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dipper / ladle / skimmer

dipper. A vessel used to dip water or other liquor, a ladle. — Webster, 1882

ladle. An instrument used in ladling or dipping; a cup with a long handle, used for throwing or dipping out liquids from a vessel. — Webster, 1882

skimmer. A utensil in the form of a scoop, used for skimming liquors. — Webster, 1897

A few men were waiting for their turns to drink from the tin dipper. As each finished drinking, he handed the dipper on, and then strolled away toward the horses and buggies on the race track. – Little Town on the Prairie (Chapter 8, “Fourth of July”

Grandpa Ingalls used a basswood ladle to skim his boiling kettle of maple sap in Little House in the Big Woods (see Chapter 7, “The Sugar Snow”). When boiled, the maple sap produces a sugary foam which contains impurities that must be removed. These impurities might be insects, twigs, dirt, or even mold. The longer sap is boiled, the more foam will be produced, but it will contain fewer and fewer impurities. It takes thirty gallons of sap to produce just one gallon of maple syrup; that’s a lot of boiling and skimming.

Basswood comes from the American Linden, about thirty species of trees in the genus Tilia. The tree is native to most of the temperate Northern Hemisphere, in Asia, Europe (where it is known as Lime), and eastern North America; it is not native to the western United States. The Linden is a large deciduous tree reaching a height of around fifty feet. From the trunk outward, its branches get smaller and smaller; the leaves are heart-shaped, and after flowering with wonderfully fragrant blossoms, the tree is covered with tiny fruit resembling green peas. Linden is an important honey plant, and the flowers are also used to make herbal tea.

Basswood is both tough and light and is not apt to split while being worked, so it is a favorite for cabinet work, boxes, broom handles, butter bowls, and other kitchen items. Perhaps Grandpa carved his own ladles out of basswood. THIS might inspire you to try carving one for yourself.

The earliest sap skimmer used was probably a shallow, woven basket attached to a wooden handle. Foam stayed in the basket while liquid passed through and back into the pot or kettle of boiling sap. It’s possible that Lansford Ingalls drilled holes in the wooden ladle he used for skimming, while in Farmer Boy, James Wilder may have used a tin skimmer punched with holes, such as sold by Nick Brown, the tin peddler (see Chapter 12, “Tin-Peddler”). Today, sap skimmers are usually made of stainless steel which is much easier to keep clean than basket, wooden, or tin skimmer.

A dipper can be anything used to scoop and hold liquid (typically) prior to pouring or drinking; even your hands or a large leaf can serve in a pinch as long as what you’re scooping isn’t too hot or might stain your fingers. While a dipper and a ladle are similarly used, a ladle usually has a rounded bottom that allows for ease in pouring from. If you’ve ever tried to dip up something chunky – like vegetable soup – with a vessel having straight sides and a flat bottom, you’ll notice that items tend to stick to the angles.

Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t often tell readers what material dippers in the Little House books are made from, but tin is a good bet. The most common dipper mentioned was one in which a person drank water from, and everyone shared the same dipper. While the whole town seems to share a common dipper in the lemonade barrel in Little Town on the Prairie, Wilder’s handwritten manuscript describes in a slightly more sanitary way: Mr. Boast brings the family a small bucket of lemonade from the larger barrel, and only Ma and the girls share the tin cup it is served in.


dipper (FB 1, 12, 19; LHP 15, 23; SSL 9; LTP 8, 13; PG)
ladle (BW 7-8; FB 10, 26)
skimmer (FB 12, 28)