Behind the Scenes at the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar
Story by Amelia E. Chamberlain, Director
While the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., a great deal of activity goes on “behind the scenes” as well. As the new director at the museum, I have been learning about museum operations, getting acquainted with the people who support the museum, and becoming familiar with some of the artifacts that make up the collection.
Chris Law started as an OSU history intern this past spring, but transitioned to paid staff in the summer. One of our first projects this fall was to inventory and make certain our collection of “Redskin” yearbooks had been assigned a number and entered into our collections software program Past Perfect.
In working with these beautiful time capsules, many questions came to mind, so I did a bit of research and discovered that the first “yearbooks” can be traced back to the East Coast schools of the late 17th century, where people would sign scrapbook-like booklets that also sometimes held hair clippings, dried flowers, newspaper articles, and other mementos of the school year. The 1806 class at Yale created the first known official bound yearbook with information about the school year, the students, and the faculty. Since permanent photographs wouldn’t be invented for 20 or so years, this book included printed silhouettes of the students.
We can thank the early American photographer George K. Warren (1832–1884) for the yearbook as many of us know it. Warren was working and living in the Boston area when the daguerreotype declined in popularity. As a result, he turned to a different photographic technology using negatives, and he capitalized on the ability of a single negative to produce many images. He persuaded college students to buy several copies and then share them with their friends. These pictures could then be bound by a bookbinder into fancy albums, sometimes with embossed covers and gilded pages. For fifteen years, Warren was one of the best-known makers of “graduating class pictures.”
Yearbooks created between 1920 and 1940 were often elaborately designed with embossed covers. Some were done in a mimeographed style or had handwritten headers. Others had fancy, themed borders printed on each page. Mass production using printing plates reduced the costs and made yearbooks more affordable. Beginning around 1950, yearbooks became plainer and less like artwork.
Yearbooks hold all sorts of information about everything from genealogy to social fads and politics to fashion history. This glimpse into society is packaged within a single cover, which prior to the 1960s mostly had muted colors and conservative designs. The flower power era, however, brought sometimes psychedelic hues and freestyle graphics to yearbook covers.
It was not until 1986 that schools began using computers to make their yearbooks. Before computers, physical hard copies of the book were laid out by hand. It wasn’t only the process of making yearbooks that evolved, so did the yearbooks themselves. With desktop publishing beginning in the 1980s and digital printing in the 1990s, yearbook design and production was dramatically changed. Today’s yearbooks can be digital, interactive, and even 3-dimensional. And, with the help of QR codes and websites, videos and slideshows can also be added.
Yearbooks are publications that reflect and document the events and lives of people involved with a school during a given year. It is a memory book, a history book, a record book, and a reference book. The OSU Library has a digitized complete collection of the Redskin yearbooks offering immediate access to 81 years of OSU history (1910-1991) with the following disclaimer: “The name of this publication depicts ethnic and racial insensitivity that was once commonplace in American society. Such portrayals were wrong then and are wrong today. While not representing the views of Oklahoma State University today, these publications are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. To learn more about American Indian culture and sovereignty, visit https://sovnationcenter.okstate.edu/”
Having images of objects is the next best thing to having the actual artifact itself. Being able to view the actual three-dimensional object affects how that object is perceived on a subconscious level. The textures of the object, the way light plays on the object, the areas of the object that show use, the actual color of the object, added to the history of the object and its owner, all add to a deeper understanding of the stories an object can tell.
The Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar fulfills its mission by caring for and preserving objects like the Redskin yearbooks and having them available as a resource for research and interpreting the culture of the area. For example, the first Redskin yearbook from 1911 is on exhibit at the museum in an OSU display and tells this story, “John Lester Bishop is remembered as the ‘Father of the Redskin.’ The OAMC Class of 1901 wanted a yearbook, but did not have any money to support the project. Bishop, owner of a local men’s clothing store, gave the school $900 to finance the first yearbook.” Having the tangible object, rather than a photograph of the object, adds dimension to the display. It is the work of museums everywhere to preserve our history so that we may learn from the past, and hopefully, make wiser choices for the future.
About the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar
The MISSION of the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar is to receive and collect the material culture of Stillwater, Oklahoma, dating from prehistoric times, but especially from the 1880s to the present; to preserve those materials for the future; to study them to derive information about the past; and to use the knowledge resulting from such study to present to the public the history and culture of the area through all effective means.
The Museum is located at 702 S. Duncan Street and is open free to the public Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sundays and Mondays and Holidays. For more information call 405.377.0359, visit online at SheerarMuseum.org, or like on facebook at @SheerarMuseum.