News Archive 2009-2018

A Thimble, and a Tale of Two Phebes Archives

Reported by Amanda Spiller ’17.


Within every object – no matter how unassuming it may be – is a story. The Object Show: Discoveries in Bowdoin’s Collections, on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through June 1, draws from the diverse collections of the College to bring many such stories to light.

For instance, what looks like a simple x-ray image is actually one of the first radiographs taken in North America, showing the fractured ankle of a railroad porter who was shot in the foot in 1896. A messy set of paints turns out to be a watercolor box used by Winslow Homer.

And then there’s the thimble. In a recent gallery talk, Tess Chakkalakal, associate professor of Africana studies and English, and John Cross ’76, secretary of development and college relations, kicked off a discussion series titled “Multiple Perspectives in The Object Show” with a close look at this humble sewing implement.

The particular thimble on exhibit belonged to Phebe Jacobs, a freed slave working on the Bowdoin campus as a seamstress in the early 1800s. “The thimble shows what kind of history an object can tell,” Chakkalakal said. “It’s interesting to trace the story and maybe even reimagine it.”

On display with the thimble is one of the only sources of information on Jacobs’ life – a booklet called Happy Phebe, written by Phebe Upham, wife of a philosophy teacher at Bowdoin. “The objects in this gallery represent an undocumented history,” Cross said. “They tell stories for people who don’t have voices.”booklet The stories embedded in those objects also highlight the intersection of different lives, he said.

In this tale of two Phebes, Jacobs and Upham crossed paths not only with each other but also with luminaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who were on campus at the same time. Cross said that these people likely sat across from each other at church, or passed one another on the way to class and work.

Presented collaboratively by students, faculty, librarians, and curators at the College, The Object Show show steers away from chronology and categorization, noted Sarah Montross, postdoctoral fellow at the museum.  “Each exhibit takes a single object and monumentalizes it,” she said. “Even something like a thimble.”

Two more discussions about the show will be led by faculty members later this semester, on March 25 and April 17. In the meantime, to learn more about the objects and their stories, visit The Object Show‘s blog.