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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Long Before eBay or Antiques Road Show

That's when collecting had to be a true obsession, when a lifetime might be spent in pursuit of beauty and history -- or just peculiar oddities.

It seems that people always collected stamps and autographs, but many also simply collected old stuff. After 30 years of gathering curiosities, Mr. T. Brown, up in Prescott, Pierce Co., put his collection of "ancient relics" up for sale in 1916. Similarly, one "Grandma Dengle" brought her collection of stones, shells and fossils with her from Switzerland when she emigrated before the Civil War, and by 1925 her Madison home was a veritable museum of bric-a-brac. W.B. Carr, who was a caretaker for the Beloit school system, filled his home with so many "odd, interesting, obsolete and historical articles" that he had to build on an addition.

Other hobbyists focused on specific types of artifacts, such as weapons from around the world, Native American tobacco pipes, antique dolls, Norwegian emigrant trunks (football star Slam Anderson handled more than 1,000 of them), and even miniature top hats made of glass. Turned upside down, these dainty curios were used in the 18th and 19th century to hold toothpicks or small flowers; Mrs. Daniel Grady of Portage had more than 200 of them.

Few collectors are in it for the money, since there typically isn't any to be had. Building collections simply gives satisfaction to people, and so does sharing them with others. Through our collections, we travel back in time to glimpse long-forgotten lives. "Under every shell there was animal," French historian Taine wrote long ago; "behind every document there was a man."

What are you collecting these days? Whatever it may be, you can probably find out more about it in our online collections of museum objects, quilts, paintings, and children's clothing, historical articles from Wisconsin newspapers, the complete archives of our Wisconsin Magazine of History, and historical pictures. Happy hunting!

:: Posted in Curiosities on September 9, 2007

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