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onions, farming, leeks, garlic, superstitions, onion snow, Easter, egg dying, folk cures


A handwritten manuscript entitled, "Onions - "De Tswivla", compiled by Victor C. Dieffenbach, dated May 18, 1953. Within, Dieffenbach details his knowledge of onions, including farming techniques, superstitions, and breed varieties.

Corresponds to:

Packet 577-212-31 to 577-212-43


Onions. - “De Tswivla”.

Since the onion is about the very first thing that is planted in the garden in the Spring, so I shall likewise give it preference in my writings on gardening, and garden vegetables.

The German name for onion - : “de tswivvel”, could mean a lot of things, since the word means a bulb. Onions, and their cousins, the leek and garlic, were used in medicine in great-grandmother’s day.

There are several different ways to raise onions. They can either be raised by planting onion-sets - “de shteck-tswivla”; from seed sown in rows, or drills, and then thinned; by buying the plants from a firm down South; or from the multiplier onion - : “de glooka-tswivla”. This latter is a distinct variety, differing from the rest, in the manner of producing the seed, or multiplying. A large onion is planted in the Fall, and then from three to eight small bulbs will form around the mother-plant; hence the name - “de glooka tswivla”, as it resembles a Biddy-hen and her chicks. The plants start to grow very early in the Spring, and may be pulled loose as wanted for family consumption. They have always been very much in demand by market-gardeners for bunching very early in the Spring. They are by no means a modern variety, having been a favorite among the housewives long ago.

When onions are to be raised from sets, then we must secure the sets in some way. Nowadays they can be bought; but not so in Grandmother’s day. She would always save some very choice specimens from last year’s crop for raising seed. Not just big ones, but those that were nicely formed, fully matured, and true to type. These she would put somewhere in the house so they were safe from rodents, and where they would not get too cold. Freezing will not kill or destroy an onion if it is not tampered with while frozen.

Once the ground was warm and dry enough, she would plant these onion in the garden, in a row; she would keep them reasonably clean from weeds, and give them some extra fertilizer, usually hog-manure, and later supplemented with a dose of fine chicken-droppings - : “hinkel-misht”, scattered along the row, and then hoed in. These onions would grow tall stems - : “de schlutter”, and form a bunch of tiny flowerettes; these develop into a lot of tiny black seeds. The next Spring she would make a narrow furrow with the end of the hoe-handle along a board. Then we would scatter the seeds in the furrow; and you could hardly get enough in to suit her. “Do musht en dicker saya udder de tswivlin worra tsu dick!” (You must sow it thicker or the sets will get too big.) she would tell me.

After the seed was sown she would sprinkle a few handfuls of soil over it. Then she laid a board on each side of the row, leaving only an inch space between the two. When the tiny seedlings came up they had to be weeded by hand; but this narrow strip was soon weeded; the boards were handy to kneel on while weeding; they kept the weeds from growing, and also kept the soil from drying out. In late July when the bulblets would be the size of marbles, she would pull them out, and dry them, and then store them for next Spring.

For real big onions the bed should be prepared several years in advance; plenty of manure and fertilizer should be applied to the previous crops. Then, when the soil could be spaded, she would dig it, and let it lie for a day or two, to dry off; then it was raked until it was so fine you could run it through a sieve. Then she would take the wooden rake, and holding the handle at an angle, she would press the cross-member -: “der recha hawbt” into the soil, leaving a triangular mark; she’d lift it and move it several inches towards her, and make another mark. This way she would go, backwards across that land -: “des lond im gorda”, until she had a row of these marks, as long as the rake, clean across the land in the garden.

“Now grick de gorda-lott!” (Now get the garden-lath!) she told me. This was a narrow board, as long as the land was wide, and was placed alongside these furrows. Now she would take the onion-sets -: “de tswivelcher”, and stick them in the soil, pushing one down every three inches in the row. Later she would stand on this board and pull a tiny two-pronged hoe between the rows; and what she missed had to be pulled out by hand.

Onions always had to be planted very early, so as to get all the benefits of the “tswivla-schnay”; there would always be a late snow after they had been planted. Whenever anyone let on as if the Winter was all over, then Granny would say - “ya, der tswivla-schnay coomt owver nuch!” (yes, but the onion-snow will come yet) and it did.

One time the lowly onion was the means of saving the life of a very brave man. Israel Putnam, who rose to the rank of Maj. Gen. in the Revolutionary War, was one time challenged by an officer in the British Army, to fight a duel. Being allowed the privilege of choosing the weapons, Old Put as he was familiarly called, said that they would each sit on a keg of gun-powder, with a lighted fuse going into it; and the one sitting the longest would be the winner. On the appointed day Putnam's seconds rolled a keg into the village square, and the Briton's men did likewise; the fuses were pushed into small holes that had been bored in the kegs, the duelists took their seats, and the seconds lit the fuses and ran away.

As the fuses began to sputter the Briton’s face paled; his eyes seemed to pop from his head; his teeth chattered, and his entire body began to tremble. Finally, when he could no longer control his emotions, he sprang up into the air with a yell, ran screaming through the jeering crowd, and disappeared in the forest. Old Put was still sitting on his erstwhile powder-keg, calm and unruffled, for well he knew it was harmless - it as well as the Briton’s keg was filled with onions.

A German tramp had a rhyme about an onion that he would recite whenever he came to our house in the spring-time, and would be allowed to have a few onions. He said that most folks only gave him some dried-up or mouldy pie.

It ran something like this:

“De tswivvel de iss glott un rundt;

Ess see, un no bisht awe gsundt.

See hut yae en dutzent heidt,

Un see beisst yae all de leidt!”

(The onion is so smooth and round

Eat it and you’re hole and sound.

It has a whole dozen skins,

And it bites all, full of sins.)

Onion-skins played an important role among the early Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, and are used by some at the present day. All through the Fall and Winter the busy housewife would save all the onion-skins and put them in a tin can. At Easter-tide they would be put in a big iron kettle, partly full of water, and a number of eggs would be boiled in it. This dyed them a nice reddish-brown color; if they were left in it too long, this mixture would penetrate the pores in the egg-shell, and would give a slight flavor to the eggs. This, as well as various other things, the writer found out for the first time after being married.

If you cut a small onion through the middle and rub it on a wart, and then press the two pieces together, and bury them underneath the dripping eaves -: “der doch-drops”, then the wart will disappear.

If a cow is bloated -: “won de coo dick iss”, cut an onion into very small pieces, and put it in a bottle; add a spoonful of salt, and a cup of strong vinegar, and pour it down the cow’s throat. It will cause the cow to belch -: “see doot uff-shtosa”, and soon she will chew the cud -: “un nogby doot see eadericha”, and she will be O.K. in short order.

If you hit a cross dog on the middle of the head with a big onion, he will not bite you afterwards. (Old Johnnie Brown, der braucher.) The writer would prefer to use a brick.

Leeks -: “der schnitt-lock”, were used for seasoning meats, stuffings -: “des filsel”, and dressings or gravies, by the early P. D. house-wives. Some still use them. My father would take a bunch of leeks and cut it up in very small pieces and mix it up in the feed of the turkeys while they were still small. He would also use onion tops that way.

Once when Dad and I were in Lebanon with a load of produce we stopped at the American House on South 9th Street, run by Cyrus Kleiser. Next door was a wholesale grocer called James Fairburn and Dad went there for some sweet-potatoes, etc. This man had several crates of onions that were in very bad shape, and he asked Dad if he would take them just so they were out of his way, and so that he (the grocer) need not drive out of the city to dispose of them.

“Do consht see aryets in de hecka schmeissen”, (you can throw them in the bushes) he said. Dad complied, but when he was going to throw them away he saw there were some that were not rotten at all. So he decided to take them along home and then sort them out, which he did. He might have had a peck or two out of the whole lot (there were four of five crates) and the rest he dumped over the fence into the manure pile -: “in de kee-hen”. We had a bunch of very nice shoats running loose on the farm as was customary in those days; they ate those onions, and by the next foremoon several had died, and two or three died later. Dad had never cared much for onions personally; but from there on he would call them -: “de fer - ta sei-butcher”. (The damned hog-butchers.)

I remember that as a kid I had a tiny bag hung around my neck, and resting on my bare skin; in it was some garlic cut up into small pieces, and several live sow-bugs -: “keller-aisel”; I do not remember what ailment or disaster they were supposed to avert, but I do remember that it stank, and that they crawled around like all get out.

When one had a bad cold on the chest and congested lungs, a pan-full of onions fried in a lot of fat or grease would be put in a bag, and laid on the patient’s breast -: “en tswivla-poultice”, and I know that it loosened up the matter inside, and also how the grease came out through the underwear.

John Frantz, a neighbor of ours, had a bottle of colic-medicine for horses, in the cellar, standing on a shelf. It contained garlic, assafoetida -: “deivel’s dreck”, sulfur, vinegar, and God knows what wasn’t in that bottle. They were butchering, and were working in the cellar putting up and salting the meat. One of the helpers complained of not feeling well, and hinted at having a drink -: “er hut gschtichelt fer wei hoova”, one of the boys handed him the bottle and he took one swallow. He made an awful racket until he had it out again, but did not complain of any pain - only of the bad taste. So John gave him another one with the real stuff in it. That served to smooth it over. But old “Henny” Bickel insisted that it had been done on purpose. When we all tried to tell him how it had helped him, and that he was still living and rid of his stomach-ache, he would say -: “Ya, owver deer het meer eppes gevva kenna os net so ferflucht weasht gshmocht het”. (Yes but you could have given me something that wouldn’t have tasted so accursed bad.)

Never try to raise onions in gravelly soil, Grandma would say, as it tends to drain off a lot of moisture. Onions will give best results in the richest of loose deep soils, and you cannot feed them too much. There are numerous varieties, about equal in value. Color is more a matter of personal choice than of one kind being better than the others, although they differ in size and strength of flavor, some being much milder than others. Keeping qualities also vary; also the yield per yard of row, or per acre when grown commercially. Modern methods of culture and fertilization have resulted in yields of from 200 to 800 bushels per acre. For the average family enough can be raised from two to six quarts of sets. Granny always raised twice as many sets as she planted; the rest she gave away.

When the bulbs are full grown, about the latter part of July, she would take a hoe, the broom, or whatever came handy to her hand, and she would knock all the onion-tops over, flat on the ground.

I remember the first time I saw her doing it, and I had not heard of any such proceeding before. So I ran into the house and told my sister that Granny is crazy - she has a stick and she is thrashing all the onions -: “os seede kep nimmy uff-haua kenna”. (so they cannot hold up their heads anymore.) Everybody laughed at me, and Grandmother laughed the loudest and longest of them all. She knew that I knew of how she loved onions, and all the care she had spent on them - lavishing time and effort that she could well have enjoyed in her huge rocker. All told, they had quite a time telling me that it was all for the good of the onions; if they were left to grow of their own free will, and a rainy spell would set in when they are matured, some will start to grow a second time, and develop new bulblets that do not mature that late, and some may rot. When they have died down so that most of the tops are dry, they can be all harvested by pulling them up, roots and all. They should be stored in a dry place, preferably a dark shed or room, and left undisturbed for a week or so; then the tops and some of the loose skins may be removed, and the bulbs stored in a dry dark room where they will not freeze.

Years ago, while living on a farm near Host I had a neighbor, a veteran of World War One; he was a bachelor - a very good cook, and if I am not mistaken, had been the chef at a big hotel. He lived all alone in a little red house, where my lane met the hi way. So, when I went for my mail, I would drop in on Bob, and have a sociable chat. One day he was getting dinner ready. He peeled and diced potatoes and put them in a skillet; then he said -: “Now muss Ich mull doe haar fer tswivla greega!” (Now I must get here for some onions.) I looked and could not see any. But Bob reached in between the flower-pots, and there on top of a fruit-jar, sat an immense onion - a home raised one - and it had sprout going half-way up the window. He just clipped off maybe six or eight inches and cut them up into short pieces; then he showed me another one that he had cut down to the bulb. He said he was using them all Winter as they would just keep on growing; and the flavor was identical with that of the bulb proper.

And now comes another variety - knocking at memory’s door for admittance - the Winter-onion - “de winter-tswivla”. They are said to come from some foreign country - Italy, Spain, or Egypt. They grow to an immense height; and at the top they form a cluster of small bulblets or new onions. This is the seed, and it can be planted in the Fall of the year, and will produce edible onions by the following Spring. Like the multiplier, they are good for bunching, although inferior in quality.

While rats will attack and spoil or destroy almost anything under the sun, the writer has yet to hear of a single instance where rats or mice have damaged onions in storage, or while in the field or garden. Years ago while employed on the Bell Telephone line, I had a pal of mine come to me and ask for my knife, saying he had a pine-apple. I gave it to him, and what does he get out of his pocket but a big onion. He cut it in two, and offered me a half of it. I demurred, saying he had no salt, bread, nor butter. He just bit into it, and so did I. I soon found out that it was just a matter of making up one’s mind, or doing it; they are appetizing, thirst-quenching, and very healthy besides; to this day an onion is no more nauseating to me, than an apple or any other fruit, to eat raw.

May 18th, 1953 Der Oldt Bauer.


Signed in Dieffenbach's pen name of "Der Oldt Bauer" (The Old Farmer).


English and Pennsylvania German

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Dieffenbach on Onions, May 18, 1953



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