blades. As the plow went down the track, snow collected in a housing on the plow and then got funneled up to the blades, which tossed the snow out through an opening at the top of the housing. The railroads passed on it, but Elliot persisted. He hooked up with inventor Orange Jull to improve the design and commission a full-scale working model. The next winter, they convinced the Canadian Pacific Railroad to road-test the new plow on its line near Toronto. The plow cleared the track easily, tossing snow as far as 200 feet out of the way, and the railroad managers were impressed enough to buy eight plows and put them to work. Over the few decades, snowblowers got cheaper, smaller, and easier to use, with truck-mounted models and, eventually, human-powered ones for home use hitting the market.

Car-Plow

Photo Courtesy of the National Archives of Norway

As automobiles replaced horses and carriages on the roads of the U.S., the snow problem got flipped on its head. It wouldn't be enough to clear the alleys and pack down the snow on the main roads anymore. Cars required dry, safe streets. Motorized salt spreaders were introduced, but they often didn't do enough, and urban sprawl meant most cities were just too big for horse-drawn plows to clean all the streets. In the early 1920s, Norwegian brothers Hans and Even Overaasen and New Yorker Carl Frink independently came up with designs for car-mounted snow plows. These were, apparenty the perfect solution to the modern snow problem, and the company Frink started is still producing plows today.

As for the snow removal tool the average Joe is most familiar with, 100-plus patents have been granted for snow shovel designs since the 1870s. One of the first designs that hit upon the "scrape and scoop" combo was invented in 1889 by—get this—a woman named Lydia Fairweather.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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You Can Now Rent the Montgomery, Alabama Home of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald Through Airbnb
Chris Pruitt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The former apartment of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the most famous couple of the Jazz Age, is now available to rent on a nightly basis through Airbnb, The Chicago Tribune reports. While visitors are discouraged from throwing parties in the spirit of Jay Gatsby, they are invited to write, drink, and live there as the authors did.

The early 20th-century house in Montgomery, Alabama was home to the pair from 1931 to 1932. It's where Zelda worked on her only novel Save Me the Waltz and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote part of Tender Is the Night. The building was also the last home they shared with their daughter Scottie before she moved to boarding school.

In the 1980s, the house was rescued from a planned demolition and turned into a nonprofit. Today, the site is a museum and a spot on the Southern Literary Trail. While the first floor of the Fitzgerald museum, which features first-edition books, letters, original paintings, and other artifacts related to the couple, isn't available to rent, the two-bedroom apartment above it goes for $150 a night. Guests staying there will find a record player and a collection of jazz albums, pillows embroidered with Zelda Fitzgerald quotes, and a balcony with views of the property's magnolia tree. Of the four surviving homes Zelda and F. Scott lived in while traveling the world, this is the only one that's accessible to the public.

Though the Fitzgerald home is the only site on the Southern Literary Trail available to rent through Airbnb, it's just one of the trail's many historic homes. The former residences of Flannery O'Connor, Caroline Miller, and Lillian Smith are all open to the public as museums.

[h/t The Chicago Tribune]

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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