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News Boxes of history

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Art conservation students work with artifacts for School of Nursing

Students in an art conservation class at the University of Delaware are helping to catalog and preserve mid-century nursing artifacts.

Sometimes a shoebox is just a box that holds shoes, and sometimes it’s a place to store memorabilia long after the shoes are gone. 

But sometimes a shoebox offers up both shoes and memories.

When Karissa Muratore, an art conservation major at the University of Delaware, received an old shoebox in a class on the care and preservation of cultural property, she opened it and found the pair of white nursing oxfords, size 6AA, indicated on the label. The shoes, from a company called The Clinic Shoe, provided her with a glimpse into the attire of the profession five decades ago. 

But what she found at the bottom of the box — a metal pin and a paper nursing license — opened the door for her to learn more about the woman who had worn the shoes decades ago, Mrs. Mary Ellen Thomas Wix. 

Further research led Muratore to Wix’s 2012 obituary, where she discovered that the former owner of the now-dingy oxfords was born and raised in Harrington, Delaware, and that she had graduated from the Delaware Hospital School of Nursing, now Christiana Care, in 1954. 

Anniversary gifts

The shoe project was part of a collaboration with UD’s School of Nursing, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. 

With the anniversary approaching, Anne DeCaire, recruitment officer in the School of Nursing, watched as her office began to fill up with memorabilia, including uniforms, hats, pins, photos, slides, documents and medical instruments.

“We decided to strategically catalog, digitize, and preserve these historic items for the next 100 years of nursing,” DeCaire says.

She and business student Kelsey Maloney, who is helping to plan the anniversary events, reached out to Vicki Cassman and Joelle Wickens in the Department of Art Conservation for help. Wickens incorporated the nursing projects into the requirements for the ARTC 302 class this spring.

“We can teach the course from a theoretical perspective, but working with these artifacts made it so much better for the students,” Wickens says. “When we do it this way, it’s a much stronger educational opportunity, and it gives the School of Nursing information they can use.”

Boxes inside boxes

On April 23, the nine students in the class shared the stories of the artifacts they had been given to research. The presentations included the history and current condition of the objects as well as the students’ recommendations for future handling, storage, and display.

Muratore wasn’t the only one with a box full of stories.

Sophie Coco received a pair of white leather nursing shoes in a box that originally held a pair of casual shoes made by a different company. 

“We’re recommending that the shoes and the box be kept together as one donation,” Coco said. “The box is from the same time period as the shoes, so it offers a historical context for the objects.”

That box also held a Sprague stethoscope, patented in 1926, which was researched and presented by Yan Ling Choi.

Laura Campbell worked on what she called the “box of wonders,” which contained layer upon layer of nursing hats, hairnets, scrub caps, and special bobby pins to hold them in place. The box was from Kay’s Caps, which was launched in Troy, New York, in 1948 and is still in business today.

Jackie Esposito’s box, fittingly marked with the label of a store called “Things Remembered,” was filled with yet more boxes, all containing slides and film from the 1960s and ’70s. One set of slides, used in a 1972 lecture on the history of nursing at UD, displayed enrollment data from the era.

“These materials provide a unique opportunity for display and research, but in order to use them for this purpose, we need to protect them against agents of deterioration,” Esposito said. “They can’t be exhibited in their current form, so I recommend digitizing them.”

Students learn stories of fashion versus function

The School of Nursing, preparing for its 50th anniversay, amassed a collection of artifacts including mid-century uniforms.

Nursing uniforms across the decades also have stories to tell. 

Emma Vitello worked with a dress in a filmy synthetic fabric that suggested the item might have been a surgical or quarantine overgarment. The fitted dress mirrored the style of 1940s fashions.

Heather Coiner-Fernandez researched a white nursing uniform with a blue-and-white-striped bib and trim that also belonged to Wix, the owner of the white oxfords in Muratore’s box.

The red and black cape given to Gabrielle Dawley would have been worn over a uniform when the nurse went to and from her job. The cape was adorned with a pin from Wix’s alma mater, the Delaware Hospital School of Nursing.

The caps, pins, and uniforms all told the story of where a nurse earned her degree, where she worked, or in some cases, her military rank. 

And the uniforms themselves showed the evolution from the 1800s, when nurses wore dresses in the style of the day with just an apron for cleanliness and a hat to denote their profession, to the purely practical blue and green scrubs worn by both male and female nurses today. In between, in the middle of the 20th century, the uniforms, as shown in the three pieces shared by the student conservators, were a blend of fashion and practicality.

Caps for sale

Brianna Connaghan’s artifact, a scrapbook from the 1990s, depicted newspaper clippings, photographs, and brochures collected to commemorate the School of Nursing’s 30th anniversary in 1996.

Although she was gratified to learn about the legacy of nursing at UD from her work on the album, she was also excited to hear about Kay’s Caps from Campbell’s presentation.

“I have a friend who’s a nursing major in the Class of 2016,” she said. “I’m going to order her a hat for a graduation present.”

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UD's School of Nursing asked art conservation students to help research and care for a collection of uniforms and other memorabilia.

UD's School of Nursing, marking its 50th anniversary next year, turned to art conservation students to help research and care for a collection of memorabilia, including uniforms, photos and medical instruments.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489