Tag Archives: Industry

“Plenty of Bread Here”: Rockford’s Bit in the Making of the White Loaf

1922 toaster

1922 Universal electric toaster

Take a minute and think about what you had for breakfast this morning. Maybe your eggs or pancakes came with a side of toast. Did you have a sandwich for lunch? Perhaps dinner will be accompanied by bread and butter. How often do you have bread with every meal? These days chances are pretty slim as bread is often a sidekick to our meals, and many people have gluten-free diets. Even though bread is still considered to be one of our staple foods, one that is usually high on our grocery lists with milk and eggs, we are eating far less bread today than even just sixty years ago.

1910s-1920s Ekcoloy Silver Beauty bread tin

1910s-1920s Ekcoloy Silver Beauty bread tin

During the Medieval period, most people received 80% of their calories from bread – imagine eating just bread as at least two of your meals! By the 19th century, bread still constituted 30% of daily calories. At this time, most bread was made at home or purchased in small, artisan bakeries. Bread factories were seen as dirty places where the baker might use sawdust or some other filler to cut costs. As food-borne illnesses like cholera and typhus became apparent in the meat and dairy factories, and Upton Sinclair’s graphic exposé The Jungle was published at the turn of the century, Americans feared their food. Even though bread was not a carrier of the contagion, it too was scrutinized. When consumers turned away from the factories, their only other option (besides making it themselves) was the neighborhood bakery. Many were operated by southern and eastern European immigrants, who were stigmatized as “undesirable,” and therefore made undesirable food. In this way, the fear was not really about the bread itself, but of whose hands were making it.

Daily Register-Gazette - May 11, 1925

Daily Register-Gazette – May 11, 1925

So bread factories got their act together. They presented themselves as clean, modern, and efficient. Their factories were industrialized and spotless as if saying this was a safe place to manufacture food. And they choose white bread as their “flagship” for purity and modernity, implying that anything else was subordinate. The white loaves were even referred to as “chaste” and dark loaves as “defiled” by food reformers.


White bread gained popularity quickly, and bakers scrambled to find the recipe for the perfect loaf. In an effort to find out consumer preferences on the white pan breads, the USDA conducted a study in Rockford between 1954 and 1955. Why Rockford? In 1949, Life magazine declared Rockford to be the most typical city in America. Market researchers came in droves to the shores of the Rock River. During the study, 600 households in Rockford were interviewed about their bread-eating habits and anyone 16 years and older could participate in taste tests. Their results were deemed to be fairly typical of American families across the nation.

WWI era Camp Grant postcard

WWI era Camp Grant postcard

According to the study, 95% of households bought bread once a week. People in Rockford ate 1.5 pounds of bread per person per week, regardless of age or economic class. Light bread was always chosen over denser bread as consumers preferred the sweeter, fluffier bread. However, one third of housewives described it as “doughy; gummy; soggy; not well baked.” Some thought it just tasted terrible, and 60%-75% of housewives registered complaints against the bread. Newspaper and magazine articles didn’t have much good to say about the industrial bread either. Despite these issues with the light, white bread, people still bought a whole lot of it. Most households ate bread at all three meals. In 1954, Americans consumed about 8.6 billion loaves of store-bought white bread. Most ate 3 to 7 slices per day, or more.

The Keig-Stevens Baking Co. participated in the study. William H. Keig opened his bakery at 405 W. State St. in 1885. In the 1900s photo above, Keig’s niece Ethel Shaw works as a clerk. Keig was a popular bakery, selling many different types of bread like Vienna, sweet rye, French twists, as well as rolls and buns. Customers could also purchase treats like orange pies, fried cakes, macaroons, caramel squares, angel cake, jelly rolls, lady fingers, and many other sweets. After taking over the failing Forest City Baking Co. in 1910, he brought on his brother-in-law Webbs Stevens as his partner and together they operated the highly successful Keig-Stevens Baking Co.

The Keig-Stevens Baking Co. participated in the study. William H. Keig opened his bakery at 405 W. State St. in 1885. In the 1900s photo above, Keig’s niece Ethel Shaw works as a clerk. Keig was a popular bakery, selling many different types of bread like corn bread, sweet rye, and French twists, as well as rolls and buns. Customers could also purchase treats like orange pies, fried cakes, macaroons, caramel squares, angel cake, jelly rolls, lady fingers, and many other sweets. After taking over the failing Forest City Baking Co. in 1910, he brought on his brother-in-law Webbs Stevens as his partner and together they operated the highly successful Keig-Stevens Baking Co.

Why did consumers still choose to buy so much of the fluffy bread, even though they didn’t care for the taste? The industrial white bread was part of the post-war enrichment campaign that claimed the bread “built strength for the individual and national defense.” Rockford’s study confirmed this – depending on the year, 96%-100% of the USDA’s sample believed the bread to be highly nutritious.

Bread and its design have rarely been about the bread itself. It has carried with it anti-immigrant and racist feelings that shaped its form and consumption. Post-war campaigns steered the choice of bread to the white loaf in the name of strength and, essentially, nationalism despite its too-sweet taste. Today, about 72 million loaves of bread are sold each year in America – a dramatic decrease of 99%!

Do you make your own bread? How often do you buy a loaf in the store? What kinds does your family enjoy?

1910s Thanksgiving postcard

1910s Thanksgiving postcard

Happy baking!

I first heard of the Rockford study while listening to an episode of 99 Percent Invisible, an excellent podcast about the invisible design and architecture that shapes our world. Check them out by following the link below.


Bobrow-Strain, Aaron. White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Beacon Press: Boston, 2012.

Mars, Roman. “Episode 127: Good Bread.” 99 Percent Invisible, October 22, 2014. Accessed October 22, 2014. http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/good-bread/.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, Consumer’s Preferences among Baker’s White Breads of Different Formulas: A Survey in Rockford, Illinois (Marketing Research Report No. 118) (Washington, DC: USDA, 1956).

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Calling Rockford “Home”

After 14 years of planning, researching, designing, and constructing, Many Faces, One Community was finally completed in July.  This long-term exhibit presents the hows and whys of immigration to Rockford through the representation of 16 cultural groups.  The exhibit would not be possible without the first and second generation immigrants who shared their stories with us.


As you enter the train depot, you hear the train whistle and the conductor yell “Rockford Station!  End of the line!” and you know you have finally reached your destination after weeks of a long journey far from home.  As you heave your trunk from the baggage cart, you realize that Rockford – America – is your new home.  How will you fit in here?  Do you have a place to live, or a job to work at?  Where will your children go to school?  Will you find others like yourself, who know your customs and traditions?



How will you furnish your home?  If you are Swedish, Seventh Street is the place to go!  You can find furniture, silverware, lamps, vases, shoes and clothing, and even have your photograph taken here.  Don’t forget to have your shoes shined by little Jimmy Sotos, the “Mayor of Seventh Street.”



South Main Street carries goods and services for almost all ethnic groups who have found their way to Rockford.  You can do your grocery shopping, have a shave and a haircut, and enjoy authentic Mexican food.



Come apply for a job at the furniture factory.  Show off your knowledge of tools as well as your skill at assembling panel doors.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen you come home from work, what are your rooms like?  Perhaps your parlor reminds you of home in the old country, much like Swedish immigrant Alma Peterson’s.  Is your kitchen traditional, like Italian immigrant Carmela Gaziano’s?  Or maybe you live at Mary Wood’s boarding house with men and women from different countries, where you share your stories and learn about each other’s way of life.











Find your place in Rockford’s history as you tour the interactive exhibit Many Faces, One Community.  See 450 artifacts from the collection, many that have never before been on display.  For more information on hours and admission, please visit our website: http://www.midwayvillage.com/wordpress/planning-a-visit/admission/



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Sock Monkey Madness!

Have you ever wondered about your sock monkey’s genealogy?  The history of the sock monkey goes back over one hundred years, and it all began right here in Rockford with a Swedish immigrant named John Nelson.

John Nelson

John Nelson was born in Sweden in 1830.  He immigrated to the U.S. in 1852, meeting his future wife Eva Christina Persson (Peterson) on the ship on the way over.  They were  married on November 4, 1854.

They settled in Rockford in 1857, where he worked as a carpenter before opening his own business as a cabinet maker.  While operating this business, Nelson invented a dovetailing machine to make furniture joints.  In 1865, he opened a shop sash, door, and blind factory with Gust Holem and Andrew C. Johnson.  He then began working on inventing an automatic knitting machine.

William Worth Burson

William Worth Burson

In 1866, he was introduced to William Worth Burson by his financial backs Ralph Emerson and W.A. Talcott.  Burson and Nelson began working on developing a home knitting machine.  The machine was developed and patented, and by 1871 Burson and Nelson were knitting 80 pairs of socks a day.  All the socks were knit on circular machines and the toe was closed by hand.  In 1873, Burson and Nelson developed yet another machine, the flat machine.  This could close the heel and toe of the sock automatically, creating the first truly seamless sock.  In 1877, Burson stopped his affiliation with Nelson, and by 1880, Nelson Knitting was absorbed by the FR Brown Company.

Nelson Knitting Factory

Early Nelson Packaging

Early Nelson logo

In 1883, Nelson died of typhoid pneumonia at the age of 53.  In 1890, Forest City Knitting Company was incorporated and controlled by Nelson’s family.  During the 1893 Financial Panic, Nelson Knitting responded by reducing their prices.  In Rockford, 27 factories declared bankruptcy in one day.  By 1904, the production of socks at Nelson Knitting reached 450 dozen pair each day.

Nelson Co logo 1915

Nelson Co logo 1915

The Nelson Knitting Company’s socks looked the same as their competitors’: brown body, white toe, heel, and top.  In 1932, Rockford advertising executive Howard Monk suggested that red be added to the heel of the Nelson sock to make it distinctive.  Nelson called this trademark the “De-Tec-Tic” or what is now called the Red Heel sock.

Nelson "loopers," 1930

Nelson “loopers,” 1930

By 1938, Nelson Knitting produced 4000 dozen pairs of socks each day.  A knitter could run 25 to 30 machines at a time.  The machines ran off of belts that were turned by ceiling shafts.  These machines never stopped.  During an 8 hours shift, there were no breaks.  A worker ate his lunch while he watched his machine.

Nelson "presser," 1938

Nelson “presser,” 1938


No one knows exactly when the first sock monkey was made.  The socks had been used to make dolls for decades.  But in 1955, Nelson Knitting was awarded the patent for the sock monkey doll based on the evidence that Grace Winget of Rockford made a sock monkey doll as a Valentine’s gift for her grandson in 1951.  This is the earliest recorded sock monkey.  Nelson began including instructions on how to make the sock monkey with every package of socks.  The patent expired in 1970, so now the sock monkey belongs to everyone!

Sock Monkey Instructions

Can’t get enough of sock monkeys?  Join us for our upcoming event:

Sock Monkey Madness Festival!

March 2 & 3

11am – 5pm both days

Admission: $8 Adults, $5 children/students, Museum members are free!

This year’s theme is Sock Monkey Roundup!

An original event, the Sock Monkey Madness Festival will return as a unique celebration of Rockford’s past by highlighting its once thriving knitting industry and the stuffed sock toy made from Rockford Red Heel Socks which continues as a part of America’s pop culture.

The Sock Monkey Madness Festival was awarded a national 2009 Leadership in History Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History for excellence in educational programming!

For more information about this event, click here: http://www.midwayvillage.com/wordpress/event-registration/?ee=46

Find us and much, much more in the gift shop!

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The Illinois Andersonville Monument Commission

Guest blog entry by Noah Neiber

In 1864 during the Civil War there was a Confederate prisoner of war camp constructed near Americus, Georgia. The name of that camp was Andersonville and it became well-known as one of the harshest camps in the Civil War. Many Union soldiers died at that camp of malnutrition and heat stroke. 889 of those were from Illinois. The ones who survived were in wretched condition but at least made it out at the end of the war.

Among those survivors were five men who would not soon forget what pain they had to go through. And because of this fact they could not allow the sufferings of their brothers to go on unremembered. So that future generations would remember what they had to go through for their cause, these men decided to form a committee and erect a monument in honor of those from Illinois who died at Andersonville. These men were A.H. McCracken of Chicago who was the president, G.J. George of Springfield who was the Vice President, Lewis F. Lake of Rockford who was the secretary and treasurer, William H. Hainline, and James M. Swales. Together they formed a commission in 1907 to erect the monument.

But in order to do this they had to find a contractor to submit a good design and to erect the monument. It took them a while to find the contractor that they thought could do the monument correctly, but they finally chose the Trigg Monument Company of Rockford, Illinois.

Trigg Monument Works, c. 1880s

Now from here it was not smooth sailing. The monument should have been done within a year, but there were so many delays due to things that ranged from the health of the commission members that stalled meetings, to weather in Andersonville that cracked the foundations of the monument, to the misinterpretation of what the commission wanted the monument to look like.

Because of such delays the monument took years to build, but it was completed in December of 1912, and finally dedicated on the 20th of that month. When completed the  granite pedestal was 20 feet by 24 feet and the monument itself was 18 feet overall. The monument depicts large figures of “Columbia with Youth and Maiden” that are supposed to depict nations to come. Engraved in it are the last clause of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address and the last clause of his Gettysburg address. There are also two figures on the side of the monument that represent veterans of the Civil War as a sad reminder of what they had to go through in that war.

The dedication of the Illinois Andersonville Monument, December 1912

The men of this commission had many battles of their own during the construction of this monument. It was a long and hard process that required a lot of sacrifice from each member; however, in the end though it was all worth it, because their hard work could finally help generations to remember the sacrifice that the prisoners at Andersonville made, not just at Andersonville, but throughout the whole of the war. The monument they built is there to remind us of the cost of freedom and how it affects even the very place we live.

A close up of the Illinois Andersonville Monument

If you would like to learn more about the Illinois Andersonville Monument Commission, the records of the exploits of these men are at the Midway Village in our collections and research department. Also, if you would like to learn more about the Civil War in general, please join us on Saturday, January 21 from 10 am -2:pm for our 10th annual Civil War Symposium.

For more information about the Civil War Symposium, please visit our event page: http://www.midwayvillage.com/event_calendar.cfm?id=1048

Noah Neiber is a Midway Village Museum volunteer. In addition to being a junior interpreter, Noah also volunteers in the Collections Department. He and his mother, Michele, recently cataloged the Illinois Andersonville Monument Commission collection.


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Rockford’s Swedish Heritage

Most of us have designated places for storage.  Maybe it’s a storage closet or room, or the basement simply becomes a depository for all things storage.  Sometimes we wish for more room for everything that somehow piles up!  Even Midway Village must continually address storage issues as its collection grows year after year.  Before the twentieth century, most homes did not have large storage spaces.  Closets were small and cramped.  Most people kept large trunks to store their items like bed sheets and other linens.

This Swedish trunk was originally used as a bridal chest.  A bridal chest, or brudkista, was used by a young woman to hold an accumulation of linens that she would take into her marriage.  It was usually made a member of her family or a village carpenter.  Her initials and date of birth would be included in the decoration.  This chest was built in 1780-90s and is made of oak.  It measures 5 x 2 x 2 feet with its curved top.

The bridal chest was decorated with floral designs, sometimes including images such as birds and hearts, to symbolize love and prosperity.  Light blue, greens, and reds were popular colors used to accent its beauty.  As seen on its front, this chest was owned by a woman with the initials B.B.D. and who was most likely born in the year (ano) 1763.

The trunk’s key has a unique star shape in its blade.

Swedish engagements were long, sometimes lasting seven years.  During this time, the bride-to-be would weave, sew, and embroider dozens of towels and bed linens.  The groom also kept a chest, a brudgumskista, that he would fill with carved plates, mugs, and spoons, as well as items related to harvesting flax.  When the two married, they would then have the necessities for their new home.  Through the years, this chest may have been used for other storage, such as extra blankets and pillows, and then passed down through from daughter to daughter as a hope chest, or hoppas kista.

Inside of this trunk was a document written in Swedish by Hokan A. Lofgren in 1934.  The document explained that Hokan purchased the chest in 1912 in Skåne, Sweden from the great-granddaughter of the original owner, Bengta Bengtsdotter, for whom the chest was built.  Little is known of the owner and the use of this particular trunk.

Hokan Albin Lofgren was born in Smoland, Sweden in 1882.  He came to Rockford with his family in 1928 on the S.S. Gripsholm, pictured below.  The trunk most likely traveled with them aboard the ship as they headed to new opportunities.

Swedish immigrants came to Rockford in mass in 1852 for social betterment.  Many Swedes saw no opportunity for themselves in a place where they were kept on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  America promised work, growing industries, cheap land, lower taxes, higher standards of living, and religious freedom.  Letters and gifts from America came home to relatives in Sweden, inspiring young Swedes to make new lives for themselves in the country across the Atlantic.

A majority of emigrating Swedes came from rural communities.  Those who made their way to Chicago were encouraged to seek the farming communities to the west.  At this time, the Galena & Chicago Railroad was still being built, and had not reached the end of its line.  But the Swedes jumped on the train to take it as far west as it could go.  They got off in Rockford at Kishwaukee Street.  The line was completed in Freeport the very next year.  Among these newcomers were P.A. Peterson, a giant in Rockford’s furniture industry, and John Nelson of the Nelson Knitting Factory (and Rockford’s claim to sock monkey fame).

Had the line been completed in 1852, Rockford would not the same as it is today.  Rockford has more Swedish-Americans per person than any other city in the U.S.  In fact, Borgholm, Sweden has been a Sister City to Rockford since August 2002 as a celebration of the sesquicentennial of the arrival of the Swedes.

Hokan Lofgren and his family were living in Rockford by 1933, according to the city directory.  The family attended Swedish Methodist Church.  Hokan worked as a laborer at the Rockford Drop Forge Company (with president P.A. Peterson!), which made drop forgings for automobiles.  But Hokan was also an inventor.  He designed a new clothesline reel that was patented in 1949.  The patent can be viewed here: http://books.google.com/patents/about?id=TSVzAAAAEBAJ

The Swedes who brought chests like this one with them to America came with a dream of advancing themselves and their families.  The hard-working entrepreneurs made the city world-wide leaders in the tool and furniture industry.  They also influenced culture in Rockford through music, theater, and art because they were never willing to give up reminders of where they came from.  Rockford would certainly look much different today without its Swedish heritage.

Special thanks to Leah Nelson and Irene Oldson!


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