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Featured Collections

Featured Collections

Curious to learn a bit more about the items in our collection? We're adding featured collection items each month to give you a glimpse of some of the remarkable finds in our collection. You can also explore thousands of items through our collections database link below.

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Indian Club

This is one of several Indian clubs in the DCHS collection. Indian clubs are a type of exercise equipment that has been around for centuries. They originated on the Indian subcontinent and are used for resistance training to develop strength and mobility. The clubs were swung around in particular patterns and came in various weights.

In the mid-19th century, the British army in India brought Indian clubs back to England and they quickly gained popularity in the U.S. too. The British version had rounded bottoms, while the American clubs were flat-bottomed. Similar exercise clubs have been used in Iran and the Middle East, where they are known as Persian clubs.

After the Civil War, the fitness movement of the Victorian era made Indian clubs widely popular, and they were marketed to women and men alike for their reported benefits to both mind and body. Physical fitness was considered important for both mental and moral improvement, leading one to build character and righteousness. Indian clubs even made it to the Olympics in 1904 and 1932 as a gymnastics event.

In the 21st century, Indian club use in America has seen a resurgence. They are touted by fitness professionals even today for building shoulder strength and flexibility, grip and forearm strength, core strength, coordination, and cardiovascular benefits.

You can see several of DCHS’s Indian clubs in one of the second floor bedrooms of the Mathias Ham House.

Untitled Winter Painting

"Shut the door not that it lets in the cold but that it lets out the coziness." - Mark Twain

This picturesque winter scene was painted by accomplished local artist Joseph Walter (1865-1946). One of the first professional artists in Dubuque, Walter made his livelihood painting in churches after first being trained in Munich and Vienna. Over the course of his career, he created original paintings for 185 Catholic churches across the Midwest. His work included St. Mary’s, St. Patrick’s, and Holy Ghost Catholic churches in Dubuque.

Walter had a studio at his home at 2625 Carroll Street, where he often worked on landscape paintings.  The house depicted in this painting is believed to be on Diagonal Street, which would have been visible from Walter’s home studio. The two young children with the sled are Walter’s children, Joseph Jr. and Marie, and the church in the background is Sacred Heart on Windsor Avenue.

This untitled piece is one of 18 original works by Joseph Walter in the collection of the Dubuque County Historical Society.

Wicker Casket

Americans adopted some interesting customs surrounding death in the Victorian period (1837-1901). Mortality rates were much higher than we are accustomed to now, especially for infants and children. So death was a regular part of life, so to speak.

Death was also very personal for Victorians. The body of the deceased was usually laid out in the parlor of house, often in a casket like this one. This wicker example was used only temporarily for the funeral and viewing of the body, held at home. The deceased was not buried in it; wicker caskets such as this one were used over and over.

These caskets were also known as transfer baskets, used to transport the bodies of those who died while away from home. Practically speaking, they were more lightweight and easier to carry than a coffin made of wood. 

This particular casket came to the Dubuque County Historical Society from the Hoffman-Schneider Funeral Home, Iowa’s oldest continually operating funeral home, having opened in 1846 and being passed down through three generations of Hoffman men. Originally located on what is now Central Avenue, in 1939 the business moved into what was known as the Lacy Mansion on Main Street. The Schneider name was added in 1985 when Jim and Sharon Schneider purchased the business. The second location on Asbury Road was opened in 2009 as Hoffman-Schneider Kitchen Funeral Home.

Temporary wicker caskets were just one Victorian tradition surrounding death that today we might find strange. Victorians also frequently took photographs of the deceased, sometimes in poses that made them appear alive. They made jewelry and other trinkets out of the hair of deceased relatives, draped black cloths over mirrors, and even stopped their clocks at the time of death.

A Wicker Resurgence?

Wicker and woven caskets are increasing in popularity once again, this time with an eye toward eco-friendly burials. Wicker coffins today are touted as a natural and sustainable choice, made from weaving materials such as willow, rattan, seagrass, reed, bamboo, or other grasses.

World War II V-Mail

Bing Crosby perfectly captured the sentiments many service men and women felt during World War II when he crooned, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” in 1943. It will come as no surprise that soldiers felt especially compelled to reach out to loved ones as the holidays approached. The U.S. Government responded by producing special Christmas V-Mail for them to send home with messages of seasons greetings.

V-Mail, short for Victory Mail, was created by the U.S. Postal Service to expedite mail service during wartime. Standardized stationery was created for soldiers to use when writing letters, which were then photographed onto 16mm microfilm. The film was shipped overseas back home to the U.S., at a fraction of the space and weight needed to ship paper letters, allowing more space for needed war supplies. Once it arrived in the U.S., V-Mail was printed onto paper again for the recipient.

This example, from Private LeRoy Pape, was sent to his mother- and father-in-law back home in Dubuque. It was dated December 8, 1944, and was sent from France.

LeRoy Pape was born in Dubuque and married Margaret Sullivan, daughter of the recipients, in 1942. After serving his country in World War II, he was employed by John Deer Dubuque Works for 33 years. He and his wife had three children and enjoyed square dancing. He passed away in 2010 at the age of 86.