A granular substance of organic origin, which, when dry, has the appearance of a white, glistering powder, without marked taste or smell, and which gives a very peculiar sound when rubbed between the fingers. It is found in almost all plants, and some few animals. It has nearly the same composition as sugar, and is convertible into this by chemical and vital processes. When highly heated, starch becomes changed into a gummy substance, known as dextrine or British gum, which is largely used for stiffening cloth. — Webster, 1882
Cornstarch makes a distinctive squeaky sound when rubbed between the fingers. Try it!
With the exception of Farmer Boy, the starch mentioned in the Little House books was always laundry starch, a vegetable starch – such as rice, corn or wheat starch – used to stiffen items of clothing. The powdered starch was boiled in water; the items were dipped in the solution once or twice, gently squeezed and shaken, then hung to dry.
In The Long Winter, the Ingallses’ starched and freeze-dried laundry is dampened and rolled tightly; it will be ironed the next day. Starch was used to stiffen collars, petticoats, ruffles, and other areas where a crisp finish was desired. The starch served another purpose, as well; it formed a barrier between fabric and skin, so perspiration and soil would adhere to the starch and be carried away along with the starch when the garment was washed. Laundry starch is typically made of corn starch, although rice starch was often thought to be superior.
Starch was typically applied to cotton fabrics during the manufacturing process, and resulted in the “starchy smell” Laura mentioned in Little Town on the Prairie (Chapter 5, “Working in Town”).
Boiled Starch. In The Long Winter (Chapter 18, “Merry Christmas”), Ma and the girls do the laundry on a fine day between blizzards, and Laura makes the boiled starch. The following is from an early household guide:
Boiled starch is made by mixing raw starch with enough cold water to make a thin mixture – a cup of water to three-fourths of starch – and then pouring boiling water on it till it becomes the thickness you require, stirring all the time you are pouring the water. If for collars and cuffs, it must be quite thick; the articles should be well clapped between the hands, as that spreads the starch evenly through all the threads of the linen. Dry them, and then dampen in cold water, rolling them up in a cloth. They will iron better if they remain thus for ten or twelve hours. Many of the best laundresses add a teaspoonful of butter or lard to every quart of starch. For colored clothing the starch should be thin and cool, the articles being put into it from the rinse-tub. Articles starched with boiled starch must always be dried and sprinkled before ironing. — Maria Parola, First Principles of Household Management and Cookery. Boston: Houghton (Osgood and Company, 1879), 21.
A recipe for Improved Laundry Starch is found in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine for June 1872:
A beautiful finish can be given to articles to be starched by taking one-fourth of a pound of starch, and working it over and kneading it with a little water, then placing five or six pints of water in a pan and adding to this a very small quantity of powdered borax, a small piece of sugar, and a fragment of white wax about the size of a hazelnut, and heating the whole sufficiently. This water is then to be added to the starch, stirring it continually, and mixing the two together until the whole is as thick as is convenient for application. If the articles are to be made quite stiff, the strength of the starch may be increased two or three-fold. — Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine LXXXIV (June 1872), 571.
Food Starch. The most common sources of food starches are corn, potatoes, wheat, tapioca, and rice. With the exception of wheat starch (made from wheat flour, not wheat kernels), all starches were originally isolated by wet grinding, followed by sieving, separation, and drying. During the Little House years, starch factories were located along rivers or streams, and the factories used the free water source for all parts of the starch-making process, including disposal of the waste products, which simply washed downstream.
Because they were plentiful, wheat and barley were the first starch sources to be commercially milled. Wet milling of potato starch began in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, in 1824. In 1842, Thomas Kingsford developed a process by which corn starch was isolated from kernels of corn using technology he learned from a wheat starch plant in New Jersey. He perfected the process by which pure laundry starch was manufactured from corn. By 1895, there were five wheat starch and sixteen corn starch plants or factories in the United States. In the 1880s, the number of commercial American starch factories had decreased from 140 to 80. Independent mills, such as Thomas Kingsford and Sons and the Argo Starch Company (formed in 1892), merged to form the United Starch Company.
Today, both Kingsford and Argo food-safe and laundry starches are still available in grocery stores. In the early advertisements for starch shown above, gloss starch is sold for laundry and corn starch for use in cooking.
THE POTATO STARCH FACTORY AT BURKE, NEW YORK.
During the Little House years, potatoes yielded eight to ten pounds of starch to the bushel, and a potato starch mill might use from fifteen to thirty thousand bushels of potatoes per year. Potato starch was used as a thickener for soups, sauces, and puddings. It could be cooked at higher temperatures than cornstarch when used as a thickener, and it is still used in cooking today.
In Farmer Boy, Almanzo’s Uncle Wesley lives in town and runs the potato-starch mill. It was Andrew Day who ran a starch factory on the Trout River in Burke. A writer in Malone, New York, in 1866, wrote that within a radius of ten miles from Malone, there were twenty starch factories, that these cost from $4,000 to $6,000 each, and each works from four to twelve thousand bushels of potatoes in a season, the daily capacity ranging from 300 to 400 bushels. The existing manuscript for Farmer Boy contains a story that does not appear in the published version. In the manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about Almanzo’s visit to the factory, and tells how raw potatoes were made into starch:
There was more than enough potatoes to fill the bins in the cellar so Father took a load to the starch factory at Burke.
Burke was a little town down the river a few miles. It had a post office, two stores, a blacksmith shop, a wagon shop and the starch factory and a saw mill run by the same water wheel. A little way down the river was a grist mill that ground wheat and rye and buckwheat into flour and corn into cornmeal.
Almanzo went to Burke with Father and the potatoes… He liked to watch the potatoes being made into starch; to see the whole potatoes go round and round in the big, tall vat, with the water pouring through it, while the huge, wooden paddles stirred and turned them, rolling them over and over until they were all washed clean and the dirt had settled and washed away through the slatted bottom of the vat.
Then the potatoes were put through the mill that ground them fine, into a great tub, where the water ran and kept the mass stirring. The parings rose to the top and were floated off by the water. Then the potato pulp was run into another great tub where it was washed by the running water, until the pulp rose and the starch settled to the bottom. When the starch had all settled, the water and pulp was drawn off, the wet starch was cut into slabs and sent, on a small track, into the dry kiln. There the slabs were spread on a floor that had rather wide cracks. As the starch dried it broke into pieces and fell through the cracks onto the next floor with smaller cracks. As it became fully dry it sifted through these into a tight floor beneath. From there it was barreled for shipment. The barrels were large and when filled weighed 600 pounds.
Almanzo always thought what a huge starch pudding a barrelful would make.
An early recipe for Potato Starch Pudding is as follows: Take two quarts of milk, mix with a little of it for thickening, five spoonfuls of potato starch, and boil the remainder. Add to it, the starch while boiling, and boil it a minute of two, stirring constantly. Let it cool a little, then stir in four eggs, sugar and seasoning to the taste. — Mrs. A.L. Webster, The Improved Housewife, or Book of Receipts (Boston, James C. Derby, 1855), 80-81.
starch (BW 8; BPC 17, 29; SSL 3; LTP 2, 5; THGY 19, 24)
boiled (TLW 18)
potato-starch mill (FB 8)
starchy smell (LTP 5)