Visit Charles Gunther's
Libby Prison War Museum!

Abraham Lincoln appreciated the entertainment value of these new museums.

Lincoln hosted a wedding reception for Tom Thumb and his bride at the White House. Lincoln also invited Thumb and fellow midget Commodore Nutt to a contest of puns. A critic charged that Barnum and Lincoln were conspiring to divert Americans from the disasters of the Civil War. (HARRIS, Humbug 163-4)

The Chicago Historical Society purchased Gunther's collection following his death in 1920. Established in 1856, the Historical Society was primarily a library of Chicago-related materials until it acquired the Libby Prison War Museum holdings. Gunther's Lincoln relics were particularly important to the Historical Society, which had elected Lincoln an honorary member during his lifetime. Lincoln donated the original draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to Chicago's 1864 Northwestern Sanitary Fair with the understanding that it would eventually be given to the Chicago Historical Society. The Gunther acquisition attracted donations of other important Lincolniana.

Examine the Lincoln
Assassination Relics!
"The Coming Men!," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, February 28, 1863. Pictured from left to right are P.T. Barnum, Tom Thumb, Commodore Nutt, and Abraham Lincoln (ICHi-30957).

 

Mass-produced textiles, clothing, and early semi-synthetic plastics are among the materials attributed to the crime scene. These machine-made goods reflect America's transition from a nation of rural farms and villages to a growing complex of urban industrial centers. The relics are at once symbolic and symptomatic of this period of profound national upheaval when civil war and industrialization were changing the face of America.

Lincoln Gallery at the Chicago Historical Society, 1909. (ICHi-18778)
In contrast to P.T. Barnum, Charles Gunther eventually built a legitimate historical collection.
The Lincoln relics evoke sentimental memories of a bygone era and a heroic leader.
A closer
examination reveals the rapidly evolving industrial culture of American life.

Ready-made cloaks were the earliest products of the increasingly commercialized women's garment-making industry. Mary Lincoln's cloak may represent the beginning of the end of Elizabeth Keckly's dressmaking career, which ultimately led to the sale of her Lincoln relics. Charles Gunther stood poised at the center of this new American commercial landscape in Chicago, the hub of the national railway network. Here he gathered the shards of this tumultuous and increasingly idealized era for financial and political profit, realizing a new commodity in historical memory.

Commercially printed ikat fragment and plastic comb (CHS 1978.207.3 and 13); advertisement for ready-made cloaks from the Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1865 (ICHi-31000).