Indian Clubs, drawing by Mary Warner
Indian Clubs, drawing by Mary Warner

Sshh! Don’t tell anyone. Every once in a while, I get something wrong. At the museum, my age has a lot to do with this. I’m simply too young to have much personal experience with some of our artifacts, which occasionally leads to interesting misinterpretations. Following is a case in point.

For this year’s showcase exhibit, we are using the theme, “Exploration: Land, Water, Air”. The theme foreshadows next year’s 200th Anniversary of Lt. Zebulon Pike’s exploration up the Mississippi River and through Morrison County. To illustrate the theme, I scoured our collections rooms for artifacts relating to land, water and air. For land, the exhibit includes surveying equipment, a book displaying exotic European lands, maps, and a gravel test kit. Water artifacts include swimsuits, a model Larson boat, shells, and a sprinkler. The air section showcases toy paper airplanes; Bertyl Lindquist’s flying suit, goggles and helmet liner; aerial photos of the county; and some Lindbergh pins.

When I was setting up the exhibit, I discovered that I needed another three-dimensional artifact for air and went back to the collections rooms. I found a pair of wooden juggling clubs, which I felt was the perfect double entendre for air because, if they are used correctly, that’s where they’ll spend most of their time. As I finished the exhibit, I wondered how many people would get the joke.

The exhibit has been up for most of the year and, until the end of September, no one had commented on the juggling clubs. One day, a couple came to the front desk with a question about our Exploration exhibit. The husband wondered about an artifact that seemed incongruous with its surrounding items. I followed the couple to the air case and the man pointed out the juggling clubs. From the vibe they were sending, I knew that I had made a mistake and was now going to learn what it was.

The man explained that the clubs were not for juggling. He knew this because he and his wife collect these curios. In fact, not only were they not for juggling, they were the very antithesis of air. The bowling pin-like artifacts were called Indian clubs and were used for weight training. The man continued, with periodic interjections from his wife, and told me that Indian clubs came in various weights, just like barbells. Unlike barbells, however, they were swung in complex circular motions to build the body. The clubs originated in India and traveled west after Britain colonized the country. America eventually picked up on the craze and the Spalding sporting goods company produced the clubs in this country. The British version of the clubs had rounded bottoms because they were hung up when not in use. The American version had flat bottoms. The Indian clubs in our collections have flat bottoms and a natural wood finish with four incised rings around them. The visitors said that they have some beautifully painted clubs in their collection. Mostly, the decorative ones were hand-painted after they were purchased.

Even though the couple pointed out that I was dead wrong about the Indian clubs, I was grateful that I’d goofed. Sometimes mistakes lead to greater understanding and these artifacts sounded more fascinating than my original interpretation led me to believe. The first question that popped to mind was, “Why didn’t I know what these artifacts were called?”

Normally, when we pull an artifact for exhibit, we find the accession number on the item and go back to the accession record to see what we can learn. Some very early artifacts have little more than the name of an item in the accession record. Over time, museum staff has been more careful to collect additional history on an artifact when it is donated. Some items in our collections are unaccessioned and, thus, have no number. Were the Indian clubs unaccessioned? Ann Marie and I decided to check it out. We opened the display case and examined the clubs. They did have a number, but it was so faint we could barely see it. Once we deciphered the number, we discovered from the accession record that the clubs were donated in 1948 by Val Kasparek. This was quite early in the history of the Historical Society and Val was our first director. The accession record reads, “Athletic Swinging Clubs or Indian Clubs, 1893”.

To further confirm what our visitors had told me, I did some research on the Internet. I was able to verify most of the information they had given me. In addition, I discovered that British soldiers were the first to adopt Indian clubs as a form of martial arts. As club swinging exercises became popular outside of the military, they were often done to music and women enjoyed the sport. Used as regular exercise, club swinging promised to build arm and wrist strength, promote better posture, open the lungs, and develop bodily grace and mental harmony. Indian clubs are apparently making a come-back as they can be purchased online. Some of the newer versions are made of metal rather than wood. One website even suggested a method for making Indian clubs by purchasing two plastic baseball bats, making a hole in the tops of the handles, filling the bats with sand, and plugging the holes with epoxy.

The Internet also made me feel a bit better about being wrong. One site, called The Secret World of Indian Clubs by Tom Black, says, “Sadly, clubs are sometimes sold and mislabeled as “juggling” pins, which is odd considering that they are usually in pairs of two, but jugglers prefer at least three pins.” The number of clubs never dawned on me as a clue to their use. In fact, when our visitors started collecting Indian clubs, they, too, had difficulty with the numbers. They would only purchase one club, instead of a set. Now they know and we know and all is well in the world of Indian clubs.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2004, Morrison County Historical Society

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