This artifact came from a Takoma Park family, who had saved many household items from the early 20th century. Included in the donation was this double-lidded wooden box, which the family speculated was some kind of ice cream maker; inside are two compartments, each fitted out with a metal container and what looks like the remains of some kind of churn or beater-type attachments, with a handle that fits through the lid (all in pieces, and fairly rusty, unfortunately).

Not knowing a whole lot about various forms of ice cream makers or churns (beyond the obvious, that is), that explanation made as much sense to me as anything else. There is a maker’s label on the front, very hard to read, but it didn’t offer too much assistance: “Thermatic, Patents Pending, Mfr’d By The Diller Mfg Co., Bluffton Ohio, USA.” I prefer things that say “Ice Cream Maker” right on the label, thank you! An internet search for the company was hampered by the fact that Phyllis Diller attended Ohio’s Bluffton College, so most hits were related to her. By chance, however (and how many things on this blog were discovered “by chance”? Maybe I should be downplaying that) I noticed a similar item in a reprint of the 1915 Gimbel Brother’s Department Store catalog:

So the whole ice cream maker/freezer idea was not quite the right direction. It’s a stove! Or rather, a fireless cooker, “perfectly sanitary and easily kept clean” (although the catalog doesn’t actually say how it worked). I’ve since noticed advertisements for other similar items in 1910s magazines, although I have not yet found one made by Diller.

There are undoubtedly some people who would recognize this artifact right away. I suspect that the majority would not, however. I’m not sure how common (or practical) these “fireless cookers” were, and clearly as technology progressed they became obsolete. Some artifact forms remain relatively constant, despite improvements; spoons haven’t really changed too much over the course of history, for example; but gadgets, fads and technological marvels often fall victim to Progress, and however familiar they are to us now, they might totally mystify our descendants. (Anyone who has tried to explain the concept of a record player to someone born after 1985 understands what I mean.) One example is the tree baler: a big metal contraption that they use at some Christmas tree farms to put netting around your cut tree. Or, say, the plastic doohickey (technical term) that holds my washing machine’s hose at just the right angle to drain into the sink. These are things designed for specific functions that make perfect sense in context, but if you found one just lying around by itself, would you recognize it? Look around your own home or workplace, and try to see all your stuff with the eyes of the future. (And then write down what it is and how you use it, in case your descendants want to donate it to a museum.)