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Pumpkins, Math, and Primary Sources

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Lee Ann Potter, Director of Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives at the Library of Congress, wrote this post.

On the day before Halloween, a colleague shared a holiday greeting with members of the Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives Team at the Library of Congress (the group responsible for this blog) that included the 2017 photograph of Bill Morgner’s carving of a 707-pound pumpkin, at the annual Pumpkinfest in Damariscotta, Maine.

Image of a carving of a 707-pound pumpkin, at the annual Pumpkinfest, a colorful fall festival in Damariscotta, Maine
Bill Morgner’s creation, a carving of a 707-pound pumpkin, at the annual Pumpkinfest, a colorful fall festival in Damariscotta, Maine. Carol Highsmith, 2017

It ignited a fun and interesting e-mail exchange.

Mike posed a related math question, “707 pound pumpkin…can you calculate how many pumpkin pies?”

And Peter replied,

“Three possibilities:

  1. A pumpkin that size is probably not good for pie, so none.
  2. Typical pie pumpkins are about 4 pounds, so 177 pies.
  3. Pumpkin pie is delicious, so not enough.”

Then, our electronic conversation went in a few different directions. Vivian wondered about the purpose of the blue tubes in the photograph. Mike speculated that they could be providing support for the enormous squash. Cheryl said that the photo reminded her of visits to county fairs, where her kids were always fascinated by the giant pumpkins—and she wondered how many other ingredients it would take to bake 177 pies. After some discussion, we came to the consensus that homemade crust is preferable over store-bought, so the necessary ingredients list grew. (Though, interestingly, none of us attempted the necessary math to create the shopping list.)

Another colleague actually imagined being in the photo, walking past the pumpkin to go into the café to buy a slice of pie, rather than making one, and was disappointed, upon closer analysis, to learn that the café had apparently gone out of business.

Kaleena insisted that while she is definitely a member of “Team Pumpkin Pie,” her curiosity got the best of her and she went searching for sweet potatoes on Although she didn’t find any giant ones, a couple other items caught her eye, including this photo from a collection that captured daily life in a family-owned pie business: “Worker peels sweet potatoes; boxes of unpeeled sweet potatoes in the foreground; printing on some boxes reads “North Carolina Sweet Potatoes.”, and this one: “Applying sweet potato starch to cotton thread at cotton mill. Laurel, Mississippi”.

Collectively, we lamented the limitations of standardized testing—noting that Peter’s answer to Mike’s question was an impossibility. But then we rejoiced in the power of primary sources to inspire inquiry and fuel conversations about the things that make us wonder.

If other photographs on have inspired math problems and interesting conversations with your students, please tell us about them!


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