Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Lori Nohner's blog

But Why? 4 Artifacts in Our Museum Collection That Just Don’t Make Sense

The State Historical Society of North Dakota started its collection in 1895. Over the past 126 years, the museum collection has acquired many artifacts with a unique and important North Dakota story. But every now and then I come across something that really makes me scratch my head. Here are a few that left me asking, “But why?”

1. Samurai armor

Samurai armor, including a helmet, chest plate, and face shield

Samurai armor from Japan’s Bungo Province, 1775-1860. If you look closely under the nose (far left) you can see remnants of a hair mustache. Fearsome! SHSND 2015.59.1-10

What does a Japanese suit of armor have to do with North Dakota history? Not much. So why do we have it? The museum acquired the armor from Henry Horton of Bismarck in 1938. At that time, museums served as places where people who could not travel the world came to see rare and exotic things. Samurai armor is a prime example.

2. Poodle fur hat and scarf

A white hat and matching scarf made of poodle fur

This hat and scarf made of poodle fur are not nearly as cuddly as one would hope. SHSND 1982.139.2-3

This one needs no commentary. I think you will join me in asking, “Why?” In the spring of 1924 and 1925 Carrie Larson, a mother of five from Benson County, collected hair from her poodle and proceeded to wash, comb, card, spin, and knit it into a child’s hat and scarf. Below is a picture of the poodle.

A man in a long trenchcoat and hat stands next to a dark colored car with a white dog on the running board

Carrie’s son Otto Larson and their useful poodle. A very good dog.

3. A broken Thanksgiving turkey wishbone

A wishbone that has been broken in two just below the neck on one side. There is also a note attached to the other side.

I wonder if anyone recalls what they wished for? SHSND 2021.45.1

Museums sometimes have items that are called FICs or Found In Collections. These items have no paperwork, so we don’t know their history or who donated them. The oddest FIC I’ve seen so far is a broken turkey wishbone from 1921. Attached to it is a note that reads: “For Fraziers Turkey Nov. 24, 1921.” While trying to determine why someone would give a wishbone to the museum, I learned former North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier’s last year in office was 1921. Any connection between this wishbone and the Frazier’s Thanksgiving turkey is tenuous at best, but I found out some interesting tidbits about the former governor that I need you to know:

  • He was a member of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a political movement which spurred the creation of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator.
  • In 1921, he became the first U.S. governor removed from office by recall. The next successful gubernatorial recall wouldn’t be until 2003 when voters removed California Gov. Gray Davis from office.
  • Frazier named his twin daughters Unie and Versie. Frazier was a graduate of the University of North Dakota and felt his children’s names were a good way to show his school spirit.

4. Hair art

A framed case that displays flower art made out of hair

Yes, that is hair. SHSND 11668

Hair art is pretty common in museum collections, but that doesn’t make it any less baffling to me. When I asked Assistant Registrar Elise Dukart why making art out of human hair was so popular during the Victorian period, she aptly responded, “Victorians loved weird, slow activities. They must have had so much time and so much hair.” Rosetta Carroll made this wreath out of her family’s hair in around 1890. Rosetta and her husband, Fred, farmed near Ryder. Although it seems bizarre today, hair art was once a popular craft often used to memorialize loved ones.

These days we are a bit more choosey about what artifacts are added to the museum collection. Our primary focus is to ensure donations fit the State Historical Society’s mission: “To identify, preserve, interpret, and promote the heritage of North Dakota and its people.” We also look for key factors like the item’s condition, whether the donor provided a history of the item, the donation’s similarity to other artifacts already in the collection, and our ability to properly care for it. Still, I am sure we will acquire things that will make future generations ask, “Why?” But then again, asking why is half the fun of exploring the past.

Weird or Cute? Instagram Votes On 5 Quirky Artifacts From Our Museum Collection

In my first blog post about a year ago, I shared some of the weird and/or cool experiences of being a new employee. Now that I’ve gotten to know the State Museum’s collection, I want to share some of the artifacts that have made me look twice. These objects caught my eye and made me wonder, “Is this weird or cute?” I needed more input, so I polled the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum’s Instagram followers. Around 150 people voted, and here are the results:

1. Let’s start with an easy one. A rock collage sailboat titled “Aqua Cat.” How could this be anything but cute? North Dakota artist Ann Peters created this piece in the early 1970s for then-Gov. William Guy. The incongruence of the title and the subject matter is what really warms my heart. A boat named “Aqua Cat” must be 100% cute, and it looks like our followers agreed.

Aqua Cat - A rock collage. Weird or Cute? 58% Cute. 42% Really Cute. The image is of a shite, brown, and tan sailboat made out of rocks.

My phrasing of the question may have slightly skewed the results. SHSND 1984.207

2. Both amazing and slightly painful to behold, this squirrel-and-mushroom-patterned shirt is sure to make a splash at your next COVID-safe social gathering. Greg Machart’s brother-in-law Lee Matthiesen donated this spectacular shirt to the museum in 1992. Lee asserted Greg wore it throughout the 1970s. If this is true, we would like pictures. If it is not, I would like to congratulate Lee for pulling off one very well-preserved prank.

1970s squirrel and mushroom patterned shirt. Weird or Cute? 51% Weird. 49% Cute. The image is of a button up shirt with long sleeves and a collar that is purple with red and blue mushroms and circles with squirrel images in them.

Our followers were surprisingly tolerant of this bold and busy garment. SHSND 1991.76.6

3. A lively addition to any living room, these birds of paradise pillows were made by Christina Roemmech of Glen Ullin. Crafted out of carpet-like piling deep enough to lose your keys in, the pillows certainly garnered some “weird” votes. But the beautiful and comfy birds no doubt helped earn them a “cute!” from the majority.

These pillows - Weird or Cute? 32% Weird. 68% Cute. The two pilloes have a flamingo on them with yellow and pink flowers and green plants in a circle around the flamingo.

Birds of a feather flock together. SHSND 1992.52.1-2

4. Are you still cracking your walnuts with a boring old nutcracker? Or even worse … a creepy one? Then check out this one shaped like man’s best friend! The early 20th-century canine contraption once helped crack the toughest nuts in rural Mandan.

A nutcracker shaped like a dog! Weird or cute? 32% weird. 68% cute. The nutcracker is brown and shaped like a dog.

Thirty-two percent of our followers are weird. This guy is adorable. SHSND 2007.80.95

5. Twenty years ago, everyone wanted to get rid of their brightly hued porcelain thrones. Now the trend is making a comeback. Until it was donated in 2007, this 1950s gem graced what was arguably the most vital room in one Bismarck home. Toilets like this also came in other nostalgia-inducing shades including avocado green, powder blue, and canary yellow.

Classic 1950s pink toilet. Weird or cute? 50% Weird. 50% Cute. The pink toilet has a woodgrain seat and lid cover.

Our Instagram results showed an unexpected tie for this American Standard. SHSND 2007.86.2