Today’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a look at… well, cabinet of curiosities!
I have a curio cabinet in my home that’s filled with all manner of odd collectibles—an antique teacup, a crystal lion, a hand-painted wine glass, a beautiful carousel horse, a kachina doll I picked up in Arizona, an antique stein and shaving cup that belonged to my grandfather—you get the idea. It’s an assortment of items that mean something to me, many of them gifted or dating back generations in my family.
The modern curio cabinet has a history that begins in the sixteenth century, a time when a “cabinet of curiosities” was the be-all/end-all of after dinner entertainment. With little to do for amusement, aristocrats began collecting oddities which they displayed in a “wonder room.” This became a place of diversion, alleviating boredom, while astounding guests.
The German name for these rooms was wunderkammers. Collectible objects were tucked wherever they might fit and be displayed—walls, floor, even ceilings. Imagine walking through a room where most every surface is covered with peculiar and eclectic oddities. Can you hear the oohs and aahs from awestruck visitors?
A forerunner to museums, wonder rooms usually focused on science and/or history, often including a slant toward the bizarre. This was especially true as centuries progressed. You might find the skeletal remains of a mythical creature, or perhaps a unicorn horn, side by side with experimental medical instruments, dried insects, fossils, and shells. Eventually, rooms became smaller cabinets ideal for displaying curiosities. Taxidermy animals, feathers, and “monsters” including animals with multiple heads were a particular favorite. The same with quirky science devices.
P.T. Barnum took that interest in the bizarre and unusual and expanded it with sideshow attractions like Myrtle Corbin, the Four-Legged Girl, Josephine Clofullia, the Bearded Lady, and Isaac W. Sprague, the Human Skeleton, to name a few.
Robert Ripley followed with his “Believe it or Not” museums which showcased the weird and wonderful. Who hasn’t been in a Ripley’s museum? Still popular today, they’re a staple at many beach towns in the U.S., with twenty-nine locations (including Ripley aquariums) around the world.
Our passion for the strange and the unusual has carried from the sixteenth century to modern day and shows no sign of abating. Maybe we don’t gather in “wonder rooms,” strolling among exotic plants, dried fish heads and dragon scales, but we easily reach for Google, books, or TV, to feed our interest in the peculiar.
To me, it says we’ve never lost our sense of wonder. Moving forward, I’ll be diving back into specific curiosities again, but I thought a tip of the hat to the cabinet of curiosities in general was due. We owe a lot to those bored aristocrats of the sixteenth century who had no idea how to pass the time after a dinner party. And to Mr. Barnum and Mr. Ripley.
What are your thoughts on curiosities?
*Photo of Myrtle Corbin: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Myrtle_Corbin_by_JR_Applegate_c1880.JPG
**Photo of Isaac W. Sprague: