Friday, January 31, 2014

Death by Corset? Mystery Artifact Revealed

This week's mystery artifact was apparently a pretty tough one to guess!  I tried to give a hint in the title:  "Of Course It Is Time . . . "  "Course It" - "corset" . . . well, never mind.

This week's artifact is a busk, one of several lovely examples we have in our collection.  Historically, busks were made of carved wood or bone in a solid, rounded piece like the one above.  Corsets from the early 16th century on were sewn with a pocket in the front into which the busk could be placed to hold the corset front very straight and rigid.  (Think of portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, or better yet, a period drama like "Shakespeare in Love," in which all the women are held ramrod straight and constrained in their movements due to their tight-laced and busked corsets)! I can't imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to sit for hours on end, working needlepoint, with a busk poking and prodding one into a better posture.  As lovely as these artifacts are, I'm glad they went out of fashion!

Here are a couple more beautiful busks we have in our collection.  The one above is also carved bone and dates from around 1800, we think.  This next one is, I think, my favorite artifact of the moment:

It's carved wood in a triangular shape (for strength) and dates to 1788.  How do we know the exact year? 

The creator of this busk was kind enough to help us out by carving the date onto it!  Interestingly, the initials "C.F." are carved above the date, just below a pretty heart motif.

However, the initials "ET" are carved into the back, inside a circle and with a sort of sunburst pattern:

It was common for young men of this period to carve wood or bone busks for their sweethearts and present them as a gift.  I am wondering if the story of this busk includes a young lady with the initials C.F. for whom E.T. carved this busk?  (Perhaps I should have saved this post for Valentine's Day!)  Sadly, we don't have much provenance (the artifact's life history) for this item, as it was part of the foundational Redhed collection that I've mentioned in previous posts. 

This article, posted on the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco's website, includes a fascinating timeline for corsets and related women's undergarments (right up through Madonna's news-making corsets in the 1980s!)
You'll note that in 1848, "Joseph Cooper invents the front-fastening busk . . . ."  By the middle of the 19th century, wooden and bone busk inserts had gone out of fashion, and the name busk began to refer to Cooper's invention, which looked like this:

More modern corsets were and are made with metal busks like the one above, allowing the corset to be taken off without having to undo the lacing.  The 1895 Montgomery and Ward catalogue advertises a "Misses Corset" (for girls aged 12-15) with a similar busk:

Note that the corsets advertised at the bottom of the page are for children aged 3-7 and 7-10 years.  I am not sure whether it is ironic or just plain funny that these corsets are advertised on the same page as horse harnesses:

I can't help thinking that both the harness and the corsets are similarly restrictive of the wearer's freedom of movement!

But what of the "Death by Corset" as promised in the title?  In the course of researching our artifacts this week, I came across this article from the October 30, 1903, edition of the New York Times:

It describes the sudden death of Mrs. Mary E. Halliday, of Niagara Falls, New York, who was "seized with a strange attack" and died soon after.  An autopsy found "two pieces of corset steel" - a total eight-and-three-quarter inches long - had lodged in her heart!  The article states that "where they rubbed together the ends were worn to a razor edge by the movement of her body."  Doctors suggested that she might have swallowed the steel corset stays (?!?!), but I would guess the poor Mrs. Halliday was a victim of fashion and perhaps a very unfortunate sneeze!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Of Course It Is Time for Another Mystery Artifact!

Hope all our loyal followers are staying warm as we head into another chilly week.  At least the 'heat wave' this weekend melted a lot of the snow.  I never would have thought 40 degrees could feel so warm!

It's time for another mystery artifact, and I think I've picked a real beauty this week!  Don't you agree?

As you can see, the object is almost exactly a foot long and dates from approximately 1825.  It is made of horn or possibly carved bone that has darkened with age and/or use.  Here is the best part, however - although it is hard to see in the above photo, it is carved along the entire length of the artifact.

Here are some close-up shots of the carvings, beginning with what I am assuming is the top of the object:

It has a lovely heart-shaped design with a sort of floral motif in the center.  In the middle portion of the artifact a house can be seen, followed by more flowers in a checked basket or pot.

Again, moving down the object reveals more floral carvings and another house, this one in a chimney-end style that reminds me very much of the Priests' House on a Jesuit property in Maryland where I did some excavations last summer.  Compare the carving here -

- to the beautiful early-18th-Century Priests' House on the site in southern Maryland (that's our excavation crew climbing the ladder to go on a special tour of the residence, which is normally closed to the public):

That image in particular makes me question this artifact's provenance.  What is it's life story?  Where was it created?  And how did it make it's way to East Central Illinois and into William Redhed's collection?

The last portion of carvings at the bottom of the object depicts what looks like wheat stalks:

Note the rounded edges at the top and bottom of the object - these just may be important clues as to the object's function!

As usual, gentle reader, take your best guess in the comments section here on the blog or on Facebook.  We have many other beautiful examples of this type of artifact in the collection.  I can't wait until Friday to reveal this artifact and show you some more of our collection!  Until then, stay warm!

Friday, January 24, 2014

An Up-lift-ing Artifact Revealed

It's another cold and blustery day here in Central Illinois,but at least the kids made it back to school today!  Perhaps this cold snap is why I've been thinking of cozy and home-made comfort food this week, which led me to choose this mystery artifact:

Jenifer guessed that it might be part of a saddle frame.  And Jess's comment deserves to be posted in its entirety: 

"It's hard to study this one objectively when all I keep seeing is a giant pair of folding eyeglasses or a early prototype of the ThighMaster.  But no, this is... gate hardware? A pants hanger? A trivet? Hmm, no. It's a boot stretcher/shaper. You insert the hinged side into the shaft of the boot and open it enough to stretch the leather. The curved side fits in the calf side of the boot."
Very clever and interesting guesses, but a little wide of the mark (although Jess's aside about a trivet was pretty close)!  We have this week what noted celebri-chef Alton Brown would call a 'unitasker' (as opposed to multitaskers, which perform several jobs in the kitchen).  

This artifact is a pie lifter.   The baker would close the object around the pie tin to lift the pie, hot and steaming, from the oven.  With this particular model, the baker could then set the pie plate, lifter and all, to cool; the tiny 'feet' on the open end would hold the hot bottom of the pie tin off the flat surface as it cooled.

The original owner of our property, William Redhed, donated over 2,500 artifacts along with the property in the mid-1960s, stipulating that the Champaign County Forest Preserve District use the artifacts as a foundational collection in a museum on the property.  We have several examples of pie lifters from this original collection:

This one is very similar to the advertisement for a 'plate lifter' displayed in the 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalogue:

Although, having examined the photo more closely, it looks like there is a spring between the two wooden pieces.  Perhaps this one is a better match:

The wooden pieces lay flat when the spring is holding them open, but can be squeezed together to push the wire plate-holders together.

This is another interesting example of a pie or plate lifter, although this one would require a bit of dexterity to hook the protrusions onto each side of the pie plate while maneuvering around inside a hot oven:

This pie lifter, by contrast, has a much simpler design:

And, with perhaps the most straightforward design of the whole lot, our last pie lifter of the day:

I am not sure what Mr. Redhed's fascination was with pie lifters, but we remain grateful for his interest in collecting, and his desire to donate his collection to a public institution where it is used daily to educate and inspire.  I, for one, am inspired to go home and bake tonight!  Apple pie is sounding very warm and comforting right now . . . .

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Another Snow Day, Another Mystery Artifact!

Hello, everyone.  Hope you are keeping warm on this windy, chilly, snowy day!  It seems like most of the schools in the area had a snow day today, and I'm sure the students are enjoying the 4-day weekend!

We were off yesterday, so we're starting the work week today with an artifact that we hope will intrigue you:

The object is made of forged iron and is hinged.  It can be folded completely shut, and it opens to almost 180 degrees.  Here is a view from a different angle:

What was the function of this object?  Why is it hinged?  Post your best guesses in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.  We can't wait to hear what you think this might be!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Mystery Artifact Revealed!

This week's mystery artifact prompted a lot of interesting speculation.  Guesses ranged from "barbed-wire fence repair tool" to "a fine pry-er out-er for exceedingly large staples" (and took a pretty crazy turn with our buddy Ranger Ralph's guess of "the original prototype of the 'Drinking Bird' novelty" toy)!

The most plausible guess came from Platinum Gal, who suggested an ice hook used for directing cut blocks of ice before they were removed from the river or lake.

While we do have a pike on display in the Farm Tool Wing that could possible have been used for that purpose (see image above of the pike and tang, minus the handle), this object had a different function.

This mystery artifact is a barking spud.  (Isn't that a fabulous name?)  It was used to remove bark from logs.  Oak bark in particular was a valuable commodity as the tannins used in tanning hides could be leached from ground oak bark, while the stripped log could then be used for residential or commercial projects. 

As mentioned in the first post, the barking spud would be attached to a long wooden handle (ours has unfortunately lost it's original handle, but it would have fitted into the conical hollowed-out area on the right in the photo).  The flat metal portion would be wedged between the bark and log to separate the two.  Some barking spuds are flat and rather spoon-shaped, but ours has a hook on one side, presumably to better catch and lift sections of bark.  Here is a link to a great video of a barking spud being used to de-bark an ash log:

Have a safe and relaxing weekend, everyone!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Seeking a Full-Time Educator

Do you love history?

Do you love working with children?

The Museum of the Grand Prairie is advertising for a Full-Time Educator to teach formal history-based programs for school groups, after-school programs, and other community groups.  We see between 6,000-8,000 students annually, and the demand continues to grow for programming. 

Here is the full job description:

TITLE: Education Program Specialist, Museum/Education
DUTIES: The Education Program Specialist is responsible for developing, implementing, and leading the formal history-based education programs for the Museum of the Grand Prairie.  Responsibilities include working with administrators and teachers at the elementary and secondary school level to develop links between the museum’s collections and the school curriculum.  These responsibilities will include other groups such as home schools, scout troops, summer camps and after school programs that request programs throughout the year.  The Educator is also responsible for the supervision of volunteers assisting in the educational program and for working with other Departmental staff to promote a general awareness of the Museum and Education Department facilities as educational and cultural resources in this area; collaborating with the Director and Curator on the development, revision and approval of interpretive themes, exhibit-related hands-on activities and a formal education program for area schools and related groups; responsible for developing a long range plan and for the implementation and coordination of these programs; collaborating with the Director on the development and approval of outreach materials for use by area schools and related groups.
• Bachelor’s degree required. B.A/B.S in Education and/or certification as an Illinois teacher is preferred.  Background in American history/material culture is also preferred.
• Must be able to demonstrate experience teaching children in some capacity.
• Good oral and written communication skills essential and must demonstrate good safety awareness and judgment.
• Microsoft Office Applications experience and the ability to develop web-based content.

All applications or inquiries should be referred to:
Champaign County Forest Preserve District
Attn: Mary Beck
P.O. Box 1040
Mahomet, IL 61853

To apply, please submit the following:
1.      Formal letter of application indicating reasons you desire to be a candidate.
2.      Current resume that includes, but is not limited to, educational background, employment history (including dates of employment) as it relates to the qualifications noted herein.
3.      Three professional references with complete names, addresses and contact information.

Closing Date February 10, 2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mystery Artifact Returns!

Hello to all our faithful followers and Happy New Year!  We hope you had a lovely winter break and stayed safe through all the bouts of bad weather.  As many of you know, the Museum of the Grand Prairie is closed throughout January and February for maintenance and exhibit building, and we stay very busy during this time!  We will have many exciting new changes to show off when we reopen in March. 

The biggest changes are happening in the Museum's main gallery.  We have been clearing out and tearing down exhibit elements from our Prairie Stories exhibit, and the space looks very different now that artifacts have been safely removed and the platforms and dividers torn out!  We are currently processing all the artifacts to make sure everything is accounted for and in good condition before we place it in storage.

Many familiar Prairie Stories artifacts will return in our new exhibit which will open in March 2015, and some will be incorporated into our 2014 temporary exhibit Home Grown:  Gardening Yesterday and Today opening in March of this year.  Keep watching this space, as we'll continue to post behind-the-scenes information with progress on the new exhibits.

In the meanwhile, we'll return to weekly Mystery Artifact posts.  Here is this week's object:

It is an iron object, with a hollowed-out conical space in one end (here's a hint:  this space is meant to hold a wooden handle).  The other end is flattened, with a hook that appears at the top in this picture.  As you can see from the ruler, the artifact is slightly more than a foot long.

What is this item?  What was it used for?  Take your best guess in the comments section below or on Facebook, and we'll post the answer on Friday!