Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Pioneer Artifacts

Helena’s Pioneer Cabin, the oldest documented dwelling in the capital city, was built in 1864 during the height of the gold rush to Last Chance Gulch. In the late 1930s, women in the community saved it from demolition and created Montana’s first house museum. The Pioneer Cabin opened to the public in 1939. Helena’s pioneer families generously donated heirlooms of the 1860s and 1870s, used by their ancestors at Last Chance, to furnish the museum. Among the interesting items in the cabin is a pie safe dated to 1864. Its punched tin panels let the air circulate but kept insects out, allowing safe storage of baked goods. The rustic cabinet was discovered on the property in an outbuilding.

Pie safes with punched tin panels were essential in well-equipped frontier kitchens. 
Another item of interest is a Civil War era “hat bathtub” that came West by covered wagon. It has a place for the bather to sit, a place to put the soap so it doesn’t fall into the water, and just enough room for one’s legs. It was difficult to heat quantities of water on a small cookstove for a bath, and so bathing was not a frequent occurrence. The tradition held that the oldest person in the family got the first shot at the hot water. In mining families, by the time the youngest child got to the water after all that dirt came off the adults, it was dark and murky. The expression, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” comes from the fact that the youngest child could get lost in the dirty water.

Hat bathtubs—resembling an inverted hat—were popular during the Civil War.
During the Victorian era, it was common to clip a lock of hair from a person who passed away. Jewelry made of human hair was lovingly worn by grieving family members. But sometimes families saved these cherished locks to weave them into beautiful forms which were framed, cherished, and passed down. Some of these incredible works of art came west. The Pioneer Cabin displays two beautiful—although a little creepy—“mourning wreaths.”

The human hair in this mourning wreath was likely from more than one individual and was an artistic tribute to deceased family members.

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