It’s Snowing: Plowing Ahead with Primary Sources from the Library of Congress

Snow plow, [between 1856 and 1857]

Snow plow, [between 1856 and 1857]

Recently a Summer Institute teacher shared a science lesson she implemented using primary sources from the Library of Congress.  She described how students eagerly explored early photos of rug cleaning – a boy beating a rug with a whisk and a giant gas-powered machine – then successfully made connections to their own lives today, gaining understanding of how lives are changed by technological advances like the vacuum cleaner.

With winter arriving this month, my thoughts turned to a different kind of cleaning: snow removal.  How were city streets cleared long ago, and what was life like before plows and snowblowers? I discovered some intriguing images that answer some of my questions and raise many new ones.

Here are a few of these images, along with some questions to help your students dig into the images and think more deeply.  For each snow removal method, you can also ask students to think about where the energy or power came from, what were the advantages and disadvantages of the method used, and how it compares to today.

Start by displaying the above drawing and asking students to speculate:  “How do you think this tool works?”

Next, show students a photo of soldiers shoveling a road and ask, “What do you think is happening here?  Are you familiar with these tools?”

Cleaning snow from the streets in trucks, New York, January 1908

Cleaning snow from the streets in trucks, New York, January 1908

Have students examine the 1908 photo on the left and ask, “What do you think is happening here?  What tools or machines are being used?  What questions does this photo raise?”  (My own question: Where did all the snow go?)

Have students examine the photo below of the snow plow from 1910 and ask, “What is this tool, and how does it compare to those you see today?”

For further investigation, have students look at more snow plow images in order to explore plow design (the 1860s, [between 1910 and 1925], the Sno-Go, and 1939). One way to encourage them to look more closely is to print the images and ask students to put them in chronological order based on their observations.

Snow plow during storm, New York

Snow plow during storm, New York, 1910

Other issues for discussion include: teamwork and coordination required; level of effort for different periods of time; byproducts of  snow removal mechanisms; who is responsible for removing snow after a blizzard – individuals or the government; and property rights and legal issues.  How did the development of snow removal technology impact our lives?

As always, you can deepen exploration of these images by using the Teachers Guides and Analysis Tool.

See if your older students can find out what happened to some of that snow after the blizzard, by searching for more images.  Let us know what you think here in the comments.


  1. Rebecca
    December 27, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    What a cool connection.

  2. Elham
    December 28, 2012 at 7:22 am

    What a fantastic lesson! Definitly, I am using it in my class.
    Thanks Anne for sharing it!

  3. Lous Zrebiec, Ph.D.
    December 31, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Primary sources must support participatory learning and lesson plan. Goal driven learning. Confusion must be avoided.
    Louis Zrebiec, Ph.D.

  4. Cathi Franchino
    January 4, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Anne, these are wonderful winter resources. I might add this essay “The Man Higher Up” from the January 14, 1904 evening edition of the New York Evening World [] to a lesson to bring in Common Core State Standards Literacy goals; one might even add a math standard with this article!

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