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Connecting objects with place: 5 stories of innovation from "Object Project"

The Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project is a new interactive learning space opening on July 1. Here, we're highlighting five objects that will be on display—all of which have unique stories tying them to the places where they were invented. Because of certain resources, innovators, and geographical characteristics, these objects came to exist at specific times and places. Through authentic objects and interactive experiences, the Taylor Foundation Object Project will let visitors explore how social and technological changes transformed everyday life.

1. Mother-of-pearl buttons for mass-produced clothing: Muscatine, Iowa, 1890s

Ready-to-wear clothing became increasingly popular in 1890s America. Access to this mass-produced clothing, sold in catalogs and department stores, gave people of all social classes the opportunity to choose from popular styles at affordable prices. With this increasing demand for rapidly produced clothing came a greater need for buttons.

A German button maker named John Frederick Boepple opened a button factory in Muscatine, Iowa, in 1887. With its location right on the Mississippi River, Muscatine offered easy access to American freshwater mollusks that contained mother-of-pearl. This is a strong inner layer in the shells of some mollusks, and it also forms the lustrous coating on the outside of pearls. Workers at button factories all along the Mississippi River used tubular saws to cut round shapes from mussel and clam shells, which were then ground to standard thickness, drilled, and polished. By 1905, Muscatine produced 1.5 million pearl buttons per year—supplying nearly 40 percent of the world's buttons. The pearl button industry began to decline in the 1930s, faced with foreign competition, the production of plastic buttons, and the growing popularity of the zipper.

2. Maytag washing machines in a farming community: Newton, Iowa, 1900s

Frederick Louis Maytag moved to Newton, Iowa, in 1893 and started a farm equipment company. He began producing washing machines during the winter, when farm machinery sales were down. Though Fred Maytag did not invent the first washing machine, he made a number of innovative improvements to it. Maytag introduced a "multi-motor" model in 1914 that was available with either an electric motor or a gasoline engine—a feasible solution for farms that lacked electricity. Farmers were early adopters of the automobile and were also likely to have farm equipment that ran on gasoline, making the fuel a convenient power source for washers as well.

The company's leadership position in the washing machine industry was cemented when one of its engineers, Howard Snyder, designed the "gyratator"—now known as the agitator—to churn the water, a design concept that washing machines still rely on today. Maytag also developed the wringer attachment, for squeezing excess water out of clothing.

A Maytag Model 32/33 washing machine will be on display in the Taylor Foundation Object Project. By looking at its serial number, we know that it was produced in Newton between February 1937 and August 1941.

3. Ceramic containers for the new refrigerator: East Liverpool, Ohio, 1930s

This Ohio town was named East Liverpool by English potters who settled there in the 1830s. Bringing the pottery trade to this region was a natural fit; East Liverpool was rich with natural clay deposits. Since the beginning of the pottery industry in East Liverpool, the town has been home to at least 300 different potteries. Robert Hall formed the Hall China Company in the early 1900s but died soon after, leaving his son, Robert Taggert Hall, to take over the business. The younger Hall adopted a single-fire process, using a glaze that would withstand higher heat and expedite the firing process.

In the 1930s, Hall China introduced its line of refrigerator ware. The refrigerator's popularity grew throughout the 1930s, as a replacement for the icebox. Hall's refrigerator ware included containers for leftovers, water pitchers, and butter dishes. This line of pottery is still known for its bright colors and durability.

4. Concentrated juice to preserve Florida orange freshness: Lakeland, Florida, 1940s

The Sunshine State is far and away the biggest producer of oranges, but it wasn't always possible to get that Florida-fresh taste in other parts of the country. Canned juice was easy to ship, but the flavor left something to be desired. During World War II, the U.S. Army wanted to improve both the taste and nutritional value of food for troops. At the time, soldiers were given lemon crystals with vitamin C, but many chose not to eat them because of the bitter taste. The Florida Citrus Commission asked a team of three researchers, C.D. Atkins, Edwin L. Moore, and L.G. MacDowell, to see if they could come up with a solution. Working at a laboratory in Lakeland, FL, they devised the "cutback" process, patented in 1948. This involved first heating the orange juice to evaporate the water in it, then adding back some fresh juice right before freezing it.

Adding cutback restored both fresh flavor and vitamin C, much of which was lost during the heating process. This innovation in O.J. processing also addressed a major problem facing Florida's orange growers. If there happened to be a bumper crop one year, producers could freeze the excess supply, to be shipped anywhere and sold at any time. Minute Maid was the first major distributor of concentrated orange juice, its name reflecting how easy it was to prepare the frozen beverage.

5. The Macintosh, "a computer everyone can use:" Silicon Valley, California, 1984

The region south of San Francisco and including Stanford University in Palo Alto is ubiquitously known as "Silicon Valley," one of six communities that our upcoming exhibit Places of Invention will explore in the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation. Silicon Valley became a center for electronics companies in the 1960s, with silicon being a key material used in making computer circuits. And the growing atmosphere of technological innovation in Silicon Valley in the 1970s and 1980s helped spur the development of the personal computer.

Steve Jobs, who later became CEO of Apple Inc., unveiled the first Macintosh computer in Cupertino, California, in 1984. With its novel user-focused approach, the Mac helped transform personal computing. It was based on the idea that anyone could use a computer at home; you didn't have to be a tech whiz. At the Apple shareholder event where the Mac was introduced, Jobs described it as "insanely great," and announced it would be available at the "mainstream price point" of $2,495. The Mac's success proved to be an important step toward the personal computers we use today—at work, at home, and on the go—in everyday life.

These five objects, and many others that Americans have used to transform their daily lives, will be on display in the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project beginning July 1Do you have a story about an innovative object that has a unique connection to place? Add it to the interactive Places of Invention map.

Caitlin Kearney is a new media assistant for Object Project. Previously, she has blogged about cycling history and Tabasco hot sauce.