Selected Museum artifacts can be used to teach California history using object-based learning techniques. The selected artifacts represent a variety of historical eras and the list will grow over time. Want to suggest a new artifact? Click here to contact us.
Mansions were destroyed by the great earthquake and ﬁre that
rocked San Francisco on April 18, 1906, but humble
washboards survived. Many who had lost their homes carried
them to the tent city that sprang up in Golden Gate Park.
Contemporary newspaper pictures show these hardy refugees
using the boards within days of the disaster. Washboards were
called “…a great American invention” by the New York Times in
1868, yet some historians claim the device originated in
Scandinavia. The zinc scrubbing panel version was surely an
American invention and was patented by Stephen Manlius in 1833.
Pioneers of the 1800s used molds to make candles. Candles were a
necessity in the days before electricity and the light bulb
and a popular source of light after the sun went down.
Pioneer women had to make their own candles. Up until about the
1850s candles were made of tallow from animal fat. Making
candles was a long process. It would begin with boiling meat over
a hot fi re, to separate the animal fat from the meat and bones.
When the fat, called tallow, became liquid it was ready to be
poured into a mold. The mold had to have a wick inserted before
the tallow could be poured into it. When the tallow cooled, the
candles were removed.
This student desk was used in one-room schoolhouses across
America 100 – 130 years ago. This desk and its story takes
us back to the time when one teacher taught grades one
through eight in one classroom. The desks and their attached
benches were bolted to the ﬂoor in rows facing the
chalkboard at the front of the room.
Used as a tool for counting, the abacus was essential for some
immigrants heading to California during the Gold Rush. This
abacus is on display in the exhibit, Dr. Yee’s Herbal Shop.
Most likely, Dr. Yee brought an abacus with him when he came to
California in 1849 to start an herbal shop. He would have
used it to calculate the price of herbs and other goods.
California, once nicknamed the Bear Flag Republic and now the
Bear Flag State, adopted this bear-shaped object as the
State Prehistoric Artifact in 1991. Chipped from
meta-volcanic rock by California Indians 7,000 to 8,000 years
ago, this artifact resembles a short-faced bear.
Archeologists speculate that it is made by the same chipping
process used to fashion arrowheads and spear points and that its
unique shape suggests it was probably connected to religious
practices. Since its 1985 discovery by a Cypress College
student working on an archeology dig in Southern California,
it has been called the Chipped Stone Bear. It is considered one
of the earliest pieces of art known in the Western United
For thousands of years, man had looked to the heavens and dreamed
of walking on the moon. In 1969, as part of the Apollo 11
mission, Neil Armstrong became the very ﬁrst to accomplish
that dream, followed only minutes later by Buzz Aldrin.
Their accomplishment placed the United States ahead of the
Soviets in the Space Race and gave people around the world
the hope of future space exploration.
In 1900, there were 20 million horses and only 4,000 cars in the
United States. Today, gas stations are everywhere, but when
cars were ﬁ rst invented, gas stations were not yet around.
People bought their gasoline at the general store. They
ﬁlled their own buckets with gasoline and used a funnel to
pour it into the car’s gas tank.
The increase in automobile ownership after Henry Ford started to
sell cars that the middle class could afford resulted in
greater demand for gas. In 1905, about 25,000 cars were
manufactured in the United States and Sylvanus F. Browner
perfected a pump that would take gas out of a barrel and ﬁ
ll a car’s tank. The ﬁrst “ﬁlling stations” started opening
that same year.
Have you ever met a famous person? In 1914, a six-year-old boy
with a broken leg was recuperating in a hospital when he met
the most talked about California Indian, Ishi, who was
thought to be the last surviving member of the Yahi band of
Southern Yana Indians. Ishi gave this handmade glass
arrowhead to the boy as a gift.
The pocket adder, formally called an addometer, was just one of
several items commonly found in a woman’s purse in the
1950s. Pocket adders were used to perform simple
mathematical problems and were primarily used by women
when grocery shopping or paying household bills.
Can you imagine needing some of these, issued by the United
States government, plus money, to buy a pair of shoes? A
tank of gas? A tire for the family car? A pound of butter or
sugar? If you have lived in the United States during World War
II, the answer would have been, “Yes.” Ask your grandparents
The Constitution of the State of California is the document that
establishes and describes the duties, powers, structure and
function of the government of California. The original
constitution was adopted in November 1849 before California
could become a state in 1850. Drafted in just over a month
by a diverse group of delegates, the 19-page Constitution of
1849 outlawed slavery, defined citizenship, secured women’s
separate property rights, made California officially bilingual
with English and Spanish languages, set the state’s
boundaries and established a framework for government. It
guided California for 30 years and even served as a model
for Argentina’s Constitution.
California became the 31st state on September 9, 1850 and the
Bear Flag became the ofﬁcial state ﬂag in 1911. This version
of the Bear Flag was created in 1846 when a group of
American men living in Mexican-controlled Alta California
rebelled against their government.
They created a ﬂag to represent their cause. It is said that
William Todd, nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln, helped with the
creation of the ﬂag. The Bear Flaggers, as they would later
be called, used a piece of cotton and placed a red stripe at the
bottom. They then painted a red star, inspired by the Texas
state ﬂag, the words California Republic and a grizzly bear
to symbolize their determination.
On April 18, 1906, San Francisco was shaken by a powerful
earthquake that was followed by a devastating ﬁre. To
understand the scope of the disaster, newspapers are perhaps
the best primary sources of information because they provide
immediate eyewitness accounts of the events. While
newspapers of that era were never completely accurate,
survivors and their descendants certainly have validated
the intense emotions of those who lived through this
extraordinary part of history.
LOSS IS $200,000! This was a gross underestimate: the losses
actually totaled $400 million, the equivalent of about $6.5
billion in today’s dollars.
Created in the late 1800s, this giant horseshoe may not look like
much, but it revolutionized farming in the California Delta
by allowing more land to be used for agriculture. Even
though Chinese immigrants were not allowed to own land,
laborers from China farmed the marshy land of the Delta and
developed the tule horseshoe to compensate for the difﬁ cult
farming conditions of the region. The soft peat soil of the
Delta was difﬁ cult for horses to work in; they became
bogged down and often they panicked, risking injury to
themselves and their drivers.
A smudge pot is an oil-burning device used to prevent frost on
fruit trees. Generally a smudge pot has a large round base
with a chimney coming out of the middle of the base. Growers
used to place smudge pots between trees in an orchard; the
heat and smoke from the burning oil kept the air just warm
enough to prevent frost from forming on the
trees. Growing citrus is a very big part of California’s
agricultural economy. The Spanish missionaries who founded
the missions in California were some of the ﬁrst people to
grow citrus in the state. With the growth in population during
the Gold Rush, commercial citrus production also grew, to supply
the miners with fresh oranges. Citrus production boomed with the
introduction of refrigerated railroad cars in the 1880s, allowing
the state’s fruit products to be marketed throughout the nation.
With the mass produced and affordable Ford Motor Company’s Model
T and Model A, Americans experienced a freedom to travel
like never before. In the early 1920s, people started
getting in their cars and out of the cities. People wanted
to take off to explore the great United States and especially the
golden West. This was before the establishment of motels
along the roads, so people had to camp when they wanted to
stop for the night. The invention of the Auto Kamp Kook Kit
allowed travelers an easy way to cook their meals at their
campsite. The stove started out with a single burner, and was
advertised as allowing you to “cook anything you wanted!”
70 years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D.
Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which eventually led
to the forced removal of approximately 120,000 Japanese
Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II. These
simple flyers, announcing the relocation of all persons of
Japanese ancestry, were posted across California, Oregon,
Washington and parts of Arizona ordering the evacuation of
people of Japanese ancestry throughout the coastal states.
Along with instructions on where to assemble, the flyers
also stated what a family should and should not bring with
them; among the items not allowed were pets,
household goods, and furniture. Some families had as little
as 24 hours to prepare to leave. They had no idea of where
they were going or how long they would be gone.
Used by Chinese miners and storekeepers to weigh gold dust, herbs
and more, the guitar scale was brought to California by the
tens of thousands of immigrants who came from China during
the Gold Rush. At a time when gold dust was commonly used to pay
for goods and supplies, a guitar scale was a handy tool for
those dealing with the precious substance. They were highly
portable, easy to pack and move from gold ﬁeld to gold ﬁeld.
This sharply pointed, loop-handled metal rod is ﬁtted with a
circular band that held a candle in place and lit the way
for miners working underground in dark hard-rock
mine shafts. When miners required lighting in speciﬁc areas,
they would thrust such rods into the mine’s wall to make a
candleholder. A “Sticking Tommy” could be removed and reused
This little doll, a replica of the one brought across the
prairies and mountains by Patty Reed, symbolizes the
dangerous and difﬁ cult journey made by so many pioneers and
the innocence of the children who made the trip with their
parents. Patty Reed was only 8 years old when her family
left Springﬁ eld, Illinois, to head west to California. The
Reed family was part of the wagon train known today as the Donner
Party. In April 1846, the Donner Party, made up of 33 men,
women and children, headed west in search of a better life,
to start a business or a farmstead. The families used
covered wagons, usually pulled by oxen, to carry their
household items, family treasures and food and supplies for
the trip. The journey was very dangerous because of the limited
amount of basic supplies that could ﬁt in the wagon, the
extreme weather in the winter, and diseases epidemic on the
trail. The Donner Party did not escape these dangers, and
their story would go down in history.
This weathered bell is a early twentieth-century replica of a
mission bell guidepost that once marked the original route
of the El Camino Real, The King’s Highway, during
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These bells gave
travelers the distance to the next town and directions to
the missions. Originally a footpath traveled by the
Franciscan missionaries, El Camino Real reached from San
Diego to Sonoma, connecting California’s 21 missions. Over time,
the small footpath evolved into a busy road wide enough to
accommodate horses and wagons, and is considered to be the
ﬁrst roadway in the state. Today, large portions of Highway 101
follow the original route of El Camino Real.
A Paiute woman made this lightweight and durable water container
basket in 1890. As you can imagine, baskets intended to hold
liquids had to be woven very tightly. Before use, they also
were covered in pine pitch sap and then rolled in dirt to create
a watertight seal. Since there was not a lot of fresh water
readily available for the Paiute people (who live on the dry
eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains), they needed to
store water. This basket would be able to hold enough fresh
water for one person for one day.