Curiosities: Series 1

These treasures have been amassed through the hard work and generous philanthropy of countless students, researchers, professors, alumni, and friends.
Written by Abigail Bobrow
Curiosities: Series 1

Our campus is home to what now numbers in the millions of collected, created, donated, and unearthed objects from all over the world that are part of the university’s permanent collection. These treasures have been amassed through the hard work and generous philanthropy of countless students, researchers, professors, alumni, and friends.

This occasional series uncovers and discovers the fascinating stories behind these curiosities—from items that reflect our natural and cultural history to art collections that represent all eras and mediums to the endless bounty of riches found in our library alone, including rare manuscripts, maps, and books.

These materials (displayed in museums and glass cabinets, tucked safely in boxes and drawers) are used by researchers as well as by instructors in classrooms and they do nothing less than tell the story of our collective humanity.

Hitting a
home run
in Japan

After 90 years, the faded writing is still legible on this keepsake from the international adventure the University of Illinois baseball team had in the summer of 1928. 

Seventeen members of the team set off from Champaign, barnstorming their way across the country, playing 13 games to raise extra money. At they end of their journey to the West Coast, they boarded a Japanese ocean liner out of San Francisco to play ball in Japan. 

Two players, Richard “Dick” Finn and Norman “Norm” Gundlach, hatched the plan to travel to Japan after Illinois hosted the Japanese team when it was touring the United States. 

Since 1928, the university has kept the 45-page detailed journal created by Finn in a bound book that sits on a shelf in the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics’ archives. This baseball, as well as a bat and Japanese newspapers reporting on some of the games, recently joined the collection courtesy of Frank Gundlach, Norman’s son.

The younger Gundlach recalls his father speaking about the trip frequently.

“It was a way to boost the enthusiasm for the university. And why not? How proud they were to represent the university in Japan. It was a very proud moment in his life.”

Unearthing
the treasures
of Cahokia

No more than a few inches tall, made of flint clay, this exquisite remnant of the people of ancient Cahokia fits in the palm of your hand. 

Thomas Emerson, director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, keeps a museum replica of this pre-Columbian discovery in his office at the university. Her carved wraparound skirt, moccasins, and tied-back hair, he explains, most likely indicate she was a treasured symbol of female fertility.

Emerson’s team uncovered this piece in the summer of 2009 in the empty land that was once home to Cahokia and the Mississippians around 1100 A.D. The archeologists were there at the request of the Illinois Department of Transportation, which was using the land for the new Mississippi River bridge between East St. Louis, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri. The piece, as well as others from the site, are now part of the University’s permanent collection and recently displayed at the Spurlock Museum.

The Exchange Avenue figurine, named after the area where the team discovered her in East St. Louis, was spared destruction not once but twice. According to the scientists’ findings, the first time she survived was in the 1100s when the house structure she was in—possibly a temple—burned to the ground with everything in it. Fortunately, she was nestled in a deposit in a corner of the building, safe from the flames. Then, in the 1800s, the East St. Louis Stockyard was built on that land. The underground water and sewer lines came within centimeters of shattering her.

Unfortunately, the Cahokia people who created the figurine didn’t survive much past the 14th century and their man-made earthen structures are long gone. All that remains aboveground are the Cahokia ceremonial mounds and the items archaeologists have been able to unearth.

The city, which would have occupied five square miles in portions of three counties in and around East St. Louis, is estimated to have had as many as 20,000 people—if not more—and was the center of a vibrant, complex Native American society.

The Exchange Avenue figurine is one of thousands of artifacts the archaeologists uncovered during their time at the site, and thousands more still remain buried beneath existing cities. Emerson believes it was likely the biggest excavation ever done in this country.

“It is so special to be able to bring these artifacts to the public so they can learn more about the Cahokia people and their vibrant community,” Emerson said.

Kicking up
her heels
in Paris

Tucked in a white box, cushioned with archival tissue paper in the University of Illinois Archives, lies a beaded flapper-style dress that belies the extraordinary life of the young woman who purchased it in Paris in the summer of 1927. Just after her freshman year, Margaret Bordner traveled with a university class to study in Europe for two weeks. She returned with a garment which was emblematic of the Roaring ’20s and the celebration of post-World War I female empowerment.

Growing up in Lewiston, Illinois, Margaret loved to dance. She won a Charleston contest—the dance of the 1920s flapper era—in nearby Havana, Illinois. 

Margaret, also known as Peggy or Marge or Marny, was one of only a thousand women in her 1932 graduating class. No small feat for a woman who would have just gained the right to vote twelve years prior. 

“I thought the University of Illinois should get that dress for sure. She was a student when she got it and she always told us she was with a class,” said Susan Jones, Margaret’s youngest daughter. All four of Margaret’s daughters attended Illinois. 

“My mother would like that the dress was at the university.”

While we know Margaret was an English major with a keen interest in French and her sorority, the Tri Delts, few details are known about why or with what class she went on that European adventure. University records from that era are scant. We can only imagine Margaret donning the dress kicking up her heels, the beaded fringe flying.

Capturing the
beauty of math

This plaster model is one of hundreds that fill the glass cases on every floor of Altgeld Hall, home to the Mathematics Library. 

The university acquired them after a professor saw them on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Six years later, the professor returned with the first set from Germany, the epicenter of mathematical model making at the time. The university continued to acquire models until the early part of the 20th century and all of the models served a singular purpose: the pursuit to represent visually and dimensionally that which existed numerically.

“What we’re doing today with computer graphics,” says George Francis, professor emeritus of mathematics, “is what the mathematicians did in the 19th century with what they had: string, metal, plaster, and wood.”

The models were created around the same time as art from painters Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore. The similarities in appearance are evident and represent a time when artists, like their mathematician counterparts, were also experimenting in geometric abstraction though the use of shapes, dimension, space, and perspective. 

Several years ago, the models were cleaned and cataloged, but ensuring they stay well preserved and remain in Altgeld is expensive.

“There are the people who want to throw the stuff out. You could destroy it or send it off to the Smithsonian, but that means it’s out of the University,” Francis said. “I want to preserve them. Whenever there’s a visitor in the hallway, I tell them a little bit about the models.”