old woodcut image of the Kentucky River

A Teacher’s Guide to

Kentucky’s Story

A nine-part Kentucky history series for grades 4 and 5, produced by KET.

See our online ITV catalog  for upcoming broadcasts and additional information for teachers.

The Birthday Party

Program Goal

Students will recognize and discuss certain aspects of daily life, which have changed during Kentucky's history and other things, which have remained the same.

Program Summary

In a fantastic dream about his up-coming birthday party, a Kentucky boy learns a good deal about changes in Kentucky life over the past 200 years. Billy Clay's party guests are his grandparents, great-grandparents, and other relatives several times removed, dressed as they would have been as 10-yearolds going to a birthday party. Their gifts for Billy are toys from each child's time period. Together they also trace the evolution of Billy's house from its log cabin beginnings to its present state. Other topics, such as food and games, are touched upon.

Historical Background

Social and Cultural Changes (1750-Present)

Although political affairs and economic trends have made a great impact upon the history of Kentucky, social and cultural changes have played an equally important role in the development of the state. From the days of the pioneers through the 19th century and down to the present, material culture (objects) and folkways (customs) have shaped Kentucky and Kentuckians. Over the years, environmental and technological factors greatly influenced styles of architecture, clothing, food, and even toys, but despite various physical changes, Kentuckians continued to hold home and family in deep regard.


The first settlers to Kentucky built one-room, floorless log cabins with a single door, no windows and a wood and mud chimney. The cracks between the notched logs were filled with chinking and moist clay. By the 1780's, floors of hewn slabs (puncheons) supported by saplings were added, and chimneys were built of stone or brick. Larger cabins often had lofts that could be used for storage or as an additional sleeping area. In time, the double log house with a roofed entry between its two parts (called a dog-trot) evolved on the frontier. Many cabins in the 1790's had a "lean-to" at one side. In the mountains and more rural areas of the state, log cabin architecture continued throughout the 19th century.

However, by 1800, framed houses of sawed and dressed lumber began to outnumber log cabins in the more urban areas. Called Plantation Plain style, these two-story frame houses, covered with weatherboard or clapboard, had a two-over-two room plan flanking a central hallway. Pillars with simple capitals supported the shed roof porch and narrow sash windows with as many as twelve panes graced the dwelling. Plantation Plain homes became very important in Kentucky architecture. With a few modifications, this style was the basic plan to which many residents later added Greek Revival porticos and Victorian decorative trim.

By the late 1790's, wealthy Kentuckians had begun to build houses of stone and brick in the Georgian style, which was characterized by a symmetrical design using centered doors and windows at equidistance. In the 1820's and 1830's front porches with tall columns and triangular pediments (gables) were added and the style was often referred to as Greek Revival; the front entrance generally led to a hall from which a stairway wound gracefully to the second floor. Greek Revival homes also featured high ceilings, tall mantels, large living rooms (salons) and carved woodwork.

By the mid-19th century, Gothic Revival architecture had arrived in Kentucky and was being used for everything from cottages to stone castles. It was characterized by steeply pitched roofs, large pointed windows, and gingerbread trim along eaves and gable edges. Later in the century, the Victorian Gothic style featured multi colored exterior finishes and towers with conical roofs, and the Second Empire style introduced the convex-sided mansard roof. With an eye to the future, Louisville built its first ten-story skyscraper (Sullivanesque style) in 1890.

With the approach of the 20th century and on into the 1940's, Kentuckians constructed houses in the Pyramid Vernacular and Bungalow styles. The Pyramid's basic plan was a one- or two-story four-square house topped by a steeply pitched hip roof; the Bungalow was a one-story dwelling, featuring gently pitched broad gables with a lower gable always covering an open or screened-in porch facing the street. A simple, functional house, the bungalow's exterior walls were of wood shingles, brick or stucco.

Since World War II, low one-story ranch homes, neo-colonial style architecture, and glass and metal structures have dominated Kentucky's architectural landscape. The vast majority of houses have followed fairly well standardized floor plans, featuring three bedrooms and one-and-one-half baths. In recent years, escalating construction costs have led to the extensive use of mobile homes, and an increasing emphasis on social mobility has made apartment and condominium dwellings popular. The fuel-efficient home has also received favorable notice.


Frontier Kentuckians dressed very simply. Men wore buckskin hunting shirts, breeches, leggings and moccasins plus an animal-skin cap, often with a furry tail attached. When deer became scarce, linsey-woolsey cloth and other fabrics were used. Women dressed in these materials, too. In winter, they wore moccasins, and in warm weather they went bare-foot. For many years frontier women made most of the family's clothes, although in time garments became available in stores and from peddlers.

As the 19th century progressed, clothing styles changed. Kentuckians engaged in manual labor discarded buckskin; high-waisted trousers, homespun shirts, boots, and large hats became the standard garb. Held up by suspenders (belts and belt loops belong in the 20th century), trousers were often of denim and were called jeans (in other areas they were known as Kentucky jeans). During the 19th century, townsmen wore top hats, double-breasted frock coats with vests, high waisted uncreased trousers and cravats tied in a bow. Although the top hat continued to be the favorite, the melon shaped derby gained acceptance in the 1870's, and in the 1880's the straw hat or "boater" met with approval for summer wear. Late in the century, the short lounge jacket or sack coat, void of a waist seam and similar to present day suit coats, came into vogue.

For many 19th century rural Kentucky women, dresses were still of homespun, but as circumstances improved, cotton calico, and muslin materials gained in popularity. In the 1830's, drawers or pantalets, previously only worn by dancers, became a necessary article of feminine lingerie. Skirts gradually widened, and by 1860 the full skirt grew to ten yards in circumference, with any number of petticoats heighten the voluminous effect. After the Civil War skirts became slimmer, and the bustle appeared. In the 1880's and 1890's the "Gibson girl" look of tailored cloth suits with shirtwaist blouses emerged.

By the 20th century the sack coat (with padded shoulders and high waisted trousers) had become fairly standard attire for men, varying only slightly from season to season. A big change, however, occurred in men's underwear, where sleeveless cotton shirts and shorts replaced the long union suit. After World War I, trouser legs widened to as much as twenty-four inches at the bottom, and in the 1930's baggy pants with pleats at the waist became the style. During the 'twenties and 'thirties the longhaired "raccoon coat was a favorite for cold weather events. After World War II, men dressed in three-button suits and, when war necessities created a dearth of cotton, the new nylon shirts became the sensation. The 1950's and 1960's were the era of grey flannel suits; the pinstriped traditional look dominated the 1970's; and the single-breasted navy blue blazer and khaki pants have almost become a uniform among the 1980's professionals. For casual dress, denim jeans and cotton knit shirts, often with designer labels, have become popular.

In women's fashions, the turn of the century brought the hobble skirt with a knee-high slit on the side. In 1919, the chemise frock rose to just below the knee, and by 1925 the sleeveless dress worn by the boyish-figured flappers stopped at the knee. By 1930 hems had plummeted to ten inches off the floor, and a combination outfit of dress and long coat became the order of the day. During the 1940's the dirndl skirt was introduced, but the 1950's full skirts and petticoats were the rage. The 1960's and 1970's saw the pants suit plus two extremes: the mini-skirt, and the maxi-skirt, and the 1980's witnessed a tailored look of single-breasted jackets and contrasting slim skirts. For sports, denim and cotton dominates casual wear, many of which have a unisex look.

Throughout the centuries Kentucky children have almost always dressed like adults. Boys and girls looked like miniature men and women with the exception that even as late as the 1920's boys did not wear trousers until they were toilet trained. As late as World War II, boys wore knickers until they reached high school.


Following the Indians' example, Kentucky pioneers relied upon the bounty of the land. Large and small game abounded; streams teemed with fish, and wild fruits, nuts, and greens added variety to a monotonous protein diet. Sometimes a medley of all ended up in the same kettle. A popular stew, burgoo, included every available animal, sage and red pepper and assorted vegetables; the diner could seek out and enjoy whatever meats and vegetables he relished. Sweetening came from honey and maple sugar, and salt (needed for preserving and seasoning) was obtained from springs and licks.

As great Nature's gifts were, early settlers did not expect to live on them forever. They dreamed of planted fields and grazing livestock. As the wild animals diminished, domesticated ones assumed greater importance. For many Kentuckians, pork became the favorite meat. It was eaten fresh, smoked, salted, ground into sausage or make into pickled souse. Lard was rendered from the fat. In farming, corn immediately took precedence over other crops. Easily cultivated with only a hoe, corn was consumed in a variety of ways, used as feed for livestock and fermented for the manufacture of whiskey. Although the pioneers did not assign vegetables to a large role in their meals, they planted beans, pumpkins, cabbage, peas, potatoes, turnips, lettuce, cucumbers, watermelons, and muskmelons along with a number of herbs. Most settlers also cultivated orchards, which supplied fresh fruit in season and formed the basis for jellies, preserves, and brandies. Apples provided cider as well as vinegar for pickling and flavoring.

Pioneer food held a special place in the hearts of most Kentuckians, a tradition which has endured, with modifications, to the present day. Tomatoes came to Kentucky about 1830, but many considered them poisonous and only the daring added them to their menu. The Kentucky Housewife (1839) contained recipes for all the pioneer vegetables plus asparagus, cauliflower, and broccoli. Ice cream appeared in the 1830's and Saratoga Chips (potato chips) became popular at the end of the century. The greatest change in Kentucky food ways, however, came in the period following World War II. Freezing to preserve freshness and flavor, instant foods, prepared meals, and microwave ovens heralded new methods of serving old favorites. The post-war years also introduced a host of ethnic foods, but most Kentuckians continued to subsist on a basic diet of pioneer foods.


Despite frontier deprivations, Kentucky's pioneer children did not suffer from a lack of toys. Simply made from available materials and often crude in workmanship, playthings included: wooden, leather, and cornhusk dolls, bows and arrows, tops, wooden and bladder balls, cup-and-ball games, hoops, whistles, hobbyhorses, rocking horses, and clay marbles. Some more talented souls would make a baby rattle by stitching together the ends of dried turkey windpipes containing pebbles.

In 19th century Kentucky, as the hardships of pioneer days gradually gave way to increasing prosperity, children's toys changed to reflect the more sophisticated world in which their owners lived. Wooden toys, decorated with colored lithographs and embossed pictures, became more complex and colorful, and skillful hands produced alphabet blocks, dominoes, Noah's Ark menageries, dancing devil-on-a-stick, and dolls with peg-jointed limbs.

The Industrial revolution, however, made an even greater impact upon toy making, transforming it from a craft into a full-fledged industry, so that the later 19th century was known as "The Golden Age of Toys." In the 1850's, gaily painted tin pull toys (e.g. horse-drawn streetcars and stage-coaches), reflected changes in transportation, as did the development of tin mechanical toys (such as the locomotive) in the 1870's. By mid-century, the ever-popular doll had a wax and papier-mâché, china, or bisque head, and paper doll creations could be snipped from the pages of Godey's Lady Book. In the 1880's and 1890's, cast iron toys appeared. Solidly made to withstand spirited play, they not only rolled across the floor but also prepared children for future responsibilities; toy banks, some mechanically operated, reflected the value of thrift as well machinery. Bicycles (first called boneshakers then safety bikes) enjoyed great success during the last decades of the century. Beginning in the 1870's, newspapers in Louisville and elsewhere around the state carried ads for toy shops or stores with toy departments; prior to 1900 there were at least eight recognized toy makers in Kentucky.

Toy making technology did not change greatly in the early 20th century. Sheet metal and wooden construction toys continued to be produced. Dolls ceased to be miniature adults and began to be babies. In 1903 a soft, cuddly toy, the teddy bear, achieved instant popularity. The late 1920's saw the development of many pre-school children's toys, which helped teach fundamental motor or learning skills. After World War II, plastic toys (first hobby model kits and later hula hoops and frisbees) became popular, and dolls developed lifelike characteristics. Old favorites received batteries during the 1960's, and the mechanized robot joined the ranks in the 1970's. Computerized video games, such as Space Invaders, Pac Man and Donkey Kong, became the rage in the early 1980's.

Suggested Activities

  1. Arrange a trip or slide show so students can study the architectural detail of old buildings in their community. Possible features to note: number of chimneys, number of windows, number of panes in windows, number of stories, decorative detail, etc. Arrange for an architect, or someone familiar with the area's architecture, to talk to the class and answer questions or point out features that might otherwise be missed.
  2. Are there any restored buildings in your community? If so, arrange visits to the sites or invite the persons in charge to class. What were the major problems of restoration? What early and unusual features were uncovered? Can a list he compiled of buildings that are in danger of destruction and that should be preserved? Do students agree with the "experts" about which buildings should he saved? Put together a photographic essay of your town using old photographs from your local newspaper or historic society.
  3. Organize a "toy-making bee" in your classroom. Collect odds and ends of cloth, wood, or leather scraps, thread and buttons, etc. Award a prize for the "simplest" toy, for the "funniest looking" toy, the "most original" toy, etc.
  4. If students are interested in family history, have them interview relatives about when, how, and why the family originally came to Kentucky. Then write a short essay about what they discovered. A simple three or four generation family tree might also be included.
  5. Put together a collection of old Kentucky recipes. Discuss how they are different from today's recipes (language, ingredients, etc.). Talk about why these foods would be appropriate for early Kentucky pioneers (raw materials available, lifestyle, etc.).
  6. Draw pictures or cut out old photographs depicting changes in style of dressing over time. Make into a wall mural or time line.

Web Picks

Free and Inexpensive Materials

  • "Dressing-Up in the Past." Kit of turn-of-the-century costume accessories. Loan. KY Museum, WKU, Bowling Green, KY 42101.
  • "Favorite Dolls." Kit of rag, spool, cornhusk, and china dolls. Loan. KY Museum, WKU, Bowling Green, 42101.
  • "Growing-Up Victorian: A Family Activity Book." $.5 booklet. KY Museum, WKU, Bowling Green, KY 42101.
  • "Growing-Up Victorian: At Home." Reproduction objects including toys, games, children's crafts, and a teaching aids package. Loan. KY Museum, WKU, Bowling Green, KY 42101.
  • "Handmade and Store-Bought Toys." Handcrafted wooden playthings and factory-made toys from the past. Loan. KY Museum, WKU, Bowling Green, KY 42101.


Blumenson, John J.G.
Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945
Nashville, 1977

Cooper, Dorothea C., Editor
Kentucky Hospitality: A 200-Year Tradition
Louisville, 1976.

Coleman, J. Winston, Jr.
Old Homes of the Bluegrass
Lexington, 1950

Fraser, Antonia
A History of Toys
New York, 1966

Horine, Emmet Field, Editor
Pioneer Life in Kentucky 1785-1800
by Daniel Drake, M.D. New York, 1948

McClintock, Inez and Michael
Toys in America
Washington, 1961

*Montell, William Lynwood, and Michael Lynn Morse
Kentucky Folk Architecture
Lexington, 1976

Rifkind, Carol
A Field Guide to American Architecture
New York, 1980

Thomas, James C.
The Log Houses of Kentucky
Antiques (1974), pp. 791-98

*Denotes books from The Kentucky Bicentennial Bookshelf series.