Past Curator’s Picks

Confirmation Dress – Creative reuse of garments

Creative reuse of garments has a very long history. This example from our collection began life as a confirmation dress work in April of 1932. Made of white silk chiffon and worn over a full white silk slip, it is bias cut and trimmed with ruffles of the same material. The long sleeves are gathered into buttoned cuffs.

Not long after the event for which it was made, the entire ensemble was dyed pale pink and the sleeves were removed. both of these alterations made the dress much more suitable for other events.

The idea of having a garment for a single occasion only is a fairly recent phenomenon. For most people, even wedding dresses, seen today as the quintessential “single-use” garments, were altered and worn after their initial debut.

Eagle Stove

This elaborate and functioning toy stove was made of nickel-plated cast iron in the early 1900s. It was produced by the Hubley Manufacturing Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. John Hubley had enjoyed designing wooden toys for his children. He founded his company in the 1890s producing cast iron toys all designed by the owner.

The “Eagle” stoves came in a variety of models and sizes. This one measures 19 inches to the top of the stove pipe and a full 22 inches across when the detachable side wings are in place. The stove was donated by the granddaughter of the original owner and a long-time EHC member.

This was not a salesman’s sample, this was a child’s toy on a grand scale. Come and see it under the Christmas tree at the Evanston History Center through January 5th.

Flapper Dress

The 1920s marked a significant change in many women’s lives. Some bobbed their hair, some took up smoking, some drank in public. There was a boom in women’s education and paid employment. And, almost everyone shortened their skirts to some degree. Some women even wore pants!

In the disillusionment with the old order following World War I, social norms changed. The peak of this period, the middle of the “Roaring ’20s”, saw the shortest skirts, the most extreme hairstyles, and the most elaborate accessories of the decade.

This dress is a wonderful example of the iconic beaded and fringed “flapper” dress – in a slightly scandalous flesh-colored chiffon. The design of the dress emphasized the wearer’s movement. The fringes of silver bugle beads shimmered and shifted as the wearer danced and moved. 

The 1920s were also a period of significant change in women’s accessories. Coco Chanel popularized the wearing of “costume jewelry”, such as the glass bead necklace, rhinestone tiara and bracelet pictured here.

Women’s short hair, like short skirts, is also iconic of the era. A wide variety of “bobs” were popular, ranging from the straight Lulu bob to marcelled and finger-waved bobs. Much ink was spent in popular magazines where celebrities such as Mary Pickford and Irene Castle debated the merits of long hair versus short hair. Many women temporized with a “faux bob”, rolling up and pinning long hair to resemble short hair. Other women kept their long hair but dressed it in a chignon at the base of the neck. The “bobby pin” made its debut in the 1920s as a necessary article for invisibly holding the shorter hairstyles in place. 

The Evanston History Center has one of the largest local costume collections. Stop by the Dry Evanston and Spirited exhibits to see some more examples of the era from our collection.

Building Permit for 225 Greenwood Street

We are celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the home of the Evanston History Center: The Charles Gates Dawes House. The building permit for the house was issued on June 29, 1894, to Rev. Robert Dickinson Sheppard. Building permits were relatively new to Evanston, having been instituted in 1892 when the city form of government was adopted. The number indicates this was the 460th building permit issued.  Permits can provide valuable information about planned construction. This permit calls for a 2-story, 15 room house building materials valued at $40,000.

Planning for the house had begun in the booming economy of the late 1880s and early 1890s, before the huge financial recession of 1893. Plans for the house would undergo many revisions as the economy retracted. However, the final product is still much grander than the information on the permit indicates.

Sheppard was a wealthy Methodist minister who had graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston and returned to teach at Northwestern University. He also held a position on the board of trustees and was the business manager. He was considered a strong candidate for the presidency of the university, and was likely building a house suitable to his goals and aspirations.

The house is designed in the chateauesque style, modeled after chateaux in the Loire Valley of France. The interiors have intricate plaster ceilings and wood carvings in a variety of styles, including Jacobean – or Scottish Medieval – a reference to Robert Sheppard’s ancestry.

The architect the Sheppards chose was Henry Edwards Ficken. Born in England, he was educated in Scotland, studied art in Europe, and moved to New York in 1869. 9.(1) He began as an artist and then became a draftsman and an architect. His work was reflective of his artistry and his background.

The client influences and directs the architect’s design. Virginia Loring Sheppard, Dr. Sheppard’s wife, also played a crucial role in the composition of the house.

“She was a master builder. Her beautiful house was her own thought, her own creation, the work of many years before a stone was laid. Each nook of the house contained some precious sentiment and held for her some sweet thought. She loved her home and her home life with an intensity which even those dearest to her could scarcely understand.”(2)

The house took two years to build. The family moved into the new house in 1896 and lived there until 1909 when they sold it to Charles and Caro Dawes. Visit the Evanston History Center at the Charles Gates Dawes House for a guided tour. Enjoy all the intricate details and craftsmanship of the house and learn about the families who called it home. We are open for tours Thursdays – Sundays, tours are on the hour at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 ($10 per person, EHC members free). In celebration of the anniversary, we have a special exhibit of some of the original blueprints, showing the evolution of the design. 

(1) Grey Towers Historic Structure Report, 1979

(2) Obituary, Evanston Index, 1910


Visitors often remark on the Dawes House’s beautiful plaster ceilings and richly carved wood walls and mantels, but our lincrusta panels in the Dining Room and Library are frequently overlooked. Perhaps this is because lincrusta, a popular nineteenth-century wallcovering, is not as well known today as it was 125 years ago when the house was constructed. Billed as the first “washable wallcovering,” lincrusta was developed by British inventor and manufacturer Frederick Walton in 1877, though Walton is probably better known today for a similar invention: linoleum. Both technologies rely heavily on linseed oil and in fact, lincrusta was originally patented as “Linoleum Muralis” or “Linoleum for walls.” Lincrusta is made from a paste of linseed oil on a base of paper that is pressed between large metal rollers that emboss one side of the lincrusta with a three-dimensional pattern. Lincrusta was meant to mimic the labor-intensive, highly desirable effect of three-dimensional plaster decoration, like the plaster so beautifully applied in the Dawes House on the ceilings of the Great Hall and Dining Room. Depending on how the lincrusta was treated, it could also be made to look like carved wood, tooled leather, pressed metals, or even lacquer. However, its presence in this house and in other well-appointed late nineteenth century homes like the Nickerson Mansion, the house that today is the Driehaus Museum, suggests that its appeal was more than just as an economical replacement for more expensive materials. Lincrusta represents the excitement and optimism homeowners had towards the new technologies of the late-nineteenth century. To bring lincrusta into your home meant engaging with industry and invention every time you stepped into your dining room.

Caro’s Court Portrait 

This portrait of Caro Dawes was painted by John St. Helier Lander, a noted portrait painter best known for his paintings of members of the royal family. Lander was born in 1868 in Saint Helier on Jersey. After three years at the Royal Academy, he returned to Jersey and set up a studio, though he also taught at the Jersey Ladies’ College and Guernsey Ladies’ College. Through local commissions, Lander met the Governor of Jersey, Major General Henry Richard Abadie, a great admirer of Lander’s work, who encouraged Lander to leave Jersey for the more active art scene in London. When Abadie left his position in Jersey for London, Lander followed him. Through Abadie, Lander was introduced to London society and particularly to its military elite, which proved valuable when World War I began and the London demand for military portraiture skyrocketed.

After World War I raised Lander’s profile as a portrait artist, he received his first significant royal commission, a portrait of Edward VIII, the Duke of Wales and eldest son of King George V. In the portrait, the young prince wore a polo kit and symbolized the “Youth of England.” For this portrait, he was awarded a medal at the Paris Salon and the king and queen commissioned a copy of the painting for the palace. This incredibly well-received portrait led to more royal commissions, and Lander quickly became a favorite court portraitist. It was this position that led to Lander painting our portrait of Caro.

In her portrait, Caro is wearing the dress she wore when she was first received by the King and Queen of England on June 26th, 1929, and a jacket that she would wear to numerous London society events during her tenure as the wife of the American Ambassador. Both the dress and the jacket worn in the portrait were made by one of the most prominent London court couturiers of the early twentieth century, W. W. Reville-Terry Ltd, who also produced dresses for Queen Mary and other royal women. Caro’s dress was made of ivory silk crepe embroidered with gold thread and embellished with faux pearls and crystal beads. Following court custom, it was worn with a detachable silk train trimmed with silver and a hair ornament of three ostrich feather plumes and silk streamers. The evening jacket worn in the portrait, though not the one she wore to court, was gold silk voided velvet, a technique where the velvet is woven to have both flat and raised areas, forming a pattern. The jacket was trimmed with red sable, a historically popular fur at the English court and a particular favorite of Henry VIII, who restricted its use to high-ranking nobility.

Tiffany Inkwell

Though today Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) may be best known for his beautiful stained glass windows and lamps, he actually produced a great number of different decorative art objects in his lifetime. With the aim of bringing his beautiful work into more homes, and also with the aim of better accessing the middle-class market, Tiffany and his company produced a series of desk sets. These sets were sold at a much lower price point than Tiffany’s glass lamps and were done in a number of different styles including Venetian, Zodiac, Byzantine, Chinese, American Indian, Louis XVI, Nautical, and others. The Dawes house has the “Pine Needle” desk set on display in its library currently.

However, some of Tiffany’s smaller desk objects are just as extraordinarily inventive as his glass creations. This Tiffany inkwell, created in the early twentieth century, is a testament to Tiffany’s interest in experimentation and drive to create new forms. In the case of this inkwell the metal frame was cast first and then the glass was blown out through the openings left in the metal. This unusual method produced an even more unusual shape, as the glass protrudes out through the latticework and gives the piece a puffy quality. This same technique would later be applied by Tiffany to different kinds of objects, including the bases for his famous stained glass lamps.


Here we are showing a device, the Conformateur, essential to getting the correct shape and size for a man’s hard crowned hat, such as a bowler or top hat.  You can see from this video, that though this machine was created in the 19th C. it is still being used today.

Chaise Longue

Of the two new exhibit rooms in the Year of Dawes exhibit, “A Crowded Life”, we have restored one of the Dawes’ bedrooms. One piece has an interesting history, the chaise longue.

French for “long chair”, the chaise longue (shayz-LAWNG) provided a comfortable spot to relax and read or sew. This piece was probably designed and manufactured by Hasselgren Studios, a Chicago furniture company. Hasselgren furniture was included in exhibits at the Chicago Architectural Club in the early 1900s. The company went bankrupt in the 1920s and its stock was sold by John A. Colby and Sons. The Dawes’ piece was purchased from Colby’s, probably about that time. It is made of mahogany with a cane back. The upholstered seat and loose pillow were later slipcovered in a floral pattern for Mrs. Dawes.    We have placed Caro Dawes’ sewing table next to the chaise, as Caro was known for the extensive knitting she produced for the troops during World War 1.

Copper Lions Head

The Evanston Library Association was founded in 1870 and Thomas J. Kellan was appointed the first librarian in 1874. In 1893 the library moved to the second floor of the new Village Hall and the library’s collection was reorganized according to the new Dewey Decimal Classification system in 1896. In 1908 the library moved to its current location at 1703 Orrington Ave.

This Copper Lions Head is from the neo-classical library which opened on January 1, 1908. Its grand look and downtown location highlighted Evanstonians’ continued emphasis on learning and new found wealth.

The library cost $135,464.69 to build. Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated $50,000 on the condition that the library board matches his gift, a challenge he posed to communities throughout the country.

Railroad Lantern

Evanston’s founders knew that their success depended in part on linking their town to Chicago. They convinced the management of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad to stop in Evanston.

The first train ran through Evanston on December 19, 1854. It had one engine and one coach and made only one trip each day to and from Chicago. When the railroads later expanded service, however, travel between Chicago and its new suburbs got much easier. By the late 1880s, many commuters had moved to Evanston and filled its railroad stations every morning. In the 1890s, Evanstonians debated building an electric street railroad: Others disagreed, saying it would make the streets noisy and difficult to travel and would bring new people to Evanston, changing the climate of the town. The railroad lantern, pictured above, was presented to Mr. Paddock by the Chicago Northwestern Railroad for a lifetime of executive service. He was executive secretary to the President of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad at the Chicago Office in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It has his name etched into the glass globe.

Camp Goodwill Donation and Suggestion Box

Evanstonians enjoyed their summers with healthful exercise, fresh air, and lakefront recreation.  They pitied those Chicagoans stuck in crowded unsanitary conditions. Evanston’s women organize Camp Goodwill! Camp Goodwill operated from 1900 to 1917.  The camp brought women and children from congested areas of Chicago to relax for a week in tents along the lake.  Once at camp, city dwellers could rest and play in the fresh air, on the beach, and in the woods.  Evanston women solicited donations from area churches and private individuals to establish and run the camp. Camp Goodwill in many ways encapsulates the character of Evanston at this time: Connected to the industrial city of Chicago but also a retreat from the city. Committed to public service and possessing the resources to invest in charity work and reform efforts.

Go-to-Bear Match Safe

This charming bear is on display in the East Parlor here at the Evanston History Center. Can you find it? Made of cast metal, it is hollow with a hinged head and glass eye. Without electricity, it would have been difficult to move about your home after the sun went down. This little bear could help you get to bed safely. When it was time to head up to bed, you would strike the match on a textured body of the bear and then put it into the hole at the top of the tree trunk. The light would be enough to get you upstairs where a bedside candle could then be lit; hence this is known as a “Go-To-Bed”.

The Evanston Community Chest

1932 was a hard year for Evanstonians.  More than 1400 families were in need of assistance, the city budget had been severely slashed, the high school was borrowing money to pay its bills, and the two elementary school districts (75 and 76) began considering consolidation to save money. Although the stock market crash took place in 1929, 1932 and 1933 seem to be the hardest years in Evanston, with the entire Evanston community striving mightily, as they said then, “to sustain its own burden.”  Government aid was limited, with the programs of the New Deal coming after Roosevelt was inaugurated in January of 1933, and many Evanstonians generally felt that it was a matter of civic pride for Evanston to find solutions within itself. As part of these efforts, a group of Evanston “Relief and Welfare” organizations joined forces to coordinate their work and raise funds for their programs.  They joined a national trend of founding “Community Chest” organizations to function as clearinghouses for funds for social service agencies.  In 1932, twelve organizations formed the Community Chest of Evanston — including the Central Association of Evanston Charities, Community Hospital, the Girl and Boy Scouts, the Evanston Day Nursery, the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society, the Salvation Army, School Children’s Welfare Association, the Visiting Nurses Association, and the YWCA.  Each member organization submitted a budget and work plan for the year.  Once approved, the joint budget for the Community Chest was placed before the community and the fundraising began. The first campaign began in October, seeking to raise $239,000. At first, they had trouble raising funds — by the scheduled close of the campaign on November 1st they had raised only 1/3 of their goal.  Emergency community meetings were called and urgent pleas were issued from civic leaders.  Benefit football and basketball games were held, as well as bake sales and fashion shows, to spur interest and raise funds. When the campaign finally closed in December it had raised more than $164,000 and although they fell short of their goal, they felt that the campaign was a success given the hard economic times and the newness of the idea to the community. The Evanston Community Chest grew to greatly exceed its goals of centralizing giving and simplifying the fundraising process for small organizations.  By the 1960s, it, along with most Community Chest organizations, had changed its name to the Evanston United Way.

Lucile Roebuck Keeler’s Painting “Harbor”

Lucile Keeler was born in Chicago on April 16, 1902, to Albert and Blanch Roebuck. Lucile began taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1930’s.  She was, ‘constantly working with new media and different styles’ and really believed that ‘it helped the artist grow.’  While at the Art Institute Keeler studied under Francis Chapin, an American landscape, and portrait artist.  Her paintings presented a combination of color and design in harmonious expressions, and are reviewed as ‘very likable.’  We hope you will come to see some of her pieces in the “Lifting as We Climb:” Evanston Women and the Creation of a Community exhibit which opened in March.

Red Cross Armband

Mary Glenn, the first Evanston woman to wear a uniform during the First World War, wore this Red Cross armband during her service as an ambulance driver here in Evanston and Chicago.  She drove wounded from the naval base on Lake Michigan to the hospitals in the area after she gained mechanic skills through the Motor Corps, a volunteer service that consisted entirely of women. Most women of Evanston who wanted to help during the First War had to volunteer their time on the home front in the Red Cross and the Motor Corps because there were not many opportunities for them in the military.  This meant that many women who sacrificed their time and lives for their country did it without pay, recognition, and even the right to vote!

Lincoln Lantern

This is a three-sided lantern that was carried in political events during the 1864 presidential election. The lamp was used during torch-lit election parades. On the right side of the picture, one can see “Lincoln and Johnson.” On the back is “Liberty and Union” the two major rallying points for the North.


This is Bagatelle!  Bagatelle is the father of modern pinball games! To learn more about Bagatelle visit the Elliott Avedon Virtual Museum of Games by clicking here.  They have a very interesting history of the game!

Razor Strop, Straight Razor and Shaving Mug/Brush

This is a razor strop!  This razor strop is made out of leather (some are made from canvas) and was used to straighten and polish the blade of a straight razor.*Throughout the 19th century, the most common means of shaving was the straight razor.  Whether wielded by the man or his barber, it required some skill to use without nicking the skin.  The razor had to be regularly stropped to hone its edge.  Soap was mixed with water in a shaving mug and applied to the face with a natural boar or badger hair shaving brush. The first patent was issued for a safety razor in 1880, but, until Gillette patented the disposable razor blade in 1901, a man still had to resharpen his safety razor blades when they became dull. The first patent for an electric razor was issued to Jacob Schick in 1928, the first came into common use in the 1930’s.  For the first time, a man could shave his face without water or soap.*Text written by Janet Messmer for the exhibit “Bedrooms, Bathrooms & Boudoirs.”

John Evans Letter

This letter came into our collection in 2002.  It was written by John Evans to Honorary Stephen Arnold Douglas (Hon. S.A. Douglas).  John Evans was one of the founders of Northwestern University, he was one of the first people to build a home in the area, and Evanston is named after him.  Hon. S.A. Douglas was an American politician from Illinois.  He was a U.S. Representative, a U.S. Senator, and the Democratic Party nominee for President in the 1860 election, losing to Republican Abraham Lincoln. The letter is in regards to Robert Kennicott, an early Smithsonian scientific explorer, and collector.  The letter reads: Chicago 26th /58 (1858)

Hon. S.A. Douglas

Dear Sir

The bearer Mr. Robert Kennicott son of Dr. J.A.K. is curator to the museum of the N.W. University at Evanston.  He is now working up his collections at the Smithsonian Institute.  He may wish to procure for his purpose, books, documents & O. in the public Archives at once – or to make an interest in behalf of our excellent library in the institution which are at your disposal.  If so be that you can favor him it will be thankfully acknowledged by the Institution and worthily received by Mr. K. himself.

Very respectfully

Your (?)

John Evans

Surgeon’s Operating Case

This is a surgeon’s operating case!  This case was made between 1851 and 1881.  Doesn’t it look gruesome?  Even though the tools look gruesome, surgical devices like these saved countless lives.  They helped surgeons remove bullets, stopped blood loss and amputate dangerously wounded arms and legs. We do not know for sure if this kit was used in the Civil War.  We do know that its maker, Dietrich Kolbe, had a contract to produce surgical sets for Union troops during the American Civil War.

Susan B. Anthony Law Books

These law books belonged to suffragette Susan B. Anthony and are inscribed with her signature to Catharine McCulloch.  McCulloch was a lawyer, suffragist, political activist, and mother who lived in Evanston.  She was the first woman in the United States to serve as Justice of the Peace and is largely responsible for the passing of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution allowing all citizens to vote. Stop in to visit our new Adopt-an-Artifact exhibit, which was put together but our Fall intern, Fleming! To learn more about The Women’s History Project click here. To learn more about Adopt-an-Artifact click here.

Business Card

While working on the geothermal and electricity upgrade at the Dawes house, workers found this sweet little business card behind the baseboard of one of the third-floor servant rooms. This business card is for George V. Drake, who was a painter and decorator in the Chicago area. We were able to find his name listed in the 1887 Lakeside Annual Directory for Chicago. The listing reads: ”Drake George V. paints and wallpaper 217 W. Madison, h. 510 W. Jackson”We have found other interesting items during the construction (an empty wine bottle, shards of ceramic plates), but this little business card has been one of the most fascinating.

Hawkeye Refrigerator Basket

This is a Hawkeye Refrigerator Basket. These baskets were all the rage in the early 1900’s. The exterior of the basket is made of rattan and the interior is lined with a heavy, non-rustable nickel plate. It contains a detachable ice bucket which is made of zinc and is nickel plated. It’s insulation … asbestos, not something we’d like in our modern refrigerator baskets! Baskets like this one were used by people for picnics, just as we would use one today. Advertisements say that “a small piece of ice in a Hawkeye Refrigerator Basket keeps lunch and bottles cold all day. An outdoor lunch from a ‘Hawkeye’ doubles the pleasure of your motorboat or auto trip. Rids you of unappetizing food or drinks.”

Art Nouveau Lamp of a Breton Woman with Seashell

This beautiful bronze Art Nouveau lamp in the library of the Dawes house demonstrates a fascinating story of an emerging cultural ethos that sought to combine beauty with utility. Designed in 1900 by French sculptor Leo LaPorte-Blairsy (1865-1923), the flowing bronze robes of this Breton woman sweep in emphatic curved folds that mirror the curves of the real shell she holds to shade the electric light bulb. As electricity came into common usage, the potential for creativity in lighting design exploded. LaPorte-Blairsy became the leading creator of innovative sculptural lighting design, noted for his “luminous fantasies.”Leo LaPorte-Blairsy was born in Toulouse, France in 1865. He studied under several major sculptors and had his debut exhibit in 1887 at the Salon of the Societies des Artistes Francaise. His early interest in monumental sculpture was transformed by his impression of the burgeoning movement of designed objects d’art, particularly the incorporation of electricity into lighting fixtures. His sculptures of women in strong poses holding beautiful, lighted objects made him one of the premier artists in the field. His best-known work, The Milky Way, was executed three years later.

Tortoise Shell Hair Comb

This tortoiseshell hair comb, which the EHC lent to the Museum of Science and Industry for their Materials Science exhibit (March 2015), is a natural tortoise shell ornamental hair comb from the early part of the 20th century. It was probably made between 1900 and 1920. Those who have been watching Downton Abbey will recognize such ornaments having been worn by all of the Crawley women. Tortoiseshell, ivory, silver, and horn were commonly used throughout the 19th century to make ornamental combs for ladies hair. The EHC’s example has been cut from a thin slice of tortoiseshell, cut into an intricate design and formed into a gentle curve. Tortoiseshell is a natural thermoplastic, therefore it can be easily shaped with heat and steam. It is currently illegal to make new items from tortoiseshell or to sell such items unless one can document that they are at least 100 years old. Today, modern plastics have replaced the natural material for combs and other articles.