Antiquarianism During the Victorian Period

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Antiquarianism goes hand and hand with both History and Anthropology and was a favorite pastime for many wealthy Victorians, Robert Tinker included. What exactly is antiquarianism, you ask? Antiquarianism is the technical term for the study of antiquities or things of the past.

An Antiquarian scholar is one who studies antiquities, specifically what certain artifacts, archeological/historical sites, and literature can teach about any given region. Antiquarians tend to search for empirical evidence as their motto suggests “We speak from facts, not theory.” – Sir Richard Colt Hoare.

In the Tinker Cottage you will notice a cabinet filled with somewhat odd artifacts on the second floor of the library. The cabinet is fittingly called the Curio Cabinet or the Cabinet of Curiosities. It is filled with objects that Robert found curious, including geodes, coral pieces, seashells, and even a hornet’s nest!

Cabinet 1- full view
The Tinker Family’s Cabinet of Curiosities ©TinkerSwissCottageMuseum

Although the term is often used in the pejorative sense, antiquarians laid the groundwork for many museum collections in Europe and North American. However, the term has earned negative connotations due to the manner in which Antiquarians collected their artifacts, digging where they pleased and taking whatever pleased them. With little to no archaeological training or laws protecting antiquities at the time, the thin line between looters and antiquarians could be drawn between looters desire to sell artifacts and antiquarians desire to study and collect them. In fact, many antiquarians would buy artifacts from looters to fill their collections. Although the Tinker family did not fall under this type of collector, many antiquarians of the Victorian Era did. This created huge problems because without archeological context artifacts become merely unique or pretty objects, the context is needed to fully understand an artifacts’ importance temporally, spatially and culturally.

Fortunately, now there are a plethora of laws and guidelines that archaeologists must follow before ever breaking ground, this attempts to ensure the safety and preservation of artifacts and sites. While it is easy to look back and harshly critique antiquarian scholars it must be remembered that through their, albeit ethnocentric, point of view they were doing necessary work to preserve artifacts of interest.

Although visitors are not allowed on the second floor of the library due to safety precautions, a decent view of the Cabinet of Curiosity can be seen from the doorway connecting the library to Robert’s bedroom. We cannot wait to hear what you find curious in the Tinker Cottage!

Trinkets of Memento Mori: Postmortem Photography

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Trinkets of memento mori, such as postmortem photography, literally means “remember, you must die”. Pictures and paintings serve as wonderful windows to the past that allow us to get a glimpse of what life was like over a hundred years ago, reminiscent of the way Tinker Swiss Cottage allows its visitors to.
Although by modern standards taking photographs or painting portraits of the deceased is somewhat peculiar, in the nineteenth century it was a common practice. Often post-mortem photographs were the only images families would have of their loved ones. This was due to the unfortunate fact that it was much more difficult and expensive to have your photograph taken during the Victorian era.

A stark contrast to the incredibly effortless way we take photographs today, prior to the invention of the daguerreotype, the only way to capture any family pictures was through painted portraits. Fortunately, here at Tinker Swiss Cottage we boast two fantastic portraits of Mary’s grandmother Amy Chase Bull and uncle Milton Dorr. These were done by one of the most prolific and important portraitists in nineteenth-century America, Ammi Phillips. Phillips created these paintings in 1815. Interestingly enough, Ammi passed away in 1865- the very same year Robert Tinker began construction on the cottage.


While there are plenty of gruesome post mortem looking photos on the internet, many are inaccurate and feature staged actors and modern visual effects. However, we do have an authentic postmortem photograph currently on display in the Cottage. The photograph is of Mrs. Mary Johns, from Rockford Illinois in 1866.

Postmortem Photograph

There is also a postmortem painting on constant display in the upper level of the library in the museum. This painting is of John Manny, Mary Dorr Manny Tinker’s first husband and inventor of the Manny reaper. We know this was a post mortem piece because of the blue grey hue the artist gave to the skin, a common feature of postmortem portraits.

John Manny ©TinkerSwissCottageMuseum&Gardens


We hope to have you in soon to check out our fantastic, and somewhat eerie works of art this fall!



*Further Readings:

Hollander , Stacy C. “Reads.” Ammi Phillips – Self-Taught Genius,

Rockford Female Seminary and the Tinker Family

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Did you know that Rockford is home to one of the oldest colleges in the state of Illinois? Rockford University (Renamed in 2013), formerly Rockford College (Renamed in 1892), has a surprisingly long and rich history that dates all the way back to 1847. The school was originally a seminary school for women but later became the co-educational college it is today.

Rockford Female Seminary 1887, Illinois Digital Archives


Rockford Female Seminary is the alma mater of the first American female Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams, who was a member of the class of 1881. However, Addams did not receive her bachelor’s degree until the following year when the school became accredited as Rockford College for Women. Addams is best known for her revolutionary social work and early fighting for women’s rights. After seeing poor living conditions in a settlement house in London’s East End, Addams decided to make a change closer to home. This change was brought to fruition by opening Hull House in an industrial district of Chicago. Hull House provided schooling for children, medical help for those who could otherwise not afford it, and eventually night classes for adults. The night classes were particularly helpful for immigrants residing in the near west end of Chicago, offering courses in English, American Government, cooking, and sewing.
Today Hull House functions as a museum and more importantly a reminder of the power of one woman’s dedication and revolutionary vision.

Jane Addams while attending Rockford Female Seminary 1881, Illinois Digital Archives

During her time in Rockford Addams made many friends, including our very own Marcia Dorr. The two became close friends during their studies at Rockford Female Seminary and kept in touch years after their time at the Seminary together. On June 13, 1897, Robert Tinker made a note in his journal that they received a visit from “Jane Addams in pm.” Addams even asked Marcia to be the manager of the Holland House Restaurant. However, Marcia Declined so she could focus on her own aspirations, which were plentiful.

Marcia Dorr was the niece of Robert Tinker and his first wife Mary Dorr Manny Tinker. In 1873 at the age of 17 Marcia and her younger sister Jessie decided to move into the Tinker Swiss Cottage with their aunt and uncle after their father married a 19-year-old woman. Marcia and Jessie both attended Rockford Female Seminary school despite the fact that their aunt Mary did not believe in a liberal education for girls and informed their teachers of courses which were not appropriate for young ladies to study.

Marcia Dorr ©TinkerSwissCottageMuseum&Gardens

Marcia graduated from school and hastily began her career. She was involved with the Second Congregational Church, teaching Sunday school to children and a member of the Decoration Committee. She was also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the Ladies Union Aid Society (helped families who needed food and heating fuel) where she worked as an editor of an edition of the Rockford Morning Star, and ran the Trolley on Trolley Day, where a percentage of the fares collected went to the Women’s Aid Society. Marcia became a leader of the Young People’s Society, a Christian youth society to encourage “youth fellowship.” On top of all that she was also Robert’s bookkeeper and accountant during the later years of his life.

While Marcia Dorr’s work is certainly not as recognized as the revolutionary Jane Addams’ she did make her mark on Rockford and aided in Robert Tinker’s continued success later in life, and we are immensely grateful for that.


Tinker’s Root Wood Furniture

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When Robert Tinker began building his Swiss Cottage in Rockford, IL in 1865, he proclaimed, “I only wanted to build a home that would give Rockford a name.” Over 150 years later, we can all agree that Robert had certainly attained his goal. From the chalet-style architecture to the parquet floors, Tinker Swiss Cottage boasts awe-inspiring architecture. However, the contents of the Tinkers’ home are impressive in their own right and can give us a deeper insight to the lives of the Tinker family. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at the pieces the Tinkers surrounded themselves with, starting with the root wood furniture.

What is root wood furniture, you ask? The name really says it all – it is furniture that was crafted out of the roots of trees. Construction of root wood furniture dates back to early seventeenth-century China, emerging in the western hemisphere around the eighteen century. Appearing as a piece of furniture constructed out of a single tree root, this illusion is created by joining separate pieces of wood together through the use of small pegs. Here we can see Mr. Tinker in the gardens enjoying a large root-wood bench.


At Tinker Swiss Cottage we are extremely fortunate that Robert Tinker took his last name seriously – truly a tinkerer through and through! Not only do we have his sketches, drawings, and hand-crafted architecture throughout the home, but we also have many root wood furniture pieces that he crafted himself. Here are some of the many examples you will find of Robert’s work throughout the Cottage:

While the pictures are great, root wood furniture is something everyone should see in person, and we can’t wait for your next visit to the Cottage!



¤ Samantha

Why Museums Matter

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Whenever you meet new people, everyone tends to ask you where you work. For us, when we tell people we work at Tinker the majority of the time we get people telling us they’ve either never been through the museum, or they went as a child on a school trip. When you live in a town as large as Rockford there is always something to do, and museums often tend to get put on the backburner. Many people think: “Oh it’ll always be around, so we can go another time.” Will it though? In the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s home museums were extremely prevalent throughout the nation. Over the years, many have closed down for one reason or another – an opportunity to visit is no longer an option.

What real purpose do museums serve anyways? When people visit museums, they become immersed in local, state, national, and even international history. You find that history is more than just a list of names and dates. These were actual humans who made some sort of difference in the world – whether on a large governmental scale or a member of a small scale community. Museums remind us of the importance of our heritage and human advancements. In a post-digital world where information is only a few key strokes away, museums provide a plethora of artifacts and documents which constantly open new doors of research. Perhaps Colleen Ritzau Lath, a specialist in museum management and the history of collecting, put it best when she said:

“Museums are not graveyards of dead art or storehouses of the past: they are active records of ‘us’ in the broadest most universal, global, and cosmopolitan sense of the word. To wander and wonder is to activate a special kind of enlightened curiosity about the world, in which we see ourselves in the creations of someone else and come to know ourselves as part of a continuum of shared human identity. “*

So, how are Rockford’s home museums bringing history to life?

At Tinker Swiss Cottage we have tours Tuesday through Sunday twice a day at 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm. Visitors learn the history of Rockford’s early years through the eyes of the Tinker family. Stories of the family, architecture, and artifacts are all discussed in a narrative style, bringing you into the Victorian era. We host lectures, workshops, and interactive school tours to help immerse our visitors into life as a Tinker.


The Erlander Home Museum is run through Rockford’s Swedish Historical Society, and tours are currently by appointment only. They are hoping to establish set tour times for the upcoming year. Visitors to the museum will get the chance to view John Erlander’s home through the eyes of the Swedish population in Rockford during the Victorian and early twentieth centuries. Their newly-opened Cultural Center provides visitors with an opportunity for communal events and hosts visitors from Rockford’s sister-city in Sweden.

The Graham-Ginestra Home Museum has recently opened as Rockford’s newest house museum. As partnered with the Ethnic Heritage Museum, tours are on Sundays from 2:00-4:00 pm. Visitors will get an English and Italian view of Rockford from the 1800s-1900s. The museum is currently planning many events over the upcoming year to bring history to life.

Being part of the Rockford community, in part, means knowing and appreciating our heritage and upbringing. Over the next few months, we challenge you to take a step back in time and visit one of the many historic homes in Rockford to really experience our history. We look forward to seeing you soon!


¤ Samantha

Lighting the Cottage

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Although it may not seem like it, electricity is a fairly new technology. For centuries, candles, fireplaces, and oil lamps were the only means of illuminating both businesses and homes. We know that Robert Tinker spent the early years in his Swiss-styled Cottage in the same way. Yet, as you travel through the Cottage today, you will notice that electricity flows throughout the home. Join us as we take a stroll through the history of illuminating the Cottage!

When Robert began construction on the Cottage, fireplaces, candles, and oil lamps were all that people had to light their homes. In the first phase of construction, Robert did not include a fireplace. However, during the second phase of construction Robert installed two fireplaces: one in the parlor and one in the library. The Tinkers used candles, candelabras, and oil lamps to light the other rooms of their home.

However, the Tinkers were also fortunate enough that gas lighting was installed in their Cottage. There are numerous gas light fixtures mounted on the walls throughout the rooms of the first floor. One can confirm these sconces are gas powered due to the fact that they have knobs which were used to turn the gas on and off. Gas came into the home through underground pipes, similar to how it is done nowadays. Often times, the gas was manufactured locally through coal. Gas distributors would heat coal in a sealed oven, purify, filter, and pressurize it before it was eventually sent out to homes and businesses. Gas fixtures generally faced upwards and had a glass shade due to the fact that they produced a flame. Often times these shades displayed embellishments of some kind, whether frosted glass, colored, or patterns etched in.

In the sitting room of the Cottage you will find two different chandeliers. The first one hangs low into the room. Gas light fixtures were commonly installed at a safe distance below the ceiling for two reasons: to ensure the user could turn it on and off and as a safeguard to keep the ceiling from catching fire!

© Rockford Park District  -  Photo by Jesse Fox                                     ©TinkerSwissCottageMuseum&Gardens

The other chandelier found in the sitting room is a combination of gas and electricity. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, electrical lighting devices began appearing in the homes of wealthy individuals. On Friday, August 4, 1882, Robert Tinker wrote in his journal, “Started electric light of house.” The Tinkers enjoyed the new technological innovations appearing throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and electricity was one of them. The Cottage hosts not one, but two gas-electric combination chandeliers! Although electricity was eventually wired throughout all levels of the home, many of the original oil lamps, candle holders, and gas fixtures still have a place in the Cottage. We look forward to your next visit!



A Victorian Wedding

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Wedding season is in full swing here in Rockford. I don’t know about you, but I’ve already attended the first of five weddings for the year. Crazy, right? Everyone seems to have something Pinterest-inspired, opinions on the food being served, and that beautiful white wedding dress. Some friends have very little to no flowers, while others are having floral everything. All the little details really do seem to make your special day stand out as unique and reflective of your life together. As a historian, I can’t help but compare our modern day wedding traditions with those that the Victorians held.

We don’t have a ton of information about either wedding ceremony Robert Tinker participated in: his first to Mary and his second to Jessie (trust me, I’m dying for details!), but here’s a quick summary for you: Robert Tinker married Mary Dorr Manny on April 24, 1870 in her limestone brick mansion. Their marriage lasted until Mary’s death in 1901. Three years later, after the death of Jessie’s sister Marcia, Robert and Jessie became the only two family members left in the house. Technically, since Jessie was Mary’s niece, the two were not related. In Victorian society, people couldn’t live together unless they were related, so the two decided to wed as a means of complying with societal norms. (Once again, crazy, right?) Anyways…Robert and Jessie were married on March 14, 1904 in a very small, quiet ceremony in the Cottage’s parlor. Robert’s second marriage lasted until the end of 1924, when he passed away. In the Victorian era, many people were wed in either their homes or in the bride’s home church.

Manny Mansion

The Manny Mansion ©TinkerSwissCottageMuseum&Gardens

By now you’re probably asking yourselves questions similar to: What did Mary and Jessie wear? Did they have bouquets? What flavor cake did they choose? Did they do the “Chicken Dance” at the reception? Really, I can’t be the only one curious about the origins of the Chicken Dance.

While today we have weddings in every month of the year, June tends to still be known as the traditional wedding month. The Victorians had a popular saying, “Marry in May, rue the day!” (I guess I missed that memo!) June was a popular month for Victorian weddings for a number of reasons. First, the name June originated from the Roman goddess Juno, commonly known as the goddess of marriage. Also, June provided warmer weather and wasn’t during harvest season. Finally, June fell at the end of Lent, allowing for fewer restrictions on the celebrations.

Having the bride wear white was a new concept in the Victorian era. It resulted as a fashion trend after Queen Victoria brought about the idea of being wed in a beautiful white dress. Generally, women would wear their best dresses for the occasion, regardless of the color. Like the ladies, men would wear their best suit to the wedding.

victorian wedding

A cabinet card received from Elsie Weatherup, sent to Marcia Dorr with the inscription handwritten on the back: “For Marcia with Christmas / greetings from Elsie – / Taken in Oct. 1896 in / my wedding gown five years’ / after the event”.  “Hall Buffalo” printed at bottom of image. ©TinkerSwissCottageMuseum&Gardens

Today, many women choose to use the traditional “Bridal March” when walking down the aisle – although we’ve all got that one friend who totally danced the whole way down to the altar to “Forever.” (No? Just me again?) While we think of the “Bridal March” as a traditional song, it wasn’t until 1858 that it actually became popular, thanks to Queen Victoria’s daughter. Of course there were bridesmaids and groomsmen in the Victorian era, but the bridesmaids would often wear white as well – a big “no-no” for today’s weddings! Often times, the best man would be the one in charge of paying the minister. Bouquets and boutonnieres made of real flowers, silk, and ribbons adorned the members of the wedding party, similar to the ones we use today.

While I love watching the ceremony, my favorite part of every wedding is the reception. (Who doesn’t like a fun party?) Most of our weddings today take place in the early to late afternoon with a reception following suite – sometimes into the early hours of the next day! The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred morning ceremonies with brunch following. Two separate cakes would be prepared for the couple. The Bride’s cake consisted of either a light fruit cake or pound cake; whereas, the Groom’s cake consisted of a darker colored fruit cake. The Bride’s cake was always larger than the Groom’s, and eventually overtime the Groom’s cake died out. Today, there seems to be a slight increase in Groom’s cakes again, using super heroes, zombies, or video games as decorations. (Thanks Pinterest!)

Finally, to answer the question you’ve all been thinking about: Did the Tinker’s do the “Chicken Dance” at their reception? Long story short, the “Chicken Dance” was created in Switzerland in the 1950s. Although the song appeared roughly 80 years after Robert and Mary’s wedding, I like to think that Robert would have joined in, flapping his arms and shaking his hips. (He did model his Cottage after a Swiss Chalet and was a jokester, after all!)

¤ Samantha

Victorian Gardening

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Spring is finally here, and that means that the gardens at the Tinker Swiss Cottage are in full bloom! If you take a stroll through our gardens today you’ll see various types of flower beds, including Mary’s beloved roses and Jessie’s prize-winning irises. The Tinkers, along with other Victorian families, embellished their homes with sprawling gardens. New inventions allowed more exotic plants to be cultivated, grasses to be trimmed, and rooms dedicated to gardening were added on to homes.

In the early 1800s, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward invented the Wardian Case by accident. He discovered that ferns, and other flowers, could grow very well inside glass bottles. This allowed Europeans to import more exotic plants, because encasing them in these Wardian Cases allowed them to remain in a constant climate without the damage that the change of air and temperature could bring. Another invention sprouting from the early years of the nineteenth century, the lawnmower transitioned from a large, difficult piece of machinery to a smaller, hand-driven tool. Around 1840, Victorians began incorporating trimmed lawns in their garden designs.

tinker flower 3.png

Many Victorians embellished their homes with their gardens. Vines hung from porches, urns and containers were filled with flowers and greenery to be set throughout the property, and vines grew up walls and trellises. Cast iron fences wrapped around many Victorian properties, both in the city and country. Rustic fences could be used, but were generally hidden by bushes and shrubbery.

While Victorians planted bushes, trees, and shrubs throughout their gardens, colorful flowers made up a large portion of the gardens. Symmetrical gardens, flower boxes, and ornate arrangements decorated Victorian homes. Throughout the era, exotic plants could be found in both private and public conservatories. While there are far too many to list, some of the more popular plants of the Victorian era includes: Azaleas, Holly, Hydrangeas, Roses, Lilacs, Peonies, ivy, Wisteria, Honeysuckle, Morning Glories, Tulips, Violets, Lavenders, and Ferns.

tinker flower 2.png

Robert Tinker purchased approximately 27 acres of land, where he planted flower gardens, vegetable gardens, and had pastures for his horses and cows. Throughout his home and property, Robert crafted rootwood furniture pieces, which you can see on your next trip out to the Cottage! On the opposite side of Kent Creek, Mary Dorr Manny Tinker owned a two-story, limestone brick mansion. She had her workers surround it with orchards, vegetable gardens, and the fashionable flower gardens of the Victorian era.

While Mary’s mansion and its surrounding gardens may no longer be stationed across the creek, she did bring over her love of pink heirloom-roses to Robert’s Cottage. Besides the circular rose garden located in front of the Cottage, a conservatory was added on to the house in 1882 to assist in caring for the gardens during the winter months. Using flower in interior designs also allowed the Tinkers to show off their favorite flowers. Not only were fresh bouquets located throughout the home, but on your next trip to the Cottage you’ll notice the beautiful pink flowers painted on the boarder in the Parlor. Perhaps you’ll also notice the hand painted bouquets of flowers on the dining room dishware.



tinker flower 4               tinker flower 1

We hope you enjoy the Tinkers’ gardens on your next visit as much as we do!

*Remember: We’re always looking for new friends to help us work our gardens as well! You can find more information about how to Volunteer at Tinker Swiss Cottage under our “Volunteering” tab!*



Donna's Picture of the Rose Garden
Tinker’s Rose Garden

Victorian Easter Celebrations

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This weekend is a busy time for many families: getting those last minute photos with the Easter Bunny, dying Easter Eggs, and shopping for our family dinners. While the Tinkers may not have sat around eating colorful Peeps, the Victorians began many of the Easter traditions we still carry on today.

Early Christians aligned their celebration of Christ’s resurrection with the Anglo-Saxon’s Spring Equinox, falling on the first full moon after the vernal equinox. It is believed that the term “Easter” originated from the Pagan fertility goddess “Eostre,” who’s fertility was celebrated at the time of the Spring Equinox. They viewed the time as the rebirth of fertility and life, which is why eggs and rabbits were the symbols chosen to represent Eostre. Similar to the celebration of Christmas, the early Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection coincided with Eostre’s celebration in order to assist in converting the native Pagans.

Easter 3

Before the Victorian era, Christians observed Easter by attending religious services and observing it as one of many feast days. However, the Victorians loved celebrations, and Easter quickly developed into a more festive holiday. Churches were decorated with beautiful floral arrangements, and families attended services together.

Easter greeting cards were exchanged, many with spiritual images on them like lambs and crosses. Brightly colored paper was used in the creation of these cards, and some contained images of bunnies and eggs. Women created lace and beadwork in flower designs to cover tables and shelves. Floral arrangements of lilies, tulips, pansies, and lilacs adorned both homes and religious establishments.Eater 1       Easter 2
Examples of Victorian Easter Cards

Like today, children in the Victorian era loved Easter. Children would dye eggs using cranberries, beets, oranges, and lemon peels. Like the Christmas tree, Easter egg hunts and the egg roll was introduced by Germans to England during the 1800s. Children would participate in both egg rolling and egg hunts, and the winner would receive a special prize. Some Victorian egg hunts included cardboard eggs lined with fabric and contained little candies. Lemonade and cookies were served at these special events.

Although the infamous Peeps were not invented until the 1950s, John Cadbury began distributing solid chocolate eggs in 1842. The Cadbury Company began producing the beloved crème eggs in 1875. Sweet candy treats became a staple in Easter celebrations, as we know all too well today.

Families also gathered together over Easter meals. Ham or lamb served as the meal’s main dish, paired with local vegetable dishes. Hot-cross buns and Easter breads were also bountiful at family dinners. In order to not waste the eggs from the egg hunts, various egg dishes were also introduced to these meals.

The Tinker family spent many Easters in their cozy Cottage. In 1878, Robert and Mary celebrated their eight Easter as a married couple: “Attended the Catholic church with A Collins – Easter – floral concert in eve.”

In 1912, Teddy’s third Easter with his family, Jessie enjoyed various community celebrations with her son. A couple of weeks before Easter, Robert recorded, “She + Ted took in Easter picture show in pm.” Robert later wrote, “Easter. Rained + snowed nearly all day…I staid in doors visiting with the dear family. Will, Mary, Donald, Margaret.”

A few years later, in 1919, Robert recalled, “Easter – carried Wife’s flower pot in Burrell’s auto to Ruby Minard…Wife + Ted at chh…Remained indoors uncomfortable + unshaven.”

The staff at Tinker Swiss Cottage wish you all a safe and happy holiday weekend! If you have a minute we’d love to hear about how you celebrate Easter (or the Spring Equinox) in your home!

Entertaining Victorian Children

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Many are familiar with the stricter ways children in the Victorian era were raised. Children from poorer families worked hard with their families, while wealthier children focused more on their education. While Victorian children’s upbringings varied greatly based on their social status, toys were a staple form of entertainment for all.

Certain toys and games were reserved for separate social statuses. For example, Automata toys were moving pieces of wood powered by a hand crank. When operated, the wooden people moved at different intervals depending on the movement of the gears underneath the “floor” of the toy. While a father of a poor family could make it if he was good with wood, this was generally a toy for the wealthier children. Likewise, Rocking Horses were reserved for wealthier children, since they were expensive pieces. Also, girls from wealthier families may have had miniature tea sets. As with today’s children, many Victorian children enjoyed copying the activities of their parents. Therefore, young girls could gather their friends together to have a miniature tea party similar to their mothers’ gatherings.

However, the majority of Victorian toys were enjoyed among all social classes. Skipping rope, or Jump Rope as we call it today, was a very popular toy for both poor and rich children alike. This specific toy found its popularity with the girls more than the boys, but it was enjoyed by all outside. While skipping rope was more popular with the girls, wooden toy soldiers were more popular with the boys. Marbles were also very popular with Victorian children, because many games could be played with them. Marbles were made out of various materials ranging from clay to real marble.

Many Victorian toys were made using very simple materials. Hoop and Stick became a very popular outdoor game for Victorian children of all classes. Children would play it either on their own or compete against other children to see who could use the stick to roll the wooden hoop the farthest. Likewise, Graces was also played with a wooden hoop and two sticks, albeit smaller than the hoop for Hoop and Stick. This multi-player game was another outdoor activity where two or more kids would use the two sticks to toss and catch the hoop in the air. An early version of a spinning top, the Whip and Top could be played either indoors or outside. The top would be wound about with a string attached to a stick, also known as the whip. Once the string was wrapped around the top, the child would then give the string a pull. This set the top spinning, which they kept in motion by whipping it on the side with the string.

hoop and stick

Victorian girls in all social classes owned at least one doll. China Dolls became popular during the Victorian era, but they were too expensive for most families. Generally, only the wealthy families could purchase such a gift; whereas, many poorer families made dolls for their daughters out of scrap material or corn husks.

A less well-known game for Victorian children was Skittles. Quite different from the popular candy today, Skittles was a form of bowling. Most of the time the game would be played outside, but indoor variations were available as well. Several Skittles (wooden pins) would be set up a short distance away. The person to knock down the most Skittles won. This was another game that both wealthy and poor children could play, since these could be either purchased or handmade.

Regardless of social class and gender, children of all ages in the Victorian era enjoyed a variety of games and toys on their own and with their peers. You can purchase some of these toys, like the spinning tops and Graces, from the gift shop at the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum so you too can enjoy the fun of the Victorian era!



Understanding Spinsters

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Women played various roles during the Victorian era, but a proper marriage was the primary goal for most women. While women tended to marry because many argued it was their natural purpose in life, many married for other reasons, including economic stability, social status, to have children, and to preserve or improve reputations. Once married, women of the lower classes would assist their husbands in their work or work outside the home. Women of the upper classes, however, became the supervisor of the home. However, for the women who were never married – also known as spinsters – life fell in between these lines.

Spinsters were generally known as women who never married, but the term was reserved for women over a certain age. For example, an unmarried woman aged 20 would generally not be considered a spinster, since she still had time left to find a husband. Explanations as to why women did not marry can be found in the history of the time frame. For women in the latter half of the nineteenth century in America, the Civil War greatly decreased the number of eligible men. Periods of economic decline also increased the number of spinsters, as a marriage could be seen as too costly. Women were also seen as caregivers in the Victorian era and may have stayed home in order to care for elderly parents or sick relatives. There were women who chose to live a more independent life or to focus on a career instead, but these reasons were less likely than the ones given above.

A spinster’s life varied through the social classes. Lower class women would work outside the home as servants or in factories. Middle and upper class women would generally move in with relatives and serve as extra help around the house. As mentioned earlier, they could be the caregivers of elderly parents. Many women also moved in with their siblings to help care for their nieces and nephews, essentially serving as a second mother. They would also assist in the cooking, cleaning, and overall maintenance of the home.

At the Tinker Swiss Cottage there were two family members who never married: Hannah Dorr and Marcia Dorr. Hannah (Mary’s sister) moved in to the Cottage shortly after Mary and Robert were married. Mary and Hannah were very close, and Hannah even accompanied Mary and Robert on their honeymoon to Hawaii. Hannah spent her time at the Cottage excelling at the household gifts that were expected of women at the time. She was known as an excellent seamstress and even won many premium ribbons for her designs. Hannah was an avid member of the Second Congregational Church in Rockford and helped with counseling others. Hannah passed away at the Cottage in 1900 from breast cancer.


Hannah seated next to Mary (standing) and Robert (sitting)

Marcia Dorr (Mary’s brother Edward Dorr’s daughter) also resided at the Cottage as a spinster. When she was 19, she and her sister Jessie moved in with their Aunt Mary, Uncle Robert, and Aunt Hannah. Marcia received a good education while attending the Rockford Female Seminary School. She maintained an active social life in the Rockford community. She taught Sunday school to children at the Second Congregational Church and was a member of its decoration committee. She participated as a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Ladies Union Aid Society (working as an editor of an edition of the Rockford Morning Star), a leader of the Young People’s Society, and ran the Trolley on Trolley day. She also assisted Robert as his bookkeeper and accountant. In 1904, Marcia passed away from breast cancer, only four short years after her Aunt Hannah died from the same disease.

A Victorian Education

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Ah, January. That time of year when all the decorations get put away, the weather gets bleak, and kids head back to school. Heading back to school, kids will head back into the same routine as before break (math, reading, science, history, gym, lunch, etc.), anxiously awaiting the prize at the end: Summer Vacation! Curious as to what kids in the Victorian era did in school?

By the late-nineteenth century, legislation dictated that children between certain ages (primarily from 5-11) would be required to attend school on weekdays. In primary schools, children were taught to read and write, along with classes on arithmetic and geography. Larger schools tended to have boys and girls separated with different entrances and classrooms designated for their gender. Smaller schools would often teach boys and girls in the same room, but they would be separated within the classroom. Once children reached their adolescent years the girls and boys took separate classes in order to learn various life skills. Young ladies learned embroidery, lace making, dancing, music, drawing, and paintings, along with various household tasks. Young men continued learning the foundational subjects discussed above, but they also took courses related to various vocations, such as carpentry, blacksmithing, and business. In high school students often took history and geography courses, various science courses (including botany and geology), and at least one language course, primarily Latin.

America saw a rise in universities in the early 19th century as well. While we are uncertain if Robert Tinker finished high school, we do know that Mary was educated, as were their nieces Marcia Dorr and Jessie Dorr Hurd Tinker. Marcia and Jessie both attended the Rockford Female Seminary, today known as Rockford University. It was founded in the late 1840s and focused on making the curriculum as demanding for women as it was for men. Women continued their education through studying language, literature, mathematics, some sciences, and the arts. After their education from the Rockford Female Seminary, both Marcia and Jessie went on to play a role in their community.

Christmas at the Cottage

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It’s that time of year again! Everyone is decorating for the holiday season, and here at the Tinker Swiss Cottage we’re just as excited as you are. We’ve decked the halls and trimmed the trees throughout the cottage. Even though it is common practice today, have you ever stopped to wonder where these traditions came from?

Many believe that the Christmas traditions we hold so dear today have been around since the beginning of the holiday. However, Christmas wasn’t a legal holiday in the United States until late into the nineteenth century. Christmas traditions came out of the northeast and spread throughout the rest of the country; yet, many Puritan families regarded these celebrations with suspicion.

Homes were decorated, gifts exchanged hands, and loved ones gathered together for Christmas dinner. Decking the home in greenery became very popular in the Victorian era, but it’s origins stretch farther back – dating to the Druid, Celt, Norse, and Roman civilizations. These people used greenery in celebrations of the Winter Solstice, decorating homes with wreaths and garlands. The evergreen wreath was a symbol of the unending cycle of life. When being a Christian was a death sentence, they incorporated these greenery traditions into their homes as an attempt to blend in with the rest of society. Years later, when Christian missionaries ventured into regions where the Winter Solstice was held, incorporating certain pagan traditions in Christian celebrations also assisted in drawing more people into the Christian faith.


Plants that remained green all year round brought hope in the return of spring to these early civilizations. They believed holly warded against evil spirits and witches and also ensured the return of vegetation. Ancient Romans believed mistletoe was a sign of hope, peace and reconciliation. In Victorian England, a Kissing Ring of mistletoe was constructed to hang from the ceiling. Girls were kissed beneath it, but in doing so one berry had to be plucked after each kiss. When the sprig ran out of berries, no more kissing could occur under that ring.

German immigrants brought the tradition of the Christmas tree to both England and America. When Queen Victorian and Prince Albert, of German descent, celebrated the birth of their son in 1841, Prince Albert brought a Christmas tree in to Windsor Castle. The tradition spread through England during the mid-nineteenth century. It was around this time that German immigrants brought the tradition of a Christmas tree to America. Victorians would cut off and bring home only the top 2-3 feet of a pine tree, which was then set on a table. However, the Germans worried about deforestation, and therefore, they created fake trees using goose feathers. These feathers were dyed green to give the appearance of a real tree, but the branches were spaced out more than those of real trees. This allowed the ornaments on the tree to be seen easier.


The first Christmas trees were laden with baked ornaments, fruit, flowers, nuts, berries, popcorn, lighted candles, and even small Christmas gifts. However, these pieces could become heavy and cause many trees to fall over or droop. German glassblowers decided to start producing lightweight glass balls to replace these heavier, natural decorations. By 1917, Robert writes that “Our X-mas tree was rubber stalk tub in kitchen.” If you are interested in seeing some original Christmas ornaments from the Tinkers’ trees, you’ll be able to find them on a feather tree in the parlor!


Like today, the Victorians exchanged Christmas gifts between both adults and children. Children’s toys tended to be handmade; however, with the industrial revolution came factories designed to mass produce more affordable children’s toys. Games, dolls, clockwork toys, and even books became common among middle class children. However, children from poorer families would find fruits and nuts in their Christmas stockings instead. The idea of St. Nicholas arrived in America with Dutch settlers in the seventeenth century, but by the late-nineteenth century the British figure of Santa Claus appeared in American cities. Instead of leaving cookies for Santa like we do today, Victorian children set out crackers for their visitor.

Christmas cards also became popular in the Victorian era. The idea began in Britain, where one could send a card for the price of a penny stamp. Sir Henry Cole printed the first set of Christmas cards or his shop in London in 1843 and priced them at a shilling each. By the late nineteenth century, Christmas cards had become highly popularized in both Great Britain and America. Along with original ornaments, in the parlor of the cottage you’ll also find many of the Tinkers’ original Christmas cards!

Christmas dinners of the Victorian era reflect many of our modern meals as well. Turkey, chicken, roast beef, goose, boiled ham, or rabbit served as the main dish for most families. Side dishes included cranberry sauce, apple sauce, beets, turnips, corn, carrots, and peas. For dessert, many families ate pumpkin or apple pies, lemon pudding, plum pudding, and ice cream (for the lucky ones). Some items are less like the ones we serve today, such as clam soup, smoked tongue, and mince pies.

Carolers traveled through neighborhoods, stopping to entertain households with one of the latest Christmas carols. Some of these include “O Come all ye Faithful” (1843), “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1868), and “Away in a Manger” (1883).

Curious as to what our favorite Victorians were up to during the Christmas holiday?

As we scan through Robert Tinker’s diaries, there are a few specific Christmas celebrations that stick out. Still at home with his family in New York, Robert wrote in 1854 that he woke up on Christmas morning with a toothache, but that didn’t stop him from partaking in the “pop corn molasses candy.”

As we know, once Robert was in Rockford, he and Mrs. Mary Manny quickly developed a strong friendship. For Christmas of 1866, Robert writes, “I had from Mrs. M an overcoat worth $50.00 + black walnut stand…”

During Christmas of 1903, everyone in the Tinker household seemed to be a bit under the weather. “Gloomy Christmas – Marcia sick. Jessie rolled up on couch with headache + grip,” Robert mentioned.

Before Teddy was adopted, Christmases at the Cottage in the early 1900s tended to be rather quiet. “Fine Christmas. Turkey with only 3 to eat it. Arranged book shelves in library window,” Robert wrote in 1906. After the Tinkers adopted Teddy, Christmases at the Cottage became a bit livelier. In 1909, Robert described the “Big Christmas tree in parlor loaded with gifts + Toys for 8 relatives…” We even have an image of Teddy’s first Christmas with the Tinkers!

Teddy’s First Christmas

As Teddy grew older, a young relative moved in for a short time with them as a playmate for Teddy. During the Christmas of 1913, Robert wrote, “Two boys – new toys, big noise. Didn’t step out door all day. Domestics absent but a good roast duck dinner all sames.”


Don’t forget to come visit us to observe some of the original Tinker Christmas decorations on display until January 15. Also, the last day to check out our silver exhibit is this Sunday!! The staff at the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum wish you a very happy holiday season!



A Victorian Thanksgiving

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Today Thanksgiving is a national holiday where we gather with family and friends with a feast, football game, and a remembrance of what we have to be thankful for. Many believe that Thanksgiving has been a tradition since the time of the pilgrims, but it turns out that this holiday has Victorian origins.

Originally, New England Protestants were the only ones to celebrate this holiday. However after a seventeen year campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor for Godey’s Lady’s Book, President Lincoln officially declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Both Hale and Lincoln hoped that creating a national day of thanks would help the nation heal from the devastation of the Civil War.

Some Victorian Thanksgiving traditions have died out, such as poor children dressed in costumes begging for fruits, vegetables, and money. However, many traditions started in the Victorian era have remained. Today we decorate our homes with pumpkin and turkey themed items. However, the Victorians decorated with more natural elements, such as seasonal autumn leaves, chrysanthemums, asters, palms, ferns, dried grasses, and grains. The Victorians set the table with their finest dishes, whether they were china, crystal, or silver. Children even had their own table set with brightly colored decorations.

Some items on the Victorian Thanksgiving menu are very similar today: turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, stuffing, potatoes, fruits, nuts, cider, coffee. Yet today very few of us will sit down to eat mincemeat pies, scalloped oysters, clams, plum pudding, and boiled onions. Overall, the Tinkers had smaller, more intimate gatherings – sometimes with no guests at all. Whether you have a small gathering like the Tinkers or a large feast this Thanksgiving, the Tinker Swiss Cottage staff wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!


A Halloween Jubilee

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Halloween is quickly approaching. Kids are getting their costumes picked out, neighbors are buying candy, and families are carving jack-o-lanterns. Halloween originated in Celtic regions as a transition from one year to the next. Once Christianity reached the Celtic lands, the church turned October 31 into All Hollow’s Eve and November 1 into All Saints Day in an effort to convert the Celtic people. However, a large portion of our modern Halloween traditions date back to the mid-1800s, when the superstitions and thoughts of spirits gave way to parties formed to entertain children and adults alike. Advertisements and suggestions for Halloween party décor and ideas could be found in Victorian newspapers across the country, along with the location of community events. Although it originated from the British Isles, the celebration of Halloween quickly spread across the U.S. and found its way to Rockford, where the Tinkers celebrated in their cozy cottage.

Like most families with little ones, Teddy’s arrival made holidays at the Cottage more lively. The Tinkers celebrated Halloween with energetic parties held in the Annex. The excitement of the season was so great that homes would fill with the chatter of the upcoming holiday weeks before the parties. Robert wrote in his journal on October 16, 1915, “Coming Halloween already absorbing attention of household.” Jessie’s plans for Teddy’s Halloween party paid off. The Cottage was decorated to such a degree that Robert brought friends over to observe the set up days before the party was to take place. “After settling an old a/c at Cottage bro’t Miss Gulliver + dog ‘Don’ in my electric dray over to see decorations in annex for hallowe’en party to be.” What a sight that must have been!

Halloween parties of the Victorian era focused on games, seasonal foods, and sometimes even costumes. Bobbing for apples, jumping over candles, and fortune telling all played a role at these events. Young ladies would play a game in which they sliced an apple in front of a mirror in order to catch a glimpse of their true love. Pin the Tail on the Donkey, scavenger hunts, and Blind Man’s Bluff were also popular among children. Some families turned their cellars into “haunted houses” while others threw themed parties. Jack-o-lanterns, gourds, cornstalks, and crepe streamers could be found decorating homes. Nuts, apples, pudding, and cakes were served to guests. Some cakes even held small objects inside of them, which the Victorians believed could tell your future for the upcoming year.

According to Robert, the Tinkers’ Halloween party in 1915 went well. “Hallowe’en party in Annex for the kids – great success – 3 of them remaining thro the night + Saturday.” The Tinkers continued to celebrate Halloween each year, yet parties were not always thrown. In 1916 the Tinkers attended the “Seventh St Halloween jubilee in evening.” As Teddy grew older and more independent less parties were held at the house. The last Halloween party Robert records in his journal was held in 1918. “Wife gave a little Halloween blowout for neighboring kids in Annex to keep Ted at home.”

Don’t forget to come and check out the spooks around the Tinker Swiss Cottage before Halloween is over. The parlor is staged for a funeral, a phrenology skull is on display, and a witch’s ball can be found in the library. Of course there’s always the upcoming paranormal tour on October 28! The staff at Tinker Swiss Cottage hope that you enjoy your Halloween parties as much as the Tinkers did and that you have a safe weekend!


¤ Samantha