The most fascinating items in museum collections
Artifact: something characteristic of or resulting from a particular human institution, period, trend or individual.
When we think of “artifacts,” we might first imagine the Rosetta Stones of history, famous, rare and monumentally important, but in this assessment, we often forget the historic items right here in our community. So we decided to dig up five of the best artifacts from Fox Cities museums that say something important about what life here used to be like — and what life is like today.
Kleenex facial tissues, 1925
Neenah Historical Society
Kleenex is everywhere. So ubiquitous, in fact, that we’ll often refer to any tissue by that familiar trademark. But did you know that Kleenex was actually invented in Neenah, and that it originally had a completely different intended purpose? The legend goes that Kimberly-Clark, a Neenah company, developed disposable gas mask filters and bandages that were used during World War I, but after the war ended, the company was left with a now-unused technology and needed a new way to market it: enter Kleenex in 1924. As the quaint packaging description reveals, Kleenex was a makeup remover, marketed as a way “To Remove Cold Cream.” But the marketing wouldn’t stay this way for long. Some sources humorously claim that women sent in complaints to the company that their husbands had been blowing their noses in their makeup remover. However, the Kleenex website assures us that the change actually came from Kimberly-Clark’s head researcher, who was sick and had been using the tissues instead of a handkerchief. Whatever the case may be, the marketing changed and Kleenex became our cold and flu season must-have ever since. And remember, it all started in Neenah, so next time you have the sniffles, reach for that Kleenex with Fox Valley pride.
The vintage Kleenex products were featured in the Neenah Historical Society’s previous exhibit, “Making a Hometown.”
Beam from Menasha’s first frame house, 1848
Menasha Historical Society Museum
This beam isn’t just any old piece of lumber – it actually represents a number of important firsts in Menasha’s history, establishing the foundations of not only Menasha’s first frame house, but in many ways the city itself. The house was built on Water Street for Elbridge Smith, one of Menasha’s earliest settlers. Using a then-new building technique known as balloon framing established in the 1830s, Smith’s home was easier to construct and more cost-effective than other designs of the era, making it ideal for any settler. But it wasn’t just a place of leisure –Smith was the city’s first attorney and his house was the center of operations throughout his life. As a lawyer, community advocate and eventually state representative, Smith was a forerunner in Menasha’s development. Smith was a teacher, too, so the Elbridge Smith house was also an early place of education in Menasha. In 1960, the house was torn down to accommodate an off-street parking lot, but its remnant continues to remind us of where Menasha started.
The beam is an ongoing display at the Menasha Historical Society Museum.
Medical steam sterilizer, c. 1941
The History Museum at the Castle
Thankfully, the medical community still uses sterilizers, and in fact, versions of this steam sterilizer, or autoclave, still exist today. But due to medical advancements and the decreasing prominence of private-practice general practitioners in favor of large hospitals, the autoclave’s size, shape and what equipment was sterilized has changed. Around the 1940s, this autoclave lived in the small downtown Appleton practice of Dr. Arthur Taylor, an independent practitioner. Taylor was a jack-of-all-trades like many 1940s doctors, so this autoclave cleaned a range of tools used in basic diagnosis, small surgeries, labors and immunizations. “Now there are more specialists,” says Emily Rock, former curator at the History Museum at the Castle. The autoclave’s small size was ideal for independent one-room operations as well, whereas some of today’s sterilizers on the market are large enough to fill a small room. While autoclaves are still needed today to sanitize some equipment, technological advancement has (thankfully) allowed other items to be disposable. For instance, here’s a fun fact: did you know that before the 1950s, doctors used to reuse hypodermic needles for immunization? If reading that gave you a full-body shudder, you are not alone. So if you were born after disposable needles were standardized, be very glad.
The steam sterilizer is part of a recreation of Dr. Taylor’s office in the History Museum at the Castle’s ongoing “Tools of Change” exhibit.
Storefront of Jimos Hat Cleaners & Shoe Shine Shop, 1927-1980
Appleton Historical Society Museum
The Appleton Historical Society Museum’s exhibit invokes a nostalgic era before the big-box store when mom-and-pop shops provided all of Appleton’s shopping needs. Each store was unique and provided something different from the rest, but perhaps the most fondly remembered business of old is Andrew Jimos’ shop, recreated in the historical society’s exhibit with all its original signage and marketing. According to Jim Krueger, museum board member, the storefront represents how the business was a product of its time yet also ahead of its time. One one hand, Krueger says the business of both hats and upkeep have largely gone away by 2018. But at the same time, it was also a kind of proto-convenience store before convenience stores were popular. “You’ve gotta really look at the storefront to appreciate what the guy did. It’s full of advertising. He sold pens, he sold soda, he sold candy, he sold cigars,” Krueger says. “He was the largest distributor of cigars north of Milwaukee” in a store that specializes in hats and shoes. And in a way characteristic to small stores of the past, the business was also a place for people to meet and discuss the news and politics of the day while getting their shoes shined. “There just aren’t gathering places like that anymore,” Krueger says.
The Jimos storefront is part of a recreation exhibit at the Appleton Historical Society Museum. It will be on display until June.
Printer’s tool from Banta Corporation (formerly George Banta Printing Co. Inc.), c. 1920
Menasha Historical Society Museum
Everything’s online now, but print products were once a primary source of finding information. Because of this, printing companies were a massive industry, and it turns out one of the greats originated in Menasha. It all started with George Banta, an insurance agent turned printing press fanatic who managed to grow a national corporation through a frightening obsession with printing, a big dream, and a little marital strife (Banta’s wife laid down the law and banished the room-sized press to the toolshed). In 1888, Banta’s “business” was dedicated to printing his insurance forms, a task which he decided required a full-time worker. To be fair, printing was an arduous process — each letter was assembled manually each time using a “composing stick,” pictured above. This composing stick prepped formed sentences for the printing press while measuring the phrase in “picas,” or one-sixth of an inch, so the printer would know exactly how much space it would take up in print. But over time and lots of work, the humble business would continue to grow, eventually printing periodicals, educational books and catalogues to companies across the country. For decades, Banta Corporation remained a well-known and prominent economic presence in Menasha. “It started locally and totally grew,” says Shirley Heinz, Menasha Historical Society volunteer. “Almost every other person [in Menasha] was employed there at some point.” Eventually consumer demand shifted toward digitization, and the company went out of business in 2006. “It was a very important part – print – in everybody’s life,” Heinz says.
The printing tools are an ongoing display at the Menasha Historical Society Museum.