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Behind the Scenes at the UNH Museum

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The 1917 commandments dictated freshmen “shalt at no time appear in khaki or corduroy trousers' or loud clothes or wear their collars turned up. And at all times, they should appear wearing their freshmen caps on their “insignificant craniums.”

A box of beanies.

Dresses from the Irma Bowen collection.

Dress from the Irma Bowen collection.

Some of the dresses that make up the 600-piece Irma Bowen collection.


Typewriters used through the years at UNH.

An early typewriter.

A calculator donated to the UNH Museum.

Reunion memorabilia.

It’s like any other warehouse: Cavernous; utilitarian; lined with disciplined rows of metal shelving. Except then there’s the wooden block of old mailboxes from Thompson Hall. And Ben Thompson’s foot tub. And a collection of canes sported by seniors. And the beanies that freshmen were required to wear.

The storage site on Leavitt Lane is home to relics and even entire collections that have been acquired—mostly through donations from alumni--by the University Museum. It’s where pieces of history are kept under lock and key when not on display.

There are other items of interest: typewriters representing changes in models from year to year; one, attached to a semi-circular wooden base whose keys are rounded like a fan. An early calculator and slide ruler. Farmer Thompson’s surveying equipment. Glass milk bottles stamped “UNH.”

“We are preserving a lot of material here; a lot of history,” says Dale Valena, curator of the UNH Museum.  

The collection that she is most excited about today is that of the 600 textile articles--dresses and hoops and bustles and corsets and shoes--dating from 1700 and donated by Irma Bowen, who came to UNH (then called New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts) in 1920.

Teaching the history of fashion and dressmaking techniques, Bowen also began collecting samples of the clothing that she used in her classes. By the late 1940s she had amassed more than 600 items of wear from 1700 to the 1930s.

In 2000, the museum featured the exhibit “Tailored to Teach: Highlights from the Irma Bowen Textile Collection.” Textile consultant Astrida Schaeffer, former assistant director of the University Museum of Art, spent a year readying the exhibit.

One item she selected for display was a wedding dress from the 1890s whose label was from a Paris fashion house. Another that looked a bit like a rag was a rare homespun housedress.

“Irma Bowen was more than a home ec teacher, she was a historian,” Valena says.

Her collection is tended with care. Schaeffer, now volunteering with the UNH Museum, is going through the cabinets and boxes one by one, looking at every garment to see that it has the proper support; the right hanger, taking a complete inventory. She is also helping to confirm the age of some pieces.

“I look through old photos to see what was worn when,” Schaeffer says. “I study the fabrics--the folds and the pleats--and the fasteners and the collars and waistbands. I’m somewhat of a textile sleuth.”

Many of the garments are kept in glass-front cupboards. Others are boxed away. Schaeffer and Valena are thinking of doing an exhibit on clothing embellishments. They also are exploring the idea of creating the N.H. Historical Dress Project, working with others in New Hampshire to record a digital inventory of historical garments.

In the meantime, the items will stay stored with the rest of the UNH Museum’s memorabilia, in the warehouse on Leavitt Lane.

The UNH Museum is located on level one of the Dimond Library. It is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday noon to 4 p.m.