Glass George Washington souvenir from 1893 World’s Fair

Natalie Van Dam

Catalog Number: 2017.fic.1245

In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair. Called the Columbian Exposition, it celebrated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, along with other great feats of exploration.

The fairgrounds covered more than 600 acres, and about 200 new — and temporary — buildings were constructed before the celebration. The fair, which ran from May 1 through Oct. 30, was attended by more than 27 million people.

The fair boosted Chicago’s image, with improvements in architecture, sanitation and the arts. The event also gave city leaders a chance to demonstrate that it had overcome the destruction from a citywide fire in 1871.

Many widely known figures visited the fair during its six-month run, including songwriter Katharine Lee Bates; activist Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan; and inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Famous musicians who performed at the fair included Joseph Douglass, Scott Joplin and John Philip Sousa.

One of the many souvenirs for sale was this small glass hatchet made by the Libbey Glass Co. It has an engraving of George Washington’s head, and the words above read “The Father of this Country.” The ax references a myth about the nation’s first president and his run-in with his father’s cherry tree when he was a boy.

The La Crosse County Historical Society is home to many souvenirs from world’s fairs and expositions, and this artifact is the epitome of a souvenir. It’s difficult to imagine a more useless item than an ax made of glass. Its sole purpose was to demonstrate to others that you attended the Columbian Exposition.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on August 12, 2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

Official Batman Playset by Ideal

Natalie Van Dam

Catalog Number: 1985.024.01

Batman was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and the superhero first appeared in the Detective Comics No. 27 in 1939, after the successful launch of Superman earlier that year. He was well received by comic book fans, and his own comic book title, “Batman,” was launched the very next year.

The Caped Crusader wouldn’t become a mainstay of pop culture until his television debut in 1966. The live-action TV show is what made him more visible, relatable and real to everyday Americans. This show also helped launch a line of Batman paraphernalia, including toys, accessories and action figures. One of the first toy sets was the Official Batman Playset by Ideal.

This set would have contained Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Superman, three arch-villains including the Joker, a robot, the Bat Plane, the Bat Car and a solar-ray weapon.

There were other Batman toy sets that were launched about the same time. Each set offered a different lineup of of heroes and villains; however, all had one thing in common — the superheroes were painted by hand, while the villains remained unpainted.

Some of the characters from this toy set are on display at the La Crosse County Historical Society.

The word “superhero” can be traced back to at least the early 1900s and was used to describe someone who battled everyday crime or major threats to humankind. It was someone who punished the wicked and protected the innocent. These heroes and icons also had their own flaws, which is what allowed people to be able to relate to them and inspired many people to overcome their own obstacles.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

Ruth Gundersen’s beaded purses

Ivy King

Catalog Number: 1984.084.01 and 1984.084.02

During World War II, the Nazis had their eyes on Norway, and on April 9, 1940, they invaded the neutral country. This land was valuable to Germany because it allowed for easier access to Swedish iron ore, it opened a larger naval front and it created a battlefield away from France.

The day before the Germans invaded, Ruth Wiese Engelsen Gundersen left her home in Bergen, Norway.

Ruth was born Sept. 17, 1917, in Bergen, a large, coastal city along the country’s southwestern coast that was at the center of trade and commerce. Although much of Ruth’s childhood was spent in Norway, she attended schools in England and Switzerland.

The 1940 Nazi invasion occurred after the United Kingdom and France mined Norwegian waters to halt German trade and shipping. On the first day of the German invasion, the Nazis took control of Bergen. Had Ruth waited even a day longer to leave her hometown, she likely would have been forced to remain there until after the war’s end because Germans controlled Norway until May 8, 1945.

Ruth was crossing the Atlantic Ocean when she first heard of the Nazi invasion of her home country. Throughout the war, she was unable to freely communicate with loved ones back home, and she only received occasional family letters through the Red Cross.

After arriving to the U.S., she met Thorolf Gundersen in New York City, a man who would become her husband after just a few months together. Thorolf was the seventh son of Adolf Gundersen, the founder of the Gundersen Health System.

The couple relocated many times during the war, but they eventually settled in the La Crosse area. Once here, Ruth became an important member of the community, where she was involved in the Lutheran Hospital Guild, the Investment Club and the League of Women Voters.

Ruth’s beaded bags were most likely acquired during her travels throughout Europe or during her years attending schools in foreign cities. Beaded bags were popular for centuries, but they were most famous during the 1920s. The popularity bled into the 1930s, when Ruth most likely bought hers. Her purses were purchased in Europe, most likely Germany or France.

The sheer number of beads creates a tapestry-like image. One of the beaded purses has a black-and-white beaded design that forms multiple animals, including a deer, a fox, a squirrel and a peacock. The beads also form flowers and geometric designs. The silver frame attached to the purse is decorated with corn, among other vegetables and fruit.

Gundersen’s other purse has a beaded, multicolored floral design with a crocheted drawstring. The flowers are on an ecru background, with a beige silk crepe lining. The center of the purse has a black tassel with gold accents.

Later in her life, Ruth saw the historical significance of these purses, and she donated them to the La Crosse Historical Society. These beaded purses and others items can be found in the society’s online collections database.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune.
This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.