Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: From Wonder Room to Cabinets

Stack of books with round eyeglasses on top, brass vintage candle, and carnivale mask in background

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. 

Vintage photo of young Myrtle Corbin, known as the four legged girl, seated in a chair
Myrtle Corbin. Image in public domain, courtesy Wikimedia commons*
Vintage photo of Issac W. Sprague, the human skeleton taken in 1867
Isaac W. Sprague. Image in Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons**

P.T. Barnum took that interest in the bizarre and unusual and expanded it with sideshow attractions like Myrtle Corbin, the Four-Legged GirlJosephine 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:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Isaac_W_Sprague,_living_skeleton,_1867.jpg

73 thoughts on “Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: From Wonder Room to Cabinets

    • I remember seeing some shots from your very eclectic collection in your shed, Fraggle. I love that shed! You have a “wonder room” just like in the old days. Minus the fish heads, LOL. 😁
      So glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I always felt that way too, Harmony. Then I read a book about many of the people who populated the sideshows. Most of them lived otherwise normal lives with healthy marriages and children, including all three mentioned above (although it’s said that Sprague had a gambling problem). There’s even a town in Florida where most of the population was made up of people who “retired” from the sideshow. Their lives really were extraordinary.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Harmony was saying the same up above. I feel the same way, but after reading about many of the people who worked sideshows (including the three mentioned above), they lived otherwise normal lives, with marriages, family and children. There’s even a town in Florida where most of them retired so they could live together. Barnum definitely exploited, but they say he paid very well and took care of the people he recruited. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it makes me wonder what life they may have had otherwise.

      And I love thinking about the origin of curio cabinets, how they originally began!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jill, your buyer must have really loved your curio cabinet, and I’m sure it was a perfect fit in your condo.
      My mother-in-law gave me mine, and I treasure it. She started it for me with several beautiful items and I’ve added to it over the years with family mementos and collectibles. They are certainly something to cherish.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my origin post! 🙂

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    • Same here, Tessa. Even today, the items we place in them are a source for discussion and ogling, LOL. Those 16th century aristocrats had their act together when they came up with their Wonder Rooms! 😁

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  1. I also didn’t know the origin of curio cabinets. I call mine my nerd cabinet. It’s filled with Marvel golf balls, legos, and Funko Pops. “Imagine walking through a room where most every surface is covered with peculiar and eclectic oddities.” I’m not kidding when I say this sounds like son #2’s room. From his travels in different countries and his eccentric tastes, you could spend some time in his room just observing. I should post pics on my blog next Monday, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t know this history, Mae, though I probably should have since I inherited my grandmother’s curiosity cabinet full of strange and beautiful things – like feathered fans, beetle jewelry, and tiny dolls with human hair. It’s all still in there. 🙂 You put me in the mood to browse again through its contents. Thanks for the fascinating post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. They make great stuff for books, don’t they, MC! Wink, wink.
    My cabinet is some bookshelves on either side of my fireplace where we have Native American sculptures, fossil sand dollars, preserved exotic butterflies, a Mik Mak basket, and other things we’ve collected over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I must work a cabinet (and it’s curiosities) into a novel one day, LOL!
      Your “cabinet” sounds wonderful, Noelle. I like that you’ve displayed your treasures so visibly beside your fireplace. Everything you mentioned sounds intriguing, especially those Native American sculptures!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a wonderful piece to have in the family. I have nothing like that, now wish I did. I love oddball stuff, but not the people sort. On the other hand, maybe those unusual people were happy to have a place they were accepted for what they were.

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    • I love having a place (my curio cabinet) to display treasures that have particular meaning for me, especially those that have been passed down through generations. As for the people, it’s a fine line. Most lived very normal lives with spouses and children. Barnum supposedly cared for them a great deal and paid them well, but there’s no doubt they brought dollars in for him. From doing research, I understand they were a family in and of themselves. I think I would have preferred that then to be among others who didn’t except any oddity I may have had.
      You need a curio cabinet, Jacqui!

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  5. Now that my mother is on in years, she’s been trying to give all of us stuff from her curio cabinet, which is so full, you can’t even appreciate what’s in it. So many memories in there.

    I didn’t know the origin of the curio cabinet. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a number of treasures in my curio cabinet from both sides of my family that date back generations. You need to find those things that speak to you from your mom. It sounds like she has amassed quite a collection, LOL.
      You’re right about the memories. Looking at the pieces I have, always brings back thoughts of loved ones who are no longer with me.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fascinating, Mae. I’ve a few special items that I hold dear and keep close (two ancient icons, a relic of a favorite saint, a few other items). But, when I moved last June, I gave almost everything away – to friends, to churches, to neighbors. My curio cabinet is tucked into my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is such a lovely thought about having your curio cabinet in your heart, Gwen. I’m sure the people you gave those treasures to value them very much. Sometimes, it’s just not practical to hang onto all the things we’ve accumulated through the years, even when they have special meaning attached. I know you treasure the memories every bit as much, if not more than the actual pieces.
      Thanks for a beautiful share! 💕❤️

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  7. It’s a fascinating post for me, thanks for sharing the history of curiosity cabinets Mae. I didn’t inherit any; I tried to make one but left it behind in India, still unsure whether little things would be of any value to my grandchildren. 😊

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    • I think your grandchildren would likely love anything you leave for them, Balroop, especially as they age. Even if you left your cabinet behind in India, you can still set pieces aside now. I have several from grandparents and a great aunt, but I wish I had more. By the time I was born, I only had one living grandparent, so those connections are truly meaningful for me. I really crave ties to the past. I think most people do, especially when they get older and ponder the generations who came before.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, Mae! I did not know the history of the curio cabinets or the fact that oddities were the evening entertainment in the sixteenth century. Fascinating stuff! I definitely have a collection of oddities from a grasshopper made from a railroad spike to a hand-carved bolo clasp. Yep. Wonder what my kids will do with them? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s amazing to think how far back our attachment and interest in oddities goes, Jan. I love that you have your own collection. The two items you mentioned sound most interesting and speak to those things that attract you to them. I can also see you having dream catchers, and beautiful feathers and mineral stones among your treasures! 🙂💕

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    • Isn’t Ripley’s great, Jacquie. Hubby and I went through one just last year when we visited the shore. It was the same museum we went through as teens when we were dating. So much fun, and it brought back memories!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I didn’t know the history either, Mae! This is very interesting. My curio cabinet is full of crystals and my travel collections. Each has a stoery. I do have some items from my husband’s mom. I wish I had some strange things but they are only beautiful. 😍

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is nothing wrong with a collection of beautiful things, Miriam. I love the idea that many of yours are from your travels. I try and do the same, bringing back an item for my cabinet from each trip I take. I have some family pieces from both sides, but I do wish I had more. Like yours, everything in the cabinet has a story. 🙂

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  10. Interesting post, Mae. Along with tea cups and other items, I collect things from my personal past that were lost, such as books and model dolls from childhood, vintage perfumes, and the kind of powder my mother used. As a child I had classmates, twins, whose parents were part of the Barnum circus. The father tamed lions and animals, and the mother flew as a trapeze artist. It was always exotic at their house.

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    • Your collection sounds awesome, Flossie. I especially love the idea of model dolls and vintage perfumes. How wonderful!

      And I’m in awe about the parents of your classmates. I’ve never known ANYONE who knew an actual circus performer, let alone two. I bet it was amazing visiting their house. Exotic indeed!

      It would be interesting to know if the twins continued the tradition of their parents as circus performers. I’ve heard that was often the case for those who were brought up with family members who performed.

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    • I’m so glad you found the post intriguing, Natalie. Curio cabinets are awesome for holding our treasures. We have those 16th Century bored aristocrats to thank in getting the ball rolling, LOL.
      Like you, I never want to lose my sense of wonder!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I didn’t know a wonder room or cabinet of curiosities actually existed. I feel like I have failed in life for not knowing! I can just imagine how incredible it would be to be surrounded by objects that are truly fascinating and strange. I’m a little jealous of those aristocrats! Thanks so much for sharing about this, Mae. I love learning about all these neat things & their history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad to hear that, Mar. I love sharing stuff like this, and am delighted I could introduce you to something new. I would have loved to have seen one of those old Wonder Rooms. Imagine the treasures it must have held. I’m a fan of the strange, unusual, and odd, so I would have been in awestruck heaven! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Awesome, as usual! Have you ever been to the “event” Oddities and Curiosities? I know it makes the rounds here, Chicago, St. Louis, etc. It sounds very much like your article here. I’ve been to it once (as a customer, not a vendor). There’s a LOT of heads and weirdness. It’s kind of cool, but I don’t care for the dead things myself. LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. HI Mae, I have always collected things that others find odd. Even my doll collection is weird and creepy for most people. I also collect other things, African art, books, and teapots and other ceramic and glassware. Jip, I probably have four of these cabinets and need another for my new teddy bear collection. PS I also have music books.

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  14. Pingback: Our Curio Cabinets (a.k.a. Nerd Cabinet) – Books and Such

  15. Thank you for this interesting history lesson on curio cabinets. I love the German name for them. I have a lot of my daughter´s pottery in my curio cabinet as well as a kachina doll, a Creative Goddess felt doll and a Swarovski camel hubby bought me to celebrate my first book, Amanda in Arabia. The bottom shelf has a collection of my favourite books including a vintage Jane Austen. Curio cabinets are like a diorama of your life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a great thought, Darlene, about curio cabinets being a diorama of our lives! It sounds like you have many special collectibles, and that vintage Jane Austin must be extraordinary! I’m so glad you dropped by to visit and share your thoughts and that you enjoyed my post. I found the history behind curio cabinets interesting as well. They are still a thing of wonder, even today! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, the series name for these blog posts came from those long ago cabinets of curiosities. Like you, I’ve always been fascinated by the unusual and odd. I’ll have a new post up next week!

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