1. Learn: What is an Object History?

An “object history” tells stories about the past by starting with a particular physical object.

Our lives are spent interacting with the physical world, building and using objects to shape our environments and everyday experiences. We may often overlook them, but even the most everyday things—a soda bottle, a serving dish, a vinyl record—have their own unique historical contexts.

Objects are thus windows into the past. They shape our occupations, habits, and traditions. They document past events and serve as physical reminders of the thoughts, values, and experiences of people long gone. Especially evocative objects—an enormous telescope, a collection of antique medical equipment, or an iconic piece of dairying technology—can capture our attention and lead us into history in ways we might never have imagined.

Cabinet of Curiosities
Unusual objects collected in a “cabinet of curiosities.” What stories might they tell? Photograph by Flickr user Kotomi_, 2012. (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The object histories of Wisconsin 101’s online exhibit bring to life important and unusual stories about our shared past. Whether everyday things or one-of-a-kind rarities, the stuff of Wisconsin sits at the center of this historical project.

For example, the Babcock Butterfat Tester tells us about the rich dairying history of our state and serves as one example of the Wisconsin Idea in action. Similarly, an early 1930s decorative pillow cover reminds us both of the struggles of the Great Depression and some of the most important civic projects and work relief programs of the New Deal.

Forward: Step 2. Choose an Object >>>