Monday, April 23, 2012

Collecting the Common

By Erin Doane, Curator

Like all historical societies, our museum is filled with common items.  Certainly, there are extraordinary, one-of-a-kind items in our collection as well but most of the objects are from everyday life.  More than once while I was touring people through collections storage someone has seen an object on a shelf and said something along the lines of “My grandmother had one of those” or “I remember playing with that when I was little.”  If so many of our museum’s artifacts are so ordinary, why do we collect them?   We collect them because it is the common items of everyday life that tell the history of a people.  

Many outwardly ordinary items tell important stories.  Take for example three relatively common objects – a bottle of medicine, a pair of scissors, and a milk bottle.


In the early 20th Century strychnine nitrate was prescribed to treat lowered metabolism, rapid fatigability, hypotension and weakened cardiac activity.  Strychnine is also a highly toxic substance used in rat poison.  This bottle of pills from H.D. Atwater, Druggist, 500 Main, Elmira, New York was prescribed to treat one individual but it helps to tell the greater story of pharmaceutical development in the 20th century.

Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) is a fixture in the history of Elmira.  He is well-known for his literary works and his wit but there was more to him than just his fame.  Items like this small pair of scissors which he gave to his housekeeper help to flesh out the personal life of a man who has become a legend.

Not only does this glass milk bottle help to show the history of an industry, it also has a role in telling the story of a disaster.  On June 21, 1972 the rains from Hurricane Agnes began to fall.  Thomas E. Butler and William S. Woodhull, owners of Maple Farms Dairy, were stranded on the roof of the plant for 20 hours during the devastating flooding that ensued.

Common items are important because of what they can tell future generations about a time, about a place, and about a people.  Without museums actively collecting these items, so much of our story could be lost forever.

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