Yikes! This aggressive-looking machine is patented under the name “Lightning” and is cold to the touch. Because it’s made from cast iron, when you lift it, its weight drags your whole body down and turns your arm to pudding. It has four gears; each is a different size, and each is necessary. When activated, these gears grind, whip, and spin a single two-pronged fork against a sharpened, diagonally suspended knife.
But the Lightning is not a weapon—it’s an apple parer!
Among the New-York Historical Society’s collection of treasures is a group of around 60 apple parers. Most were given to the Museum by a single donor: Charles L. Robinson. These objects have been written about in the past, but continue to provide fruitful historical context each time they are freshly examined (puns intended). This holiday season, they remind our visitors of the special place that the apple holds in our national memory, and they demonstrate how objects in our kitchens are cultural artifacts.
At the center of American national mythology is the American kitchen. New-York Historical’s collection of Hudson River School paintings of “untouched” American landscapes celebrate the nation’s abundance of natural resources. (Of course, this landscape was not untouched—Native Americans built homes, governments, and civil societies on this land for centuries before settler colonialism.) Similarly, our recent exhibition of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms demonstrated how iconic images of American families sitting at dinner tables helped to establish the post-war American identity.
Today, when young students learn American history, they too study symbols of national identity that emphasize the nation’s plentiful access to food resources. Students learn about a delicious national identity that they can eat, smell, and taste. While Thanksgiving, for example, celebrates the abundant American landscape, the holiday also honors the nation’s mechanical, industrial, and chemical resources. These tools power the modern mechanical harvest and transport the American bounty to local grocery stores.
American consumers’ patriotic identification with abundance secured through industry can be traced back to the Lightning apple parer in 1863. When the Lightning received its U.S. patent, the industrial revolution was about to kick into a second phase of growth (appropriately called the Second Industrial Revolution) and the country was in the middle of the Civil War.
First, this apple parer is an artifact of 19th-century techno-optimism. Its many gears celebrate the liberating power of machines. It is large and heavy. The noises it emits while operating—a halting squeak, a loud hum, a rusty rattle, a grunt from its human handler—bring 19th-century factory noises into the kitchen. If the makers of the Lightning wanted to create a simpler, more streamlined apple parer, they could have—all one needs to pare an apple is a knife. Instead, they created a mechanical showpiece. “Look at what machines can do!” the Lightning tells consumers. They are so complicated! And so beautiful! They will only make your life easier! Operators simply crank the Lightning’s handle to elegantly separate a perfect, unbroken, peeled ribbon of skin from the flesh of an apple. Like magic; true perfection. With the Lightning, any person could transform their kitchen into an assembly line equipped to churn out delicious products along a ribbon of perfection.
A kitchen tool like the Lightning negotiates the complicated shifting of gender roles in industrial America. Could women operate machines and bring home paychecks and still be feminine? In response to this question, the Lightning casts kitchen work as a feminine foil to factory labor and neutralizes the formidable power of industrial machinery by placing it on the kitchen table. Let us hit pause on this background montage of strong women cranking away at their Lightnings for a moment to map the development of industrial cities in the United States at this time.
The Lightning was patented in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War, a war in which the outcome was ultimately determined by access to industrial power. During this period, the nation’s industrial centers were concentrated in northern states, while the South had little manufacturing infrastructure and limited connection to railroad transportation networks. According to the National Park Service, “by 1860, 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturing output came from northern states,” which, among other things, allowed them to harness greater agricultural productivity than the South because of their deployment of farm machinery. In an environment like this, the apple parer’s celebration of industrial innovation is bound to a system that provided a war-time advantage to the North.
This Civil War context also gives new meaning to the design of the apple parer, which visually resembles a weapon. Only men were allowed to serve combat roles in the United States, though thousands of women were deployed to the frontlines where they served heroically as nurses. Thus, the Lightning evokes poignant parallels between women handling combat-style kitchen equipment and their spouses fighting the deadliest war in our nation’s history armed with their own heavy machinery. Both warfare and cooking involve careful management of fire, chemistry, and strategy. While Civil War soldiers made sacrifices on battlefields, their wives made sacrifices at home to protect their families.
The Lightning potentially toes the Mason-Dixon Line in another fascinating way. The most popular advertisements for “Lightning apple parer advertisement” are for the Lightning peach-parer. It is interesting that the Lightning’s makers advertised their product as a piece of equipment flexible enough to handle these two specific fruits: an apple, which is native to the North, and a peach, a staple of the South. Indeed a kitchen tool used to prepare fruits for pies tells a history more complicated than one might expect.
Everyday objects tell layered stories. The things we collect in our homes and our kitchens are bound to histories that are political, scientific, and cultural. This holiday season, we encourage you to dig into the history of your festive table.
Written by Sarah Gomez, Museum Department Assistant
Arrington, Benjamin T. “Industry and Economy during the Civil War.” The Civil War Remembered, National Park Service and Eastern National.
Burns MD, Stanley B. “Nursing in the Civil War.” Mercy Street, PBS (2018).
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