From grand to upright to electronic, the piano has undergone a number of reinventions over the past three hundred years as musical tastes and needs have changed. With the start of National Piano Month on September 1, the IDHH would like to explore the history and influence of this versatile instrument on the wide world of music. Most sources point to the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco as the inventor of the early piano. While the exact timeline of Cristofori’s work is murky, he undeniably had mastered the elements of modern piano action and created a piano (the fortepiano) by the early 1700s. While older keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and the harpsichord allowed for either dynamic control over individual notes or access to a loud, resonant sound, Cristofori’s fortepiano was revolutionary because it enabled players’ greater command of the instrument’s expressive tone and volume.
Over the next three centuries, variations in piano shape and design would multiply as renowned composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Frédéric Chopin wrote pieces specifically for the instrument, bringing greater attention and demand for the piano. By the 1860s, the upright piano had become a more practical and accessible musical option for use in private homes, as groups could now listen to simplified piano arrangements of popular music and enjoy an evening of tuneful entertainment together. Further innovations to piano design and construction were developed in the 20th century with the advent of electric and digital instruments, applying the technological advances of the era to the art of music making. Illinois has had its own role in the history of the piano, from William Wallace Kimball’s successful Kimball Piano Company in Chicago, to the numerous talented pianists such as Lillian (Lil) Hardin Armstrong who made Illinois their artistic home and contributed to the vibrant musical culture of the state.
Below are a few of our favorite items featuring the versatility of the piano:
As students return to campus and the Fall academic semester begins, the IDHH is featuring Millikin University, one of our many academic partners. Millikin University is located in Decatur, Illinois, along the Sangamon River and Lake Decatur in Central Illinois, and was founded by businessman James Millikin. Born in 1827, James Millikin grew up the son of a moderately wealthy farmer in Pennsylvania, helping to drive cattle to New York City as a child. While attending Washington College, Millikin vowed to establish a center of learning himself, though this ambition would not become a reality for another 55 years. Known at one point as “the cattle king of the Prairie State” due to his sizeable herds of livestock, James Millikin settled in Decatur in 1856, eventually transitioning into the banking business in 1860. In the last decade of his life James Millikin would finally realize his long-held desire to found an institution of higher education, founding Millikin University in 1901.
From the start, Millikin University operated under the philosophy of providing an education that combines theory with practice, embracing James Millikin’s wish for a university that would emphasize the practical side of learning. Today, this approach is embodied in Millikin University’s rich tradition of Performance Learning. Through various hands-on, real-world experiences, Performance Learning prepares students for life post-graduation, honoring James Millikin’s vision of students living out their learning. Digital collections shared with the IDHH of the university’s student-run newspaper, The Decaturian, and of select School of Music Programs illustrate just a few of the many unique ways in which Millikin University students perform their knowledge, while the Big Blue Photograph Collection offers snapshots of the history of the university.
Here are a few of our favorite Millikin University items from their collections (including a delightful April Fool’s issue of The Decaturian):
A staple lunchbox food, picnic addition, or food on the go, the sandwich is so ubiquitous these days that we might eat or make one without ever stopping to wonder about the history of this versatile dish. With August as National Sandwich Month, the IDHH would like to highlight this humble entrée and the many ways it’s permeated our everyday culture. While something resembling the sandwich has most likely existed since the consumption of meat and bread began, legend has it that John Montagu, 4th earl of Sandwich, once dined on sliced meat and bread while playing at a gaming table so that he could continue to play as he ate. Indeed, the name was adopted in the 18th century for the earl, but probably due to his requests for the dish in London society or perhaps from a penchant of his to eat sandwiches while working at his desk. Regardless, Montagu’s social status lent the food credibility, and the sandwich soon became fashionable fare on the European continent.
The food item’s simplicity and versatility allow it to be a suitable choice in a variety of environments. Just as welcome in the lunchbox of an elementary school student as a busy professional, the sandwich can be arrayed in a myriad of ways, dressed up for foodies or made as plainly as possible. The World War II poster featuring the character “Jenny on the job” illustrates how the sandwich was used as part of an appeal to a sense of manliness and competence for female workers stepping into roles traditionally filled by men, who were overseas fighting in the war. As versatile as the food itself, the word “sandwich” may also refer to non-food items as well, such as the town of Sandwich, Illinois, the Sandwich Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the sandwich mathematical theorem.
Have are a few of our favorite sandwich-related items from the collection:
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Along the Mississippi River, across from St. Louis, Missouri, lies Madison County, Illinois. Part of the Metro-East region comprising various counties on both sides of the Mississippi River, Madison County is home to a number of cities, villages, and townships that speak to the larger history of the state of Illinois and the land on which it stands. Established on September 14, 1812, the county was named for President James Madison and initially included the modern state of Illinois north of St. Louis as well as all of Wisconsin, part of Minnesota, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Over time, this enormous jurisdiction would be reduced to its present size of 741 square miles. An industrial region since the late 1800s, the area was first populated by the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Native American Mississippian culture – Cahokia. Containing about 80 humanmade earthen mounds near Collinsville, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is now a National Historic Landmark and one of the 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the United States.
In the last 250 years, Madison County’s advantageous position next to the Mississippi River has allowed it to bear witness to a variety of notable people and events in United States history. Camp Dubois, the winter camp and launch-point for the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1803, lies within the county, as did the original City Hall in Alton, which hosted the last of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates on October 15, 1858. The Madison County Historical Society seeks to preserve the wonderful history of the county through their mission of “Opening Doors to Madison County History.” The digital collections shared with the IDHH certainly fulfill this mission, as they provide insight into the lives of 19th-century women through a series of private letters (Private and Real), the experiences of an American nurse serving in France during World War I (In Her Own Words), and the ways in which Madison County has changed over the years (Picturing the History of Madison County).
Join us in offering a warm welcome to the Madison County Historical Society, and enjoy a few of our favorite items from their collections below:
As the weather and humidity in central Illinois make it feel more and more like the temperature is over 100°F outside, the IDHH is highlighting the proverbial “dog days” of summer. While the phrase “dog days” or “dog days of summer” might be somewhat familiar, just what are these days and how did this expression enter our cultural lexicon? From an astronomical point of view, the phrase refers to the annual phenomenon in which the bright star Sirius rises into the sky at the same time as the Sun. This heliacal rising allows viewers to see both the Sun and the Sirius star simultaneously, leading to the belief that Sirius intensified or added to the Sun’s heat. In the Northern Hemisphere, this simultaneous rising may be seen during the hottest months of the year, in July and August.
Hellenistic astrologers in the Mediterranean were aware of the star Sirius, calling it the “Dog Star” due to the way it followed the constellation Orion into the night sky. The sweltering and humid weather in the Mediterranean during these months would often cause people to fall ill, and so the connection was made between Sirius’ heliacal rising and its effect on the populations below. A variety of detrimental effects to human activities were attributed with Sirius’ rising such as lethargy, fever, and bad luck, as well as the belief that this hot period brought out madness in dogs, further reinforcing the notion of the “dog days”. While we may no longer blame a summer fever on the “dog days of summer”, there is no denying the potent influence of a heat wave in July to inspire lazy dreams of a nice afternoon spent on the water. Between numerous lakes and ponds, miles of river, and spots like Navy Pier on the shores of Lake Michigan, Illinoisians have plenty of ways to cool down during the hot summer.
Below are a few of our favorite items highlighting ways to enjoy the “dog days of summer” and beat the heat:
As temperatures warm and days get ever longer, the sounds of bees buzzing past and birds chirping in the trees indicate not only the arrival of summer, but also the height of the plant pollination period. June 1st marked the beginning of National Pollinators Month, recognizing these creatures and the crucial role they play in the larger system of plant reproduction and proliferation. Pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, encompassing such diverse animals as insects, birds, and even some mammals. These animals travel from one flower or plant to another, carrying pollen as they go, and fertilizing flora with each new plant they visit. The symbiotic dynamic between these plants and pollinators is vital to both groups, as pollinators eat the pollen or nectar for its nutritional content, while the plants rely on the pollinators to spread their pollen, aiding in reproduction.
The importance of this intricate process and the players within it has captivated human populations for centuries as butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators have been ascribed cultural significance and symbolism in various communities around the world. Such cultural significance persists today as we create entertainment like The Bee Movie that foregrounds pollinators, hold events such as the Aurora Pollinator Festival that highlight the role of pollinators, and design outdoor environments that offer ideal conditions for these animals. Indeed, as our climate changes there is a greater need than ever to create pollinator-friendly landscapes using pollinator-friendly practices. By providing habitats conducive to pollinator animals, we can simultaneously safeguard this essential process and beautify the natural world around us.
Below are a few of our favorite items featuring one of the most popular pollinators – the honey bee:
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With summer just around the corner, the IDHH is pleased to feature the Archive Collection from one of our newest contributors, Prairie State College. A two-year community college founded in 1957 as Bloom Township Junior College, the college offered its first classes in 1958 in the basement of the First Christian Church in Chicago Heights. From these humble beginnings, Prairie State College has emerged as a vital part of the Chicago Heights community, now spanning 130 acres and serving over 20 different communities in the diverse area once known as “the Crossroads of the Nation”. The first community college in Illinois to guarantee that all credits would transfer to other colleges and universities in the state, Prairie State College now offers degrees and certificates in more than 100 fields of study, from liberal arts subject areas to technical and career disciplines.
The extensive Archive Collection at Prairie State College provides a look at the rich history of the community college, from its earliest days as Bloom Township Junior College and into the 21st century. Of particular note are items in the collection that focus on the various technical and career programs available at the college. Images of students working under car hoods, on dental patients’ mouths, and with nursing equipment reflect the practical experiences of students in the Automotive Technology, Dental Hygiene, and Nursing programs respectively. In addition to these photographs, the Archive Collection contains items featuring the expansion of the campus and construction of campus buildings, the day-to-day events and happenings of the college, and the achievements and recognition of Prairie State College students.
The IDHH warmly welcomes Prairie State College, and we hope you enjoy perusing their collection as much as we do! Here are a few of our favorite items:
The Illinois Digital Heritage Hub is proud to announce the launch of a new Digital Exhibits site! Curated from items in the IDHH collections, these digital exhibits highlight and contextualize the unique collections in the IDHH and provide insight into topics relevant to Illinois and national history.
We invite viewers to explore these exhibits and learn more about the materials and topics in the IDHH collections. Viewers can use the navigation links at the bottom of the Exhibit pages to read through the narration, as well as click on the images within the Exhibits to see a larger version and learn more about the item.
A special thanks to our providers, whose contributions make the IDHH possible; to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, for hosting the Omeka S platform for the Exhibits site; and to the IDHH Graduate Students Holly Peterson and Caleb Britton, whose work on the exhibits is fantastic and essential!
With spring coming into full bloom, the IDHH would like to feature one of our earliest contributors, Monmouth College, and their unique collection of Greek life dance cards. Located in Western Illinois in the city of Monmouth, the college was founded in 1853 by Scotch-Irish pioneers affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Notably, the College accepted women and students of color from its earliest days, being one of the first U.S. higher education institutions to do so. In fact, the College found itself with a primarily female student body shortly after its establishment, as virtually the entire male student body left for military service in the Civil War. Not to be outdone by the campus societies formed by male veterans returning to the College after the war, Monmouth College is home to Pi Beta Phi, the nation’s first “women’s fraternity” (what we would now call a sorority).
Spanning nearly 30 years, the Dance Card Collection is a testament to the vibrant Greek life at Monmouth College and the rich social history of groups like Pi Beta Phi and Kappa Kappa Gamma, two early sororities known as the “Monmouth Duo”. Popular in European ballrooms during the 18th century, dance cards were originally used by women to record the names of dance partners at formal balls. They typically consisted of a booklet with a decorative cover and a decorative cord by which it could be attached to the wrist or clothing. The booklet might include sections providing details about the event menu and music, patrons and other featured guests, and most importantly, blank lines where dance partners’ names could be “penciled in”. In the hands of young college students, the dance cards reflect their owner’s individual personality as well as the variety and playfulness of the dance cards created for specific dances in campus Greek life such as the Rose Formal or the Holly Hop.
Below are a few of our favorite items from the Dance Card Collection at Monmouth College:
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Visit the IDHH to view even more items in the Dance Card Collection from Monmouth College, as well as items related to the pastime and art of dancing.