What is this?

dustpan-thumbOur newest exhibit, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, showcases over 40 costumes form Hepburn’s illustrious film and stage career. “What is this?” posts will highlight an object from the exhibit and explore its background every other week. What is this object? What is the story behind it?

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A-Tisket, A-Tasket, a Green and Yellow Basket

In this photograph from the early twentieth century, two little girls in Hartford’s Mazzafera family are holding baskets of flowers. When I was cataloguing the photograph a couple of years ago, I described the baskets as “Easter baskets.” Maybe they are. The first mention I can find of “Easter baskets” in the Hartford Courant, however, is a 1922 ad for “fancy baskets filled with Easter novelties.” This suggests that in Connecticut at least, Easter baskets were part of the twentieth-century commercialization of the holidays and not an enduring custom from early times. The tradition of May baskets filled with flowers and given as gifts on May 1st, appears to go much farther back. “May basket socials” were popular in Connecticut in the 1890s. The baskets that the two Mazzafera girls are holding are full of flowers, not novelities, so perhaps they are May baskets rather than Easter baskets. Or could they be something else altogether? The Mazzafera family were Roman Catholics and in addition to Easter would have celebrated Corpus Christi Day at the beginning of summer. Part of the traditional celebration of this religious holiday included a procession of little girls carrying baskets full of flowers. Whatever the holiday, the flowers symbolize the renewal of life and hope that comes with nature’s rebirth after the dreariness of winter.

Thrall Hall

On March 18, a few people from CHS had the opportunity to tour Thrall Hall, a square dance hall in East Windsor, Connecticut. Ed Thrall, described by the Hartford Courant as a “true Connecticut Yankee original,” visited demolition sites in and around Hartford in the 1960s and salvaged materials, which he then carted back to his farm. He began building the dance hall in 1968, and it took him 10 years to build what is standing now. I learned about the place in February when I was cataloging some Richard Welling drawings. I was looking for information on one of the buildings in a drawing, and I found some information online about a place called Thrall Hall. Continue reading

Katharine Hepburn: Rebellious and Sporty

Over the past couple of weeks while preparing for the opening of Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, I’ve been thinking a lot about Katharine Hepburn.

One thing that I keep going back to is her parents – and how much they must have influenced her. Hepburn loved sports and was fiercely competitive. Her father, Dr. Thomas N. Hepburn, was an accomplished athlete, and always pushed his daughter to excel and to never back down from a challenge. I imagine this must have been pretty rare in a pre-title IX world. Continue reading

America’s First “Brown Water” Navy

This past weekend we offered a special Civil War-themed behind the scenes tour at CHS. I spent a day selecting a wide variety of objects, manuscripts and graphics items to include in the tour, including several that I had not used in the past. Among these was a pair of fine photographs of river gunboats being constructed in September 1861. Continue reading

A Good Many Chestnut Trees About


Edwin Whitefield, Old Tavern and Store, Bolton. Drawing, ca. 1880. The Connecticut Historical Society, 1976.68.0

Before the chestnut flight devastated the forests in the early 1900s, American chestnut trees were a prominent feature in the Connecticut landscape. Chestnut trees grew tall and straight and the wood was used in the construction of barns and houses and the making of furniture, telephone poles, and railroad ties. The nuts were used as food by Native Americans and early settlers. When the artist Edwin Whitefield made his drawing of an old tavern and store in Bolton about 1880, he noted that there were “a good many chestnut trees about.” Chestnut trees are frequently noted in John Warner Barber’s drawings of Connecticut towns, dating from the 1830s. If you go to Connecticut History Online and search for “chestnut,” you’ll find lots of pictures of trees–and even more pictures of Chestnut Streets throughout the state, reflecting tree’s former popularity. The fungus that caused the blight was accidentally introduced on imported Japanese chestnut trees in the late 19th century, and within decades, nearly all of Connecticut’s chestnut trees had succumbed to the disease. Today you’ll still find a good many chestnut trees about, though these are usually European or Oriental chestnuts planted in parks and yards. And deep in the forests, the roots of the old American chestnut trees continue to sprout and grow, only to die when they become infected with the fungus, which is still present throughout the state. Efforts to find a disease-resistant strain or hybrid have yielded promising results and perhaps someday this sad story will have a happy ending.

Fancy Pants

Pants running. Pants standing. Best of all, pants doing a handstand. Pants are a perfect symbol of Katharine Hepburn’s unconventional approach to fashion and her exceptional Hollywood career. Decades before mainstream American women would dare to wear pants to work, Hepburn wore jeans on the studio lot in the early 1930s. The story goes that studio executives balked at her casual look (when her starlet contemporaries were dressed to the nines on set and off). They actually took away her jeans when she was busy filming in a desperate bid to make her conform to their ideas of fashion and propriety. Not to be outdone, Hepburn walked around the set in her underwear until her jeans were returned! Continue reading

Being an Intern at CHS: Steve’s Story

IMG_0702“So that’s the broadsword John Brown’s son used in the raid at Harper’s Ferry? Are you kidding me??” ~A scene from my first day at CHS.

From the moment I set foot inside the building, I knew I was in for a truly special experience working at CHS as an education intern. The behind the scenes tour of the museum collection is a fitting place to begin my story, because it reinforced what I already knew about history museums; that is, that they preserve the past, and that they often have incredible artifacts, painstakingly protected for posterity’s sake. However, if there is one thing I have learned in my time here, it is that museums like CHS do not simply safeguard stories and mummify the memories of decades long gone. Rather, they can act as vibrant spaces for discovery and inquiry where the past comes to life before our very eyes. Continue reading

Being an Intern at CHS: Sara’s Story

IMG_0697Our program at UConn requires all fifth-year Education Master’s students to participate in an internship. CHS is the only offered internship in the entire program that does not take place in a school. So when I found out I was assigned to CHS, I was excited about the chance to work in a museum and increase my historical knowledge base. However, I was also wary about what I would gain from the experience. As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry because not only did I learn the story behind the Charter Oak and how to tell the difference between a real nutmeg and a fake one sold by Yankee Peddlers, I also learned how to be a better teacher. Continue reading