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A Most Amazing Room: 1910s

A Most Amazing Room: 1910s

This room from well over a hundred years ago in Pawnee City, Nebraska, looks to have been the personal space of a boy or teenager. It's filled with weird little items a teenage boy might have found worth collecting. A handwritten sign on the wall says "WHO ENTERS HERE - LEAVE HOPE BEHIND". A large Punch and Judy puppet is mounted on a chair with a warning not to handle it. Playing cards decorate the walls. The scrawled message on the heating stove says "Sacred to the Memory of a Fireman - He has gone to his last fire". An American flag covers the ceiling. Browse around the room and see what you can find. It's his own private museum, the Voynich Manuscript of Victorian living space! Scanned from a 4x5 glass negative. View full size.

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Pawnee City remote, but not isolated

At the time, Pawnee City was at the junction of two rail lines that likely brought a lot of visitors from across the country and with them, bringing curiosities from both coasts that would be attractive to a curious young person. The town is also in extreme southeastern Nebraska, not far from Missouri River traffic and the 'big cities' of Omaha and Kansas City. These photos are so fascinating and wonderful. Thank you!

Andrew W. Roberts
Norfolk, VA

[We don't know for certain that this photo was taken in Pawnee. - Dave]

Penrod would have killed for this room.

To KimS, This is exactly what a boy's room of the period looked like, perhaps neatened a little for the photo. The playing cards were in fact de rigueur -- a broken pack would have created tons of material to put up, and especially for a schoolboy, but also for college students, implied the "naughtiness" of forbidden adult gambling. Attached is part of a photo from my own collection showing a room in Springfield College from 1903 decorated with playing cards.

[Subtle! - Dave]

--Sorry if I was a bit didactic, but old dorm room photos are one of my collecting specialties. Also, I do not know why the attached photo did not appear. I checked, and it was not too wide (437x291 pixels).

[Click "Edit" at the bottom of this comment. Browse to your photo, click "Attach" and then "Post comment." - Dave]

Re: I Spy

Here in Maine, I have seen many stoves plugged into a fireplace cover. The stovepipe exits in the rear near the top (about opposite from where the word "Sacred" is) and goes straight into a hole in the top of the fireplace cover. It's hidden in this photo.

Likely it is a coal stove, not a wood stove, although that is not certain. I do see a piece of wood leaning against the mantle mantel front next to it but coal stoves need kindling wood to get them going, so who knows?

Also I don't think the fireplace cover is fabric. What looks like a wave in the face of it continues on up over the mantle mantelpiece, leading me to believe it is a stain on the original photograph.

[That's the shadow of the fringe hanging off the M-A-N-T-E-L. This is scanned directly from the negative; a stain on it would show light, not dark. - Dave]

I have seen a number of these fireplace covers with painted designs on them. They are made of metal.

Still, with that fringed curtain hanging low off the mantle mantel top, it is indeed a fire hazard. Like the country folk here, hopefully the photo was made in summer and when the cold winds blow, the combustibles were moved a distance away from the heater.

Some observations

First, the Chair That Is Not To Be Handled is a rocker, perhaps intended to be convertible, perhaps just partially dismantled.

Second, the helmets (save that with the plume or feather) may be firefighters' gear, ceremonial if not quotidian; metal helmets of a military appearance were common for firefighters in France, Britain, and many other countries.

Coupled with the legend on the stove, this suggests that the paterfamilias may have been a fireman, though how such exotic items came to be in the Cornhusker State is not obvious … maybe something to do with the map of France?

Human beings seek to discern patterns, as much mentally as visually, so my reach may well have exceeded my grasp here.

Well ... maybe,

but I was a "frogs and snails and puppy dogs' tails" boy, grew up with three brothers, and raised three sons -- and I don't quite buy the interpretation here. It's just too arranged, too goofy, and just a tad feminine. There's a weird artistic sensibility in evidence here, and maybe a little derangement. What's up with the playing cards on the back of the door?

I hesitate to go further, but it just doesn't look quite like an untampered-with boy's room.

An Old Man Sits Collecting Stamps

In a room all filled with Chinese lamps. He saves what others throw away, says that he'll be rich someday.

-Cake, "Frank Sinatra"

Typical Schoolboy's room

This looks like thousands of old photographs of dorm rooms from colleges and prep schools, although an excellent example of the genre. The boys (and also girls, who however were often neater) would gather all the family castoffs, military campaign souvenirs, photos of actresses, weird signs, and college banners from brothers, fathers and uncles. As you imply, kids could recreate this look in their family homes if necessary.

A fire down below

It looks obvious that stove vents through the back with a hot pipe passing through that piece of cloth over the fireplace if BillyB is wrong. If so ...

Adding all that fabric pinned to the walls and mantle mantel, with all the paper and cloth flag hanging from the ceiling, it's amazing that the whole place didn't go up in flames on the first cold morning of the year.

So that fireman may not have "gone to his last fire" after all.

Wonder Room

True, the preponderance of the materials (and the sign) point to a young man, but the more feminine touches make me wonder: The Chinese parasols, the girl cutout, the many hand fans, the Chinese lanterns, the necklaces, and the bonnets. Perhaps a would-be museum curator? Possibly he spent some time in Asia.

As for identity, besides the "_bert"s Room” sign, the letter on the mantle mantel looks to me to start with a large flourish "Dear Robert." The banner partly obscuring one horseshoe crab and the one on the wall next to Punch both show "88," presumably 1888? That together with the "College" sign at far right could make him (and the photo) a bit older than we think.

The map of France appears to be the 4 provinces of ancient Roman Gaul (except for the added bit of Basque territory I can’t find an equal to).

Theater of the absurd

This looks like it could be the set of some kind of very weird stage play.

The Pith Helmet

There's a pith helmet with a plume in the picture and it looks like and I'm wondering where that might be from or what campaign. I can't seem to readily find a British one like that or any other. According to wikipedia, "The US Army wore blue cloth helmets of the same pattern as the British model from 1881 to 1901 as part of their full dress uniform. The version worn by cavalry and mounted artillery included plumes and cords in the colors (yellow or red) of their respective branches of service." It doesn't look quite like one of those though.

I Spy. .

A rifle stock (probably a .22) sticking out from behind the cloth above the fire place he's hanging all his tchotchkes on.

There isn't a stovepipe from the wood stove. The fireplace behind it is too low. The fireplace is also covered with a piece of cloth. Kind of a fire hazard.


I bitterly resent the posting of this picture of my college dorm room.

My guess

I have to guess that the owner of this room was the child of one of the more eminent citizens of the town--worth noting is that Pawnee City produced Nebraska's first governor, David Butler. My guess, though, is that the banker's son is most likely--someone who had traveled as a young pup.

Old Eighty-Eights

I spied with my little eye a couple of things with "88" on them.I wonder what significance that number holds. Perhaps it was the year he was born, or graduated. Who knows? At any rate, I could waste all day looking at this photo! I love it!

Map of France

At far left.

Mad Magazine, ca. 1910

OK, I know William Gaines's father was only about 16 in 1910, but these guys were operating on the same wavelength. This is an extraordinary picture in that it shows a view of life wholly unlike anything we customarily encounter from this era, e.g., the cityscapes peopled by a formally attired citizenry as they navigate the Main Streets of an ascendant American economy. A picture-book world with everything properly in place.

But looking at Junior's lair, it’s comforting to see a sensibility on display that I believe will be readily familiar to almost any reader of this blog, although perhaps a bit rough-hewn. I can’t speak for today’s (what are we calling them now?), but to this child of the Fifties, it looks really cool. My mother, however, would never have countenanced such rococo anarchy, which is probably why I think it looks cool.

A truly amazing find.

His rocker is off its rockers

I see the notches in his chair legs and the rockers are across the arms. I love his Prussian military helmet collection. It is a great room -- looks like mine when I was about 12. The door must have a STAY OUT sign.

Parasols, Chinese lanterns ...

... not to mention what appear to be old helmets from the Franco-Prussian War, and a halberd. There's also a miniature human skull in a tiny shadow box. Some of these things might even have been stage props. I wonder if this room is in the same house where we met the baby on the floor the other day. If so, a darned interesting family must have lived there, and I'd love to have met them.

Could be Bert

The sign on the right wall could say Robert's room or Herbert's room.
How did he get up to reach the laundry hanging over the sign? I see nothing other than a few rickety chairs and something like a pulley clothesline similar to those seen stretching from tenement to tenement.

Eclectic and eccentric

He certainly had the eye and sensibilities of a collector, as well as a gift for design -- especially collage. I love how he ran out of room on "leavehopebehind" but didn't bother to do it over. All he left out was the hashtag.


There are at least two horseshoe crabs on the wall. Nothing unusual for the Jersey shore but not really abundant in Nebraska.

Animal House 1.0

Has that frat-house parlor vibe.

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