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Connecting to the Past, One Artifact at a Time

One of the most enjoyable aspects of photographing the artifacts in the collection of the Madison Historical Society is actually handling them and examining them closely. As the staff photographer, I work carefully with delicate objects, but I do not have to heed the “Do Not Touch” signs that visitors must respect. I have special dispensation to touch, and I deeply appreciate the privilege.

Stone scraper/buffer for finishing skins.  5 1/2" X 1 7/8" X1 3/8" Donated by Professor George Woodbine

Pre-contact era buffing stone used for finishing skins

For instance, I remember my startled reaction when I grasped a pre-contact-period stone tool, once used for buffing skins. If I held it clumsily, upside down or in my left hand, it seemed like nothing more than an ordinary rock. When I held it correctly, my fingers fit perfectly in the grooves the ancient hunter had formed in the stone. I really felt connected to that early toolmaker.

When I examine our remarkable array of diaries, account books, and letters, I am also touched by their individuality and importance. As in our time, the notes about many days are mundane and prosaic: simple notes on the weather and such. But sometimes the writer records an extraordinary event or heartfelt emotion, and their long-gone personalities shine across the divide.

Cover of the Diary of Charlotte Dowd - Volume 1 - August 19 to Nov. 11, 1918 featuring an owl perched on a branch.

Charlotte Dowd's 1918 diary cover page

While still in grade school in 1918, Charlotte Dowd started her diary with a hand-drawn title page showing an owl perched on a crescent moon. Accompanying this endearing sketch was her original poem:

When light has faded in the west,
Just come and chat with me.
And soon you’ll be so wise and good,
That I’ll be proud of thee.

She writes of the defeat of the women’s suffrage bill in October 1918 and of friends dying of Spanish influenza and how fearful of it people were at the time. On Monday, Nov. 11, 1918, she wrote:

“Peace has really come!!
The world has never before known such a joyous day.”

She devoted four pages to descriptions of the local celebrations, from six o’clock in the morning, when she was awakened by bells and whistles, to the evening, when a huge bonfire blazed on the green:

“Thus ends this memorable day which will be remembered by generations to come as long as the old world stands. Never before has little Madison been so awakened.” 

Sometimes I discover a handwritten note inside an item. Among our children’s belongings, we have a charming brown leather child’s satchel, c.1910, with double strap handles and an extra pocket in the front. Labeled “Granny Smith’s child’s pocketbook,” it measures only about 4 ½-inches by 7-inches. An old note on the outside says, “Grandma Smith’s bag. — Note from Aunt Libby inside.” The inside note tenderly states, “This is the little satchel {illegible} carried for a long time. Whoever takes it keep it nice for I have thought much of it. Libby.” After photographing it, I made sure to be extra careful when I returned it to the display case.

Quilt by Elizabeth Northrop Pruden after she was 90 years old in 1862.

Quilt by Elizabeth Northrop Pruden after she was 90 years old in 1862.

Many of our antique quilts are tagged with sewn-in notes that reflect the pride of the maker and the tenor of the time. One quilt includes a note that says, “Pieced by Elizabeth Northrup Prudden after she was 90 years old in 1862. The calico at $1 a yard was purchased in the West Indies by sending a coop of chickens from Augusta, Georgia. It was made into dresses and later a quilt. Exhibited by Martha Hale Harts her great great great granddaughter.” The West Indian purchase is notable because the North had, by that time, taken a stance against the use of slave-grown Southern cotton. The historical society also owns portraits of both Elizabeth and Martha, which strengthen our emotional connection to the women and to the quilt.

Child's set of wooden blocks covered on all sides in lithographs which can be arranged into puzzle figures.

Child's set of wooden lithographed puzzle figures

We also own a child's set of well-worn wooden puzzle blocks, covered on all sides in lithographs that can be arranged into figures. This toy was inscribed by its owner when he was an adult. I can feel his fond nostalgia when I read his words on the bottom of the box: “one of my first play blocks 1878 W.S. Hull.”

To me, the attraction of these personal touches is that they seem so quaint. Hand tools are mass-manufactured generically now, with no special regard for the individual user. Some diarists have traded their pens for texts and tweets. A child’s pocketbook, unlikely to last through the play years, will be discarded without emotion. Quilting is mostly done only by hobbyists, and nobody, I imagine, writes notes of fond remembrance on their Game Boys or X-boxes. I won’t envy the MHS photographer of 2118; by that time, the whole world may be “virtual,” and the personal connection may be relegated to the imagination.

To see additional items at the Society’s Allis-Bushnell House, visit the MHS Flickr page at Bob Gundersen is the photographer for the Madison Historical Society ( and is a member of its Board of Trustees. See all the images of the Society’s artifacts at