Collective Voice: Gumshoe

Not telling.

Spoiler alert: DDT sprayer, 1960s. CHF Collections.

Collective Voice, a new column by CHF’s collections staff, offers an inside look at outside objects - artifacts and photographs you won't find in our museum. It appears the second Friday of each month.

As the registrar at CHF, I sometimes come across things in the object collection that are a total mystery. In my opinion, these are some of the best finds, because they mean I get to play detective and try to figure out what the object is and what it was used for.

Take, for example, the item at right, which I puzzled over lately. At first glance it looks like a storage container, possibly for gases, but upon further inspection you’ll notice it has spaces for straps to be attached to the side. It also has a hollow attachment with a wide spout that can be hooked to the other side; it seems this is some type of tank that was meant to be carried. It turns out that the knob at the top can be pushed back, revealing a space for something to be inserted through the top and into the large center compartment. So far, so good - but no Eureka moments.

A Google search using the manufacturer’s name and “portable tank” came up with nothing useful, so I went to the archives of the person that had donated the object. From those documents, I pieced together that what I had found was a type of insecticide sprayer that could be worn on a person’s back, to be used while walking through a field or garden. According to the archives, this sprayer was specifically used to spray DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) for scientific testing and monitoring. Our sprayer was missing the harness and the actual sprayer mechanism, which would have been attached through that hole in the top.

When something is easily identified and you can find its Wikipedia page with the click of a mouse, it takes the fun out of discovering all the weird and interesting side stories that didn’t make it into the official history. And as I can attest, solving a mystery never gets old, whether it’s from Nancy Drew or your own personal collection of “stuff.” Perhaps it’s because objects, especially ambiguous ones like the sprayer I found, help us understand more about the multiform processes of discovery and innovation.

Rosie Cook is Registrar and Assistant Curator at CHF.

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Posted In: Technology

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