There will come a time when car keys are considered weird relics of a bygone era. Fidget spinners, too, will be looked at with confusion. And what's a flash drive?
Once upon a time, everything in Connecticut Historical Society's exhibit titled "That's Weird" was not considered weird. A corpse preserver? Of course. It kept corpses from decomposing while awaiting the funeral.
A walking cane made from shark vertebrae? What else were bored sailors supposed to do for a hobby except collect the leftovers of sea creatures?
A leisure suit? Well, fashion has its own laws.
The exhibit compiles more than 70 pieces from the museum's collections that have caused visitors or employees to scratch their heads or laugh out loud.
Ilene Frank, chief curator at the Hartford museum, thought it would be fun to assemble them all into one place. Showing "weird" items tells a story about history and the inside story of running a historical museum, she says. That's why the rest of the exhibit's title is "History is Strange: Take a Second Look."
"We've been collecting pieces since the 1840s. Some records don't tell us why we acquired things," Frank says. "You could look at stuff that's just really odd but if you go deeper than that emotional reaction and learn the context and the history, it may not be so odd."
Frank's scholarly analysis aside, some of the objects are quite bizarre. Why did James Wilbraham of Enfield, who lost his toes during the Civil War, create drawings chronicling the deterioration of his feet, starting with black toes and ending with bloody holes where those toes used to be?
"He was watching himself physically change. They didn't have access to the medicine we have today," Frank says. "It also tells of the horrors of war. He lost his toes to frostbite. He wasn't wounded in battle."
Hats decorated with dead birds — not just feathers, but whole birds — were popular in the early 1900s. A chic lady's chapeau is on exhibit in one gallery, telling a story about environmental activism. Bird conservationists became outraged by the fashion, fearing that it would lead to extinctions of flamboyantly feathered birds. They dubbed the trend "murderous millinery." The trend faded away.
Another fashionable historical quirk was the "bustle doll," a doll constructed in the 19th century with exaggerated and inaccurate physical characteristics — including an enormous bottom and deep dents in the back of her knees — so that it would look good wearing tiny dresses that require a bustle.
"People talk about Barbie being all out of proportion," Frank says. "If this was a real woman, she wouldn't be able to stand up."
"Davis & Kidder's Patent Magneto-Electric Machine for Nervous Diseases," a specious contraption made in 1854, was advertised as a way to relieve pain as well as cure cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes, gangrene, heart disease, lockjaw and spinal deformities. It sits near "Egyptian tooth powder," made from ox hooves, ashes, burnt eggshells and pumice.
Some items defy explanation: A print of a monkey smoking a hookah pipe? An inexplicable collage depicting two girls in a river, one of them kneeling in the water and the other holding a paddle on a stick?
"I can't explain it. I don't understand it," Frank says.
Other items have enormous historical significance, such as one of the five flags that was in President Lincoln's box in Ford's Theater the night he was assassinated. The weirdness in that item is how it got into the CHS collections in the first place, as it has no connection to Connecticut.
Still others are just funky and funny, even from present day.
Such as this item, which may irritate die-hard fans of the Hartford Yard Goats: the head of Chompers, one of the two mascots of the minor-league ball team. Some people love the big, toothy fake goat. Others will agree: That goat-guy is weird.
THAT'S WEIRD: HISTORY IS STRANGE, TAKE A SECOND LOOK is at Connecticut Historical Society, One Elizabeth St. in Harford, until April 28. Admission is $12, $10 seniors, $8 students and youth, free on the first Saturday of the month. chs.org.