This artifact at the Institute of Texan Cultures is a sharecropper’s cabin. Constructed out of simple materials around 1900, the cabin most likely served as a residence for a tenant farmer and his or her family. It’s a simple home with two rooms, windows with no glass, a tin roof and a front porch. While in the past it was someone’s home, today it stands as an example of a practice that flourished in the American South for decades.
What is sharecropping?
Sharecropping is an agricultural system where a landowner allows a farm worker (also known as a tenant farmer) to rent and use the land in exchange for a share of the expected crop production. This system of agriculture became a standard in the American South after the American Civil War. The large, newly freed African American population, were suddenly in need of employment and landowners (often former plantation-owners) were in need of employees to farm their lands.
In the Reconstruction Era that followed the American Civil War, many freedmen and their families migrated into the northern United States and Canada in hope of a better life. However, for those who remained in the South, the business of rebuilding after a devastating war was fraught with uncertainty. Usually unable to read or write, many former slaves chose to return to the work that they had practiced before the Civil War—manual labor in agriculture—in order to provide for themselves and their families.
How does sharecropping work?
A landowner or landlord and the tenant farmer come to an agreement. The landowner allows the farmer to work and grow crops—usually cotton— on their property, and in exchange the landowner claims a portion of the crop that has been produced (usually a third or half of the yearly yield). For their hard work, the tenant farmer would usually be able to live on the property and receive their own portion of the crop for their use as they saw fit. The landowner provides the tenant farmer with initial supplies: seeds, farming equipment such as a plow, etc. The farmer tends to the fields, and at the end of the year the crop is divided between the two parties.
This system doesn’t sound like a bad deal! Is it fair?
While the system sounds fair, in a majority of cases the tenant farmers were at a large disadvantage. Landowners often took advantage of the tenant farmers in various ways. One popular method involved providing the necessary agricultural supplies at a cost to the farmer. If the farmer could not afford to pay for the start-up supplies, they were given on a line of credit with high interest rates. At the end of the year, the landowners would not only take their portion of the crops but also collect on the interest. If the interest was very high and the tenant farmer could not pay it back, he had to work extra hard to cover the costs for years to come. This often trapped the tenant farmer in a cycle of poverty as they worked to pay the landowner back. Sharecroppers of all races and backgrounds were at the mercy of the landowner. Sometimes, the tenant farmers even had to pay rent on the homes they lived in― this sharecropper’s cabin at the Institute of Texan Cultures reflects one of the many styles of housing used as a sharecropper’s home.
Was sharecropping a big deal in Texas?
After the American Civil War, many recently freed men migrated to Texas hoping to settle their own land. With the majority of its farmland intact, Texas became the de facto leader in cotton production of the United States. East Texas had a very good climate for cotton and by the turn of the 20th century some figures estimate that Texas cotton produced almost one third of America’s cotton supply. To meet the employment needs, many African Americans and Hispanic Americans flocked to the East Texas area where cotton production was at its peak.
In the 1920’s, four brothers named Clarence, Steve, Tom and Harry Moore bought land near the Navasota area slightly north of Houston, Texas. In the process of constructing a thriving cotton business, the Moore brothers used a sharecropping system that employed African Americans, prison labor, and even German prisoners of war during World War II. After years of successful operations, Thomas Moore donated the cabin to the Institute of Texan Cultures and it was moved to its current location in 1979. Though it’s unknown as to whether the Moore Brothers constructed the cabin or if the cabin came with the property when they purchased it, this little house stands today as a testament to a large chapter in American agricultural history. [Caira Spenrath, Edited by Jennifer McPhail]
Byres, Terence J. 1983. Sharecropping and sharecroppers. London [etc.]: Frank Cass.
The Exhibits and Collections staff is busy installing Faces of Survival. This exhibit was developed and curated by University of Texas at San Antonio graduate students, taught by Dr. Kolleen Guy. The exhibit discusses topics of genocide and the holocaust. The show officially opens on April 15th, but you can get a sneak peek of our progress installing it below.
Unknown date, likely 20th century
The image above is of a pair of silver colored metal taps, but what are taps? Taps are used for shoe repair, preventative shoe care, rhythm, beat, music and dance. When placed on the bottoms of shoes at the toe and heel, a damaged shoe can be repaired or transformed into an instrument for your feet. When people imagine taps for shoes most think of tap shoes. We see images of Irish Riverdance, clogging, tap dancing and fraternity and sorority stepping. Yet, taps are also used for shoe repair. These silver colored metal taps can be found in a variety of sizes. Some are large enough for a man’s boots or small enough for a pair of women’s heels.
As the soles of shoes are worn down an owner can send them to a cobbler, a person who mends shoes, and have the sole replaced in areas of increased use. We tend to wear down the tips and heels of our shoes the fastest because of how we walk. After the soles of the shoes are replaced an option to make them last even longer could be to place a heel cap and a toe tap on the bottom of the shoe. The cobbler must first repair the sole by cutting and shaping a new piece of rubber or leather. Then they can apply the tap with either glue or nails. This prevents the sole of the shoe from being worn away as quickly because the areas that wear out the fastest are now covered in metal. Not all taps are silver in color either. Some are black to match the bottom of black-soled shoes. Also, other materials, such as plastics, are now being used to make a much quieter tap.
Toe Taps and Heel Caps:
The last thing a tap dancer needs though is a quieter tap for their shoes. Taps on tap shoes tend to be much larger and take up the entire shoes’ heel and tip. The tele-tone tap is one of the most common taps used on tap shoes. The tele-tone tap is metal with up to three screws holding it in place. Unlike taps for repair, taps for dancers are either nailed or screwed on. Dancers like the tele-tone taps because they are held in place by three screws that can be adjusted to create different sounds, or notes as some dancers refer to them. There are many aspects to the construction of the tap shoes that can change the sound, other than the taps themselves. If the taps are applied to an uneven surface or if the heel of the shoe is made of plastic, the quality of the sound will change. Dancers must care for their taps as well. While taps may be used to repair and maintain dress shoes, the metal can still be thinned down over time. Tap care is just as important as caring for the shoes themselves. With extensive use the metal thins, changing the dancers notes.
Some claim the first metal taps were produced around the 1930s but the art of tap dance took on many forms throughout history. Tap dance in its earliest form was clogging. In the early 1700s in parts of southern Appalachia, Irish, Dutch-German, Scottish and English immigrants would hold dances for entertainment. People would gather together and make up different steps, stomping their feet and teaching it to others. Over time they incorporated aspects of traditional Native American dances and African American rhythmic beats. Tap dance would emerge from clogging and introduce taps to the sole of shoes. The earliest showcasing of tap dancing was in minstrel shows just after the Civil War. A minstrel show was often a comedy act, usually performed for a white audience by African Americans. The intent was to portray a stereotyped image of African Americans, shuffling around and tapping their feet. These shows were designed to calm fears of uprising and rebellion after slavery was abolished. As time went on and tap dance became more recognized as a form of folk-art. Tap dance moved its way into the world of Jazz and Modern dance. Some elite women’s colleges began to teach tap dance in the 1930s and a new act was born. On the stages of Broadway and Hollywood tap dancers stood tall.
One of the most notable tap dancers of the time was Eleanor Powell. In 1936 Hollywood’s MGM Studio produced the film Born to Dance starring Eleanor Powell. She was never formally trained as a tap dancer. She took a handful of lesson so she could get work on Broadway and ended up in films alongside many other greats of her time like Fred Astaire, making music with their feet.
Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. ‘Begin the Beguine’ Tap dance duet:
The most unique aspect of tap dance is its ability to take on any musical form. Dancers can make their own beat and create a song of their own or they can mimic the music. Taps have rich stories behind them, one of bringing immigrant groups together, another of oppression, yet in the end they became a form of folk-art that would influence modern dance to this day. [Trisha Taylor, Edited By Jennifer McPhail]
It’s a dress, but what kind of dress is it?
This item is a pink, two-tiered dress that looks to be a party dress resembling a popular fashion trend in the Roaring Twenties known in America as the ‘Flapper’ girl.
What were the Roaring Twenties?
The Roaring Twenties was a historical period in America between 1920 and 1929 that saw a number of changes in the country both socially and economically. On an economic level, America was booming— the economy more than doubled after World War I (then known as the Great War) due to a number of factors, with the most cited being that America’s infrastructure and resources were not damaged by the war. It was also the first time in the history of the United States in which more people lived in urban areas than rural areas, and a large proportion of Americans found themselves as part of a consumer economy that allowed them to purchase wanted items rather than just necessities.
Socially, the Roaring Twenties in the United States brought waves of change to the way people interacted with each other and their environment. Alcohol became illegal during a time period known as Prohibition. A new form of music known as Jazz became wildly popular and American literature found prominence with authors Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scot Fitzgerald. With the advancement of technology, new entertainment such as short films and radio were more accessible to everyday people and helped to create popular culture. In 1920 American women gained the right to vote—and with it, a new perception of what it meant to be a woman in the U.S.
What’s a ‘Flapper’?
The term ‘flapper‘ is originally thought to come from the motion that young birds make while learning to fly for the first time, and it was used in England prior to the 1920’s to describe someone or something as young, vibrant, and looking to make their own place in the world. In the United States, it was used to describe a new generation of young women who decided to stretch perceptions of what a woman could and should do. The term ‘flapper girl’ was coined in the 1920’s to describe young women who were urban, independent, working women who challenged the societal norms of the previous decades. Whereas the first ten years for the 20th century had seen women cast in a domestic light, the decade known as the Roaring Twenties allowed women to venture out of the home and establish themselves on their own terms.
Flapper girls were the epitome of independence at a time when women were still expected to get married and have a family as their sole priority― and the Flapper girls flaunted this new-found freedom from societal norms in various ways.
How were Flapper Girls different from other women at the time?
Their signature style set them apart on a physical and social level. They generally sported short, bobbed hair as a symbol of their resistance against traditional beauty standards for women at the time. Flapper girls tended to show “unladylike” behavior by drinking, smoking, and being comfortable with their sexuality. Flapper girls also aimed to have fun and go out, and their clothing style reflected that desire. They tended to wear shorter skirts, higher heels, more make-up and a style of dress that allowed them to bare their arms in a fashionable way and dance freely in a number of popular, energetic styles. This was known as the Flapper Style― and became immensely popular as female celebrities such as Clara Bow, Alice Joyce and Louise Brooks sported the look.
If the Flapper Style was an American phenomenon, how did the style get to France?
While the emergence of the Flapper girl was indeed an American nod toward female empowerment, the clothing styles actually first appeared in France during the 1910’s! French designers such as Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet and Jean Patou focused on designs that emphasized new life, clean lines, and a “modern woman” that sought to work hard and play harder. After World War I these French designers sought to recapture youth and vitality in the wake of the conflict, and these styles that emphasized mobility and youthful expression of independence became very popular with their American counterparts. [Caira Spenrath, Edited by Jennifer McPhail]
Museums often receive objects with little known history. This beaded buckskin pouch was given as a gift to the Institute of Texan cultures many years ago without any information on its tribe of origin. However, the style of beadwork and materials used indicate that it likely came from a Plains Indian tribe. These types of items are found in many museum collections in this region. The Great Plains covers a wide range of the United States, as can be seen in the map to the left. The area designated in red highlights the Great Plains where many Native American tribes resided and are more broadly referred to as the Plains Indians (or Plains Tribes).
Because these tribes lived in the same environment, they adopted similar lifestyles and made similar daily life items. It is not uncommon for museums to struggle with identifying a specific tribe, for all their objects. By using the term Plains Indians, the museum is able to identify an item’s regional origin without having to know the exact tribal affiliation. Some of the struggle comes from the history of trade amongst the tribes across the Great Plains. This beaded pouch has a beaded design on the lower third of the bag and is made of an animal hide. This could describe the majority of beaded bags, not only amongst the Plains Indians, but most tribes across the United States. Uniformity in style, shape, color or technique, indicates trade activity and a shared knowledge amongst various tribes on how to craft beaded goods. Yet, sometimes a particular kind of bead, animal hide, or stitching can also help to identify a tribe. If a particular type of bead, animal hide or stitching is repeated in many craft goods of one tribe but is not consistent amongst the other tribes, you can use that feature to determine which tribe made the item. During the 1950s Orvoell Gallagher and Louis Powell wrote a paper entitled, Time Perspective in Plains Indian Beaded Art (1953). The paper discussed the struggle museums have in identifying Plains Indian craft goods. They pointed to the same issue of trade. If all the tribes are trading with one another it makes it much harder to find anything unique. Their paper called for criteria to be built on what to look for in identifying Plains Indian craft goods. The criteria would help guide other museums when identifying Native American products.
Beaded pouches have great potential to help identify tribal origin. The animal hide that many Native American pouches are made of can be the first clue. One of the first things to look for is what type of animal skin was used. If a tribe didn’t have access to that animal, they either received the item in trade, or it is not theirs. Most tribes used animal hides for pouches, clothes, blankets, shelter and even drums. The process to prepare the skin of an animal for use is called ‘tanning the hide’. Using every part of an animal after hunting was a common practice, nothing was to be wasted. The women of the tribe often collected the skin and brain of the animal after the meat and other organs were taken. The process of transforming the skin into leather, or ‘tanning’ it, requires many steps. The hair, flesh and membrane would need to be scraped away, leaving only bare skin. Then a mixture of animal fats and/or brain would be rubbed into the skin, followed by soaking and then stretching the hide. During the stretching and drying is when they could change the color of the hide by smoking it or adding pigment. While the overall steps of tanning a hide is consistent amongst many tribes, the hide color choice could certainly be an identifying characteristic.
To watch a documentary about Native American trading networks and hide processing, please click the link: Sheep Eater –Trading and Tools
Another aspect of the beaded pouch that could be used to identify tribal origin is the beadwork itself. This particular beaded pouch uses small decorative beads, sometimes called seed beads. The glass seed beads are significant as they are evidence that the item was made after trade contact with European settlers was established. Beads can thus help identify the date of a craft good as well. The seed beads first became very common to Plains Indians around the mid-1800s, this is not to suggest that the pouch was certainly made then, but that it is unlikely that it could have been made before. The color of the beads and the design they create on the bag are also potential identifying marks.
Bags similar to the one in the Institute of Texan Cultures collections are known from the Ute tribe (see National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution [24/4225] here), Sioux tribe (see Brooklyn Museum, Accession Number: 32.2099.32549, here) and Southern Cheyenne (see Nelson-Atkins Museum, Accession number 2006.40, here). All of these are examples of beaded bags from Plains Indian tribes. Each is similar in style and design to the beaded pouch we are discussing, however, but without any unique identifying characteristics we cannot definitively say they are from the same tribe. All of the bags are rectangular and taper slightly up to the opening of the bag. There is also fringe and beadwork on each bag, and each uses the lazy stitch technique to apply the beads. This technique is anything but lazy. Instead of sewing on one bead at a time, you thread several beads to stitch on all at once. A time consuming task especially, when trying to create a pattern or design.The Ute example also has a four-flap opening with tie off at the top.
There are many other characteristics of craft goods that we can use to identify the tribe they belonged to. Material, bead design and how the item was made are just some of the first things to consider. Museums and archaeologists have collaborated over time to build a wealth of knowledge to aid in the exploration and identification of objects. Each object has a story and history waiting to be told. [Trisha Taylor, edited by Jennifer McPhail]
Blumberg, J. (2007). Beading the Way. How Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty created one of the centerpieces for the National Museum of American Indian’s “Identity by Design” Exhibition. Smithsonian Magazine.
Duncan, K. (1991). So Many Bags, so Little Known: Reconstructing the Patterns of Evolution and Distribution of Two Algonquian Bag Forms. Arctic Anthropology . Published by: University of Wisconsin Press. Vol. 28, No. 1, Art and Material Culture of the North American Subarctic and Adjacent Regions (1991), pp. 56-66.
Gallagher O. & Powell L. (1953). Time Perspective in Plains Indian Beaded Art. American Anthropologist. New Series, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 609-613. Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Vanstone, J. 1997). An Ethnographic Collection from the Northern Ute in the Field Museum of Natural History. Fieldiana. Anthropology. New Series, No. 28, An Ethnographic Collection from the Northern Ute in the Field Museum of Natural History (August 29, 1997), Published by: Field Museum of Natural History. pp. i-iii, 1-48.
This tapestry was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Ross S. Sterling of Houston, Texas during the late 1920’s. The tapestry has several images that represent the natural environment of Texas and several scenes from Texas history. The overall concept of the tapestry is based off of a painting of similar proportions that was also commissioned and designed by Mr. and Mrs. Sterling. The painting was completed in New York, but the tapestry was woven in France. When the tapestry was completed it was displayed in the Sterling home in Houston for a number of years.
Ross S. Sterling was born in February of 1875 and served as Governor of Texas from 1931 to 1933. Sterling was involved in several business ventures throughout his life, including the oil industry. In 1910 Sterling founded the Humble Oil Company. It in turn became the parent company of the Humble Oil Corporation and in 1973, the Exxon Corporation. Sterling sold his interest in the oil company in 1925 and used his profits to purchase the Houston Dispatch and the Houston Post in 1926. He later combined them as the Houston Post-Dispatch, which later became the Houston Post. He became the Chairman of the Texas Highway Commission under Governor Dan Moody and turned it into a consistent highway program. Sterling became the Governor of Texas after beating out Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson in the Democratic primary, but became a one-term Governor after losing to Ferguson in the following election. After leaving the Governor’s office he retired from politics but continued his ventures in the oil industry. He died in Fort Worth on March 25, 1949, and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.
The border of the tapestry shows different plant and animal life native to Texas. At the top, in the center, are six flags with a star. The flags represent the six countries that have held sovereignty over some or all of the territory that today is the State of Texas. They are Spain, France, United Mexican States (Mexico), Republic of Texas, Confederate States of America, and the United States of America. The portraits in the corners are Stephen F Austin (Upper Left Corner), Moses Austin (Upper Right Corner), David Crockett (Lower Left Corner), and William Wharton (Lower Right Corner). The center image depicts the surrender of Santa Anna to Sam Houston after the Battle of San Jacinto. The bottom image depicts the cabin where the Texas Rebels declared their independence from Mexico.
If you would like to know more about the Texas Revolution we have several blogs referencing the events and offering more details. You can see them here.
The Education department here at the Institute of Texan Cultures has recently added a number of fabulous downloadable resources for K-12 teachers to the Education portal on the ITC’s website. From Texas pioneers and cowboys and cattle drives to how to grow your own classroom garden, we have something for everyone! All of our lesson plans and hands-on activities are free of charge and meet TEKS requirements in social studies. Head on over to the website to learn more!
Extra pressed for time or just need a few quick warm-up ideas? Check out our Educator Quick Start Guides! All of our Quick Start Guides are presented in an engaging, visually appealing infographic form and are available for download as PDFs. Learn how to teach with objects, use primary sources in the classroom, and more!
Our brand new “Just for Kids” interactive learning experiences highlight aspects of some of our long-term exhibits here at the Museum. Kids can engage with interactive infographics, exhibit murals, and timelines to learn about archaeology, Native Americans, and life on the cattle drive throughout Texas history! We are also in the process of producing short, educational videos highlighting objects from our exhibits to include in these activities, as well! Stay tuned!
Materials: Wood, Armadillo Shell, Metal
This unusual guitar uses an armadillo shell as a sound box, it was created by Steve Cicchetti. Mr Cicchetti is a country musician known for hand-making a variety of musical instruments, he has also been a frequent Texas Folklife Festival participant.
There are many different species of armadillo in the world, but only the Nine-Banded Armadillo lives in North America, all the others live in either Central or South America. The Nine-Banded Armadillo is found mostly in the Southeastern United States, though it has been seen as far north as Illinois. Its overall length is about 2½ feet, and adults weigh from twelve to seventeen pounds, which puts it roughly around the size of a house cat.
Armadillos are omnivores, which means they eat plants and animals, primarily small bugs with the occasional small lizard and plant matter. In their hunt for bugs, they are prolific diggers. Their digging ability can often become a nuisance for landowners, because they will dig up lawns and fields. They also dig deep burrows, where they sleep up to 19 hours a day. They typically live anywhere from 7 to 20 years in the wild. Nine-banded armadillos often have identical quadruplets when they give birth; which means that they have four genetically identical babies. It is a common misconception that all armadillos curl up into balls with their protective shell covering them, only the Brazilian native Three-Banded Armadillo is capable of that feat. They are considered a threatened species due to habitat destruction and the high number killed on highways each year.
Nine-Banded Armadillos are the small state animal of Texas and are used as the mascot for several schools and businesses throughout the state. [Jennifer McPhail & Abby Goode]
To watch some videos about the Nine-Banded Armadillo follow the link below: