The Little House on the Prairie novels, which were inspired by author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer childhood in the 1870s and 1880s, have sold more than 60 million copies, been translated into more than 30 languages, and delighted children and families in print and on the small screen for decades. Wilder wrote the first one, Little House in the Big Woods, in 1932; the eighth and last “official” Little House book, These Happy Golden Years, was published in 1943 (a ninth book, The First Four Years, is widely considered a final installment in the series and was published in 1971, a few years after Wilder’s death at the age of 90).
Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on Feb. 7, 1867, in Pepin County, Wisconsin. In honor of what would have been her 150th birthday on Tuesday, here are 15 things we learned from Little House on the Prairie the first time, 10 details that stuck out upon rereading the books in adulthood, and 10 downright terrifying things that you would never expect to find in these charming historical children’s novels.
15 things we learned from Little House on the Prairie
1. A pig’s bladder can be blown up to make a nice balloon, and roasted pig’s tail on a stick is a fine treat.
2. The best candy is snow candy: Boil molasses and sugar together and pour the syrup onto a plate of clean snow.
3. To grow the biggest pumpkins, like Almanzo does in Farmer Boy, water them with milk.
4. If you haven’t had a chance to put a roof on the house yet, just stretch the wagon cover over it.
5. It’s easy to catch fish using nothing but a box.
6. If you haven’t had time to build a real house, you can live in a sod-walled dugout.
7. The world’s best revenge against a mean little kid is to lure them into a creek filled with leeches.
8. Looking at a muskrat house — that the animals build out of mud — will tell you what the winter is going to be like. “The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses,” Pa told Laura. “I never saw a heavier-built muskrats’ house than that one.”
9. Out of flour? Grind wheat to make bread using a coffee grinder.
10. When the wood and coal are gone, twist hay into tight bundles for fuel.
11. A panther screaming sounds just like a woman screaming.
12. Be careful! Mice can eat your hair while you sleep.
13. You can make a lamp out of a saucer, some axle grease, a button, and a bit of fabric. “Ma put the button in the center of the square of calico. She drew the cloth together over the button and wound a thread tightly around it and twisted the corners of calico straight upward in a tapering bunch. Then she rubbed a little axle grease up the calico and set the button into the axle grease in the saucer.”
14. When it’s blizzarding and you have to go out to the barn to tend to the livestock, hold on tight to the clothesline so you won’t lose your way.
15. You can eat blackbirds! In Little Town on the Prairie, there are some pesky blackbirds ruining the oats crop, so Pa shoots them. “These must be good meat; they’re fat as butter,” he tells Ma. She fries up a few and turns the rest into a pie.
10 things we only really notice when reading the books as an adult
1. When they are heading to Native American Territory in a covered wagon, they often stop for a full day so Ma can do the washing AND THE IRONING. “Then Ma took the sadiron out of the wagon and heated it by the fire…and she ironed the dresses.”
2. There’s a tremendous amount of butchering, killing, skinning, and gutting. Yes, we know they had to do that if they wanted to eat. We just didn’t remember all the details of, you know, making head cheese from when we were six and seven.
3. Ma says a lot of remarkably racist things about Native Americans, and the entire family is prejudiced against Norwegians. This all went over our heads as first-graders.
4. Pa is a pretty hands-on dad and a resourceful guy, but he’s also is a terrible provider whose wanderlust drives the family ever deeper into poverty. (Keep in mind that while most of the events of the books are taking place, the Industrial Revolution is going on: Most people don’t have to make their own bullets or plates or beds or straw hats by this time, nor are they living in tiny primitive shanties or dugouts.)
5. Laura first gets a job at 13, and she’s working fulltime as a schoolteacher by 15. Her money is used to support the family and help send her sister Mary to school at a point where Pa is basically not making money at all.
6. One of Laura’s cousins gets married at 13!
7. The family nearly starves to death in The Long Winter (so many of the things Laura describes — the listlessness, fatigue, cold — are symptoms of malnutrition).
8. Ma is kind of dour and unpleasant. The scene where she makes Laura give away her rag doll Charlotte — HER ONLY TOY — makes our blood boil.
9. Mary is the kind of prissy, unbearable big sister you just want to smack.
10. The pace of the books is strange. Some stretch over the course of years; others, like By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter, take place in a few months.
Scary House on the Prairie: 10 terrible things that happen
1. Ma scares off a bear by slapping him.
2. They all nearly die when their covered wagon nearly capsizes crossing a flooded creek.
3. Pa is chased by a pack of wolves: “Fifty wolves, Caroline, the biggest wolves I ever saw.” Not long after that, he nearly gets picked off by a panther.
4. A huge cloud of locusts devours their wheat crop — and their garden: “Millions and millions of grasshoppers were eating. You could hear millions of jaws biting and chewing.”
5. Pa gets lost in a blizzard FOR THREE DAYS and nearly freezes to death.
6. Mary catches scarlet fever and goes blind.
7. Laura and Carrie, walking alone in By the Shores of Silver Lake, encounter an enormous buffalo wolf one night. “Something made Laura look up to the top of the bank. And there, dark against the moonlight, stood a great wolf! He was looking at her. The wind stirred his fur and the moonlight seemed to run in and out of it.”
8. The family almost starves to death when the trains stop running due to heavy snows in The Long Winter): “Slowly they ate the last potatoes, skins and all. ‘I’m not hungry, honest, Pa,’ Laura said. ‘I wish you’d finish mine.’”
9. Boarding with a surly couple while teaching school, Laura is terrified one night when the wife starts waving a butcher knife around.
10. During the first few years of their marriage, Laura and her husband almost die from diptheria, then their baby boy dies, and then their house burns down.