Docent Educator Logo

A New Life for Old Objects

A drawer full of late 19th century objects, collected for an antiquated tour called “Grandma’s Attic,” stood unused for many years in the Montana Homeland exhibit at the Montana Historical Society. In the 21″‘ century, many of the students who visit have grandparents who were born in the 1940’s and 1950’s. These grandparents do not have attics with Marcel irons and stereoscopes in them. When the “Grandma’s Attic” tour was created in the early 1980’s, it was very popular with young elementary and preschool groups. The tour basically functioned on the “what might this be” premise and gave the students information about life in the late 1800’s. By 1998, the popularity of the tour waned, so we decided to preserve the objectives and age-focus of the tour, but to spice it up a bit.

The education office staff sat for a long time contemplating this assemblage of objects: a Marcel iron; a lace chemise; a thimble; a razor strop; a candle mold; a spittoon; and a spat. We used primary and secondary sources to research life in Helena, our town, during the 19* century. Contemporary children’s books written about the era also served as research tools. One book in particular spurred our imaginations. Welcome to Samantha’s World—1904, from The American Girls Collection, is part of a series of books that tells the story of a young girl in early 20* century America. We decided to create our own “Samantha,” name her Elizabeth Harris, and craft a life for her in 1903 Helena, Montana. So began the “Diary of a Victorian Girl” tour.

The vehicle for telling the story became a diary documenting a week in Elizabeth’s life, each entry utilizing objects from the drawer to drive the story. The complete archives and library maintained by the Historical Society made research on early 20* century Helena easy for us to accomplish. The fictitious Elizabeth and her family “live” on a real street in Helena and her father “owns” a store that once existed. She and her brother, Robert, explore some of Helena’s old streets and bygone businesses. A photograph, discovered in our extensive photographic archives, of three unidentified Montana children inspired the family brood: Elizabeth (age 11), Robert (age 9), and Caroline (age 6). Another photo of two young girls in front of the roller coaster at Columbia Gardens, a once grand, now demolished amusement park in Butte, Montana, served as the basis for the family’s trip to the park.

As the construction of Elizabeth’s diary evolved, we added more objects to the drawer: the aforementioned photographs; an oil lamp; a shaving brush and mug; a chamber pot; marbles; and instructions for a Victorian children’s game to be played during the tour. Our first test audience was our docent corps. They were delighted with the new tour format and made some suggestions on how to improve it. Based on their feedback, we made some changes to the text and added a flat iron and sling shot to the object collection. Testing the tour with children was most delightful. They were eager, filled with wonder about what objects might exist in the drawer, and fascinated to be read to and from a diary.

The tour opens with a brief age-appropriate discussion about what primary and secondary sources are, emphasizing the idea of keeping a diary about one’s private thoughts and activities. The students are then told that today they will hear a reading from the diary of a young girl who lived in Helena in 1903. They immediately want to know if it is real, and if Elizabeth was a real person. The students are asked to listen to the diary reading prior to making their own guess as to authenticity. One or two objects are passed around and briefly discussed to accompany each entry. For example, when Elizabeth helps her mother with the laundry, the flat iron is passed around and we discuss how it works and the difference between it and contemporary modes of ironing a shirt.

By the end of the tour, the students are completely wrapped up in Elizabeth’s life and want to hear more. They want to know what happened to her after the diary ends. Most of them are convinced that Elizabeth and her diary were real. After being told that the story and people were made up, we talk about historical fiction, and then compare it to contemporary books and movies that are of the same genre.

Students are also intrigued by I the family’s trip to Columbia Gardens amusement park. Naturally, they want to know if this place really existed, and, if it did, can they still go there today. We tell them that the Gardens, which were real and built in 1899 by Montana Senator and “copper king” William A. Clark, I was demolished in 1973 to make way for open pit mining in the city of Butte. This provides us with an opportunity to talk to students about historic preservation, as none of the buildings mentioned in the I story still exist. Many students are immediate advocates for preserving old structures, especially amusement parks!

The following is a sample of one entry from Elizabeth’s diary. The words in bold type refer to the objects that are passed around during a reading.

Monday, July 20, 1903 After doing my morning chores, I sat down with father, as usual, to talk with him while he shaved. Father owns a grocery store in Helena. It’s called the Rodney Street Grocery Company. Everyone in town says he’s the nicest man. I love him because he’s my Father. ‘ He sharpened his straight razor on the razor strop and then he used a shaving brush to put soapsuds from the mug all over his face. Then, very gently, he dragged the razor across his face to get rid of the whiskers, rinsing the razor in the sink after every stroke. We are one of the few families in Helena to have indoor plumbing. I get to use the water closet at night, but my best friend Sarah still has to use a chamberpot or go out to the outhouse.

This entry is particularly interesting to kids, as they have never seen a man shave with a straight razor and are always fascinated with the use of a chamber pot.

The “Diary of a Victorian Girl” tour has breathed new life into a collection of hands-on objects from the turn of the 20th century. It also serves to hold the attention of the children, as they can relate to the story of someone about their own age. They can’t wait to hear what will happen next, or to see what objects will be presented. A tour like this is simple to create and effectively engages young people with historic objects. With solid research, a good collection of hands-on artifacts, and a little imagination, your museum can create a “new life” for some old, perhaps forgotten, objects.

Kristin Gallas has been the education officer at the Montana Historical Society since 1998. During that time she has created several new tours and outreach materials on art and Montana history topics, including a classroom educational kit and hands-on tour based on the works of cowboy artist Charles M. Russell. Her two previous contributions to The Docent Educator can be found in the Autumn 2000 and Winter 1999/2000 issues.

Gallas, Kristin. “A New Life for Old Objects,” The Docent Educator11.4 (Summer 2002): 14-15.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *