Keep it Clean: Macramé and
Handwashing on the Mississippi
The St. Louis Mercantile Library is proud to hold in its collection what is believed to be the only surviving intact bell mop. These unique objects hung in the boiler rooms of steamboats for workers to wipe grease off their hands. Bell mops were used until so filthy with coal dust and oils, they were thrown into the river, never to be seen again. This mop survived thanks to beloved river historian Ruth Ferris, who made a habit of preserving river history by collecting memorabilia like this.
Bell mop from Golden Eagle engine room, ca. 1940
Pott Collection, St. Louis Mercantile Library
A tradition developed on the Mississippi River for engineers and their assistants to craft decorative macramé hangers for their bell mops. Crews competed between boats to create the most elaborate pieces. As rivermen, their knowledge of knots must have led to some impressive designs. This example, which is on display in the Pott Curator's office, hung in the boiler room of the steamer Golden Eagle.
Photograph of the steamer Golden Eagle
Pott Collection, St. Louis Mercantile Library
As we weather the ongoing pandemic, you may find yourself at home with some extra free time. Imagine, after a couple macramé how-to-videos, you could have your very own bell mop hanging in your bathroom to wow your family and impress (or confuse) guests!

You can learn more about this bell mop and other fascinating river artifacts in the Herman T. Pott Waterways Library on the St. Louis Mercantile’s digital library here.
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