Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 20, 2017

From creepy to intriguing

When a loved one dies, it is comforting to keep some part of the person close. In countries such as Indonesia, the mummified remains are sometimes kept in the family home and even dressed to celebrate special occasions as if the person was still alive. Being unfamiliar with such a practice, I find it a bit creepy. I’ll opt for remembering a loved one by displaying a photo or keeping some object connected with that person such as a pocket watch or a piece of china.

But as recently as the Victorian era people sometimes chose to keep a part of the physical remains of loved ones. Some families had small bowls called hair receivers where strands of a person’s hair were routinely saved. Upon the person’s death, that hair was formed into a figure such as a flower.

A family memorial was sometimes created by grouping these small figures into the shape of a horseshoe, with the open end pointing upward to symbolize the passage of the person’s soul to Heaven. The hair figure of the most recently-departed was placed in the center. It would then be moved to the side when the next family member passed. These memorial hair wreaths were mounted on the wall or set on a table, protected by a glass covering.

I was reminded of this practice recently at the Riley County Historical Museum. It turned 100 last fall, and the staff are commemorating the occasion with a year-long exhibition.

In addition to the hair wreath, I saw a section of the original seating from Manhattan’s Wareham Opera House, a hand-carved sunflower clock made from local walnut and osage-orange wood for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and a gavel used during the first meetings of the Manhattan Town Association. Of course, there were also more common museum items, such as Civil War uniforms, feather hats, saddles, a 1920s swimsuit and a glove/handkerchief box from the old Sikes Store in nearby Leonardville.

Being half Swedish, I was drawn to a traveling trunk from the Floberg family. The wooden trunk, addressed to Christina Floberg, was shipped to Olsburg, Kansas, “Nortamericka” in the 1870s from relatives in Sweden. Jonas and Catharina Svensdotter Johansson immigrated to New York City in 1864. In 1866, the couple and their two children homesteaded near Olsburg, Kansas. In 1872, Catharina changed her first name to “Christina” and the couple changed their last name to “Floberg.”

Local historical objects like the trunk were first stored in the city park’s Pioneer Log Cabin, dedicated as a museum in October 1916. In 1957, the museum moved to a hand-dug basement under Manhattan’s City Hall and remained there until the current building was dedicated in 1976.

The museum has a collection of about 85,000 objects, 4,500 books and monographs, 10,800 cubic feet of manuscripts and archives, and 27,000 photographic negatives and images. The staff also oversees eight historic properties and, in partnership with the Kansas State Historical Society and the Riley County Historical Society, operates the Goodnow House State Historic Site.

Among those collected items, another that caught my attention was the “Aloe Electro-Therapeutic Cabinet.” Its maker claimed it treated high blood pressure, lesions and paralysis. The museum’s cabinet belonged to Dr. William Clarkson, who started his practice in nearby Keats in 1900, traveling by horse and buggy to see his patients.

I asked Allana Parker, the museum’s curator of design, what other unusual objects were unearthed when preparing the centennial display.

She mentioned the Nestle permanent hair wave machine. In 1905, German hairdresser Karl Nessler invented a machine that used an electric heating mechanism and a forming agent, such as a mixture of cow urine and water, to achieve a wavy hairstyle. She said this “spiral heat method” used 12 two-pound brass rollers heated to 200 degrees. The treatment took up to six hours. The hot rollers were kept from touching the scalp by a complex system of cables with counter weights suspended from an overhead chandelier mounted on a stand.

“Early tests done with his wife resulted in her hair being completely burned off,” Parker said.

After Nessler made improvements, he moved to New York in 1915 and changed his name to Charles Nestle. By 1927, Nestle owned several hair salons that used his permanent wave machine. One of the devices found its way to a beauty shop in Leonardville.

Visitors can see this special exhibit, which took six months to create, during the museum’s regular hours, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 2-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. But there will be a special open house from 2-5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29, which coincides with Kansas Day.

“The open house will feature some of the secret stories about objects in the centennial exhibit,” said Cheryl Collins, director of the museum. “We are planning to have staff members pick out one of the interesting objects in the exhibit and tell a little bit more, make connections with current events, people or other objects in the exhibit.”

Hmm. Secret centennial stories: just the thing for a history fanatic like me!

Left: Hair wreath. The top was never closed so the souls of the departed could leave for Heaven; middle-top: clock made for the 1893 World's Fair; middle-bottom: Dr. William Clarkson who used and donated the “Aloe Electro-Therapeutic Cabinet”; right: an advertisement for the cabinet on page 43 of the Oct. 5, 1918 issue of "The Journal of the American Medical Association."

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