This little metal machine is a cherry stoner, circa 1870, donated to us by Mary Kingdon (1906-1971) in 1970. Miss Kingdon did not share any specific stories about this piece, but it is old enough to have been used by her grandparents in Montgomery County, DC or Baltimore (depending on which side of the family it came from) as well as her own immediate family in Rockville.

There are no helpful markings on the artifact, so the exact maker and date are unknown.  However we have several other cherry stoners in the collection, including a similar model (missing its legs) marked “Pat’d Nov 17 1863, May 15 1866.” Two later cherry stoners (also helpfully marked, with their respective patent dates of 1883 and 1917) made by the Enterprise Manufacturing Company were designed to clamp onto the table; Miss Kingdon’s little guy here just sits, although it looks like you could screw the feet into the work surface to hold it still.  The whole cherries go into the funnel at the top; turn the crank, and the blade slices them up and, I think, moves the split cherries out the spout into a bowl, and the pits get dropped underneath…?  Anyone want to correct me here?  (Sometimes there are disadvantages to not being able to try out the artifacts.)  At any rate, you end up with pitted cherries, ready to eat.

What’s it for? Well, here’s a sweeping generalization: Americans love cherries, but cherries are hard to eat. Nineteenth century cookbooks include many cherry-based recipes, along with advice on how to prepare them. For example, in Miss Leslie’s 1839 Complete Cookery the author notes, “The common practice of drying cherries with the stones in, (to save trouble,) renders them so inconvenient to eat, that they are of little use.” In other words, take the stones out first, ladies! Many inventors have turned their attention to labor-saving devices to benefit frustrated fruit lovers; a search for “cherry stoner” on Google’s patent site brings up several pages of designs, from the 1860s through the 2000s.

The inspiration for today’s artifact comes from an exhibit at the National Museum of American Art in DC. The Great American Hall of Wonders (open through January 8, 2012) “examines the nineteenth-century American belief that the people of the United States shared a special genius for innovation. It explores this belief through works of art, mechanical inventions, and scientific discoveries…” and combines paintings, drawings, patent models, and other artifacts into one exhibit. (And best of all, it opens with one of my favorite paintings, Charles Wilson Peale’s “The Artist in His Museum.”) Partway through the display I spotted an old friend, a gilded version of our little standing cherry stoner: a presentation-worthy (gilded!) model of William Weaver’s Improved Cherry Stoner, patented May 15, 1866 (i.e., the same as our legless model).

Many antique kitchen and household tools are, depending on your age and background, either instantly recognizable or completely mysterious. Sadly, what doesn’t make immediate visual sense to us is often simply overlooked, so my “old friend” the gilded cherry stoner may not be noticed or remembered by exhibit visitors. It didn’t make the online slide-show version, and it doesn’t seem to be included in any of the press. (All the photos here show our own piece, not the patent model.) The exception is Linda Wertheimer of NPR, who mentioned it in her July 17, 2011 interview with the curator; but she called it (not without cause) a “gadget that looks like a giant golden beetle.” If any of my readers get a chance to see this exhibit, take a moment to admire Mr. Weaver’s patent model, along with the more recognizable clocks, guns and steam engines. You can quote Miss Leslie’s advice! Believe me, randomly quoting old cookbooks is always a big hit with your friends! (Not really.)

** Bonus blog recap!  Today’s date, October 12 2011, falls in the middle of both National Fire Prevention Week and National Veterinary Technician Week.  Check out these previous posts for some fire prevention and vet tech artifacts.

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