History of the Collection

Historic image of the Academy of Science, the original name of the Putnam Museum.

Mon – Sat: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sun: Noon – 5 p.m.

Mon – Sat: 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sun: Noon – 5 p.m.


The Putnam Museum and Science Center was established on December 14, 1867, as the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences. Between 1865 and 1866, the idea of forming such a society had been discussed among a small group of like-minded individuals—A. U. Barler, Alfred Sanders, William Riepe, Prof. D. S. Sheldon, Dr. C. C. Parry, A. S. Tiffany and W. H. Pratt. A trip by Pratt to Ottawa, Illinois, in the spring of 1867, where he made the acquaintance of members of that city’s natural science academy, encouraged the group to attempt to establish a similar institution for Davenport. 

Mr. L. T. Eads, a local real estate agent, offered the use of his office at the southeast corner of Third and Perry streets, to house the group’s collections and serve as a meeting place. Pratt would later write, “So on Saturday evening, Dec. 7, 1867, Mr. Barler, Mr. Eads and myself met by appointment at Mr. Eads’s office to consult upon the ways and means, the possibilities and probabilities, and as to what we would dare to undertake, thinking that its success might depend somewhat upon the character of the first movement made. We had been unable to enlist men of means in the enterprise; we had no direct assurances of aid from any source; we knew that in a majority of cases where such a project was attempted, the interest died out after a short time, and the enterprise failed for what [want] of internal energy and persistence, and outside recognition and support.” Fearing they might be overwhelmed in their initial endeavor, they did not openly advertise their first meeting, but chose to personally invite a group of men whom they felt would likely join their project. 

On the evening of December 14, 1867, Barler, Eads, Tiffany and Pratt met and proceeded to organize a scientific society, adopting the form of constitution and by-laws of the Ottawa Academy and electing officers to serve for six months. The private collections of Barler, Tiffany, Eads, Sheldon, Riepe and Pratt formed the basis of the newly-minted Academy’s collection. In addition, Mrs. Alfred Sanders contributed her recently-deceased husband’s cabinet of minerals, fossils and recent shells to the endeavor, and others soon followed her lead.

Black and white historic exhibits, with rows of glass cases from the original Putnam Museum location.

In January 1868, the Academy received its first donation from outside the immediate area, a collection of crinoid fossils from Enoch May of Burlington, Iowa. That year also marked the first exchange with another institution, the Natural History Society of Portland, Maine. In early spring, they were offered a portion of the room occupied by the Young Men’s Library Association on the northeast corner of Brady and Second streets, Davenport, and Pratt began moving the Academy’s ever-growing collection to this new home in March of that year.

In 1869, Joseph Duncan Putnam and his mother, Mary Louisa Duncan Putnam (Mrs. Charles E. Putnam), were elected to membership in the Academy. Mrs. Putnam was the first woman elected to regular membership. Mrs. Sanders had been elected as an honorary member the previous year; her membership was transferred to the list of “corresponding members” upon changes in the Academy’s constitution. 

Although only a teenager, by the time J. D. Putnam joined the Academy, he had already assembled a large and significant collection of insects, minerals and geological specimens. He later participated in expeditions to Yellowstone, Colorado and Utah, and published investigations on bark lice and the Solpugidae before his death, at the age of 26, in 1881. Many of his collections remain with the museum today. 

Cicada collection from J.D. Putnam

While an academy of “natural sciences” in name, the Academy almost immediately began collecting historical artifacts as well. Civil War-era and other weapons; confederate and foreign currency; indenture agreements, books, and even a set of burglary tools, found their way into the early museum’s holdings.

Between 1872 and 1874, the Academy moved a number of times, finally taking up residence in a room in the Odd Fellows Building. A year later they rented an additional room there which they quickly filled as well. It was around this time that an array of prehistoric Mississippian material began to pour into the Academy’s collection halls. Collected along the lower Mississippi River by Wilfred P. Hall, a retired riverboat captain, these donations continued until the turn of the century. Captain Hall was one of the most picturesque characters associated with the Academy. Known as “the old man in a skiff,” he devoted himself to sailing up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries, distributing bibles and other religious tracts and collecting prehistoric relics. 

Historic stoneware bowl with an animal head and tail

The American archaeological community was astounded in 1877 with the news that Rev. Jacob Gass, a member of the Academy, had unearthed two engraved slate tablets from an ancient burial mound site southwest of Davenport, Iowa. One tablet depicts a funeral pyre atop a mound with rows of “text” while the other incorporates crude images of animals, including something that looks like an elephant. The discovery fed the debate over the origins of the Mound Builders. Many at that time did not believe that Native Americans could possibly be the descendants of the people responsible for creating the gigantic earthworks found scattered throughout the eastern United States. The tablets were used as evidence to support that belief since there were no known native written languages in the United States. The nation squared off with some believing the tablets authentic and others believing them frauds. Articles and rebuttals appeared in all the major popular science and archaeological journals of the day. In the end, the Mound Builders were determined to be Native Americans, rather than some lost foreign population, and the tablets a fraud. 

There is some evidence to suggest that the tablets were created to embarrass Rev. Gass and that the “joke” simply got out of hand. Whatever their origins, the tablets helped spur a change in archaeological excavating practices. The days of haphazardly opening mounds gave way to a more scientific approach with detailed documentation of both the physical aspects of sites and the objects found during excavations.

Ancient black tablet with white markings, from the Putnam collection


Through the tireless efforts of Mrs. Putnam, the Academy acquired property at the corner of 7th and Brady streets and raised sufficient funds to build a museum. The new Academy building opened its doors in February, 1878. Mrs. Putnam was later instrumental in the Academy’s acquiring the Presbyterian Church next door to the new museum, doubling its space. 

Black and white photo of the original location of the Putnam Museum, featuring tower on a cobblestone street with a historic car parked on the street.

With C. C. Parry as one of the leading proponents of the Academy, it is not surprising that plant collections made their way almost immediately into the museum. A collection of plants from the vicinity of Buffalo, New York, received from G. W. Clinton in February 1869, was one of the earliest to arrive. In 1880, the Academy received from Francis Koch a collection containing 1500 specimens of pressed plants from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the North Atlantic Coast. Over time, the museum’s herbarium holdings would grow substantially with the acquisition of large collections from W. L. Barnes, W. W. Calkins, F. K. Reppert, Prof. Shimek, Serano Watson, E. A. Ross, Naomi Melville and Dr. L. F. Guldner, culminating in the acquisition in 2002 of the herbarium of Marycrest International University.

Marine and freshwater mollusks were of interest to several of the Academy founders. Prof. Sheldon and W. H. Pratt provided collections of local and foreign shells, and during the 1870s and 1880s, W. W. Calkins donated several large freshwater mollusk collections to the Academy, the largest of which included over 850 specimens. One of the more interesting early collections was obtained from S. S. Barr in 1880 consisting of “exceedingly small shells: the young of several species inhabiting our waters.” In December 1900, the Academy received the entire contents of Griswold College’s cabinet, including its extraordinary shell collection. 

By the end of the 19th century, the Academy’s acquisitions consisted of collections from professional and amateur scientists alike. Historical objects were being donated by citizens interested in preserving the history of the region and its people, and the collections expanded in other directions as gifts were received from local world travelers such as C. A. Ficke and members of the Putnam family. Ficke, a Davenport attorney, traveled throughout Mexico and Peru gathering pre-Columbian artifacts. His collection of Nazca pottery was acquired in 1911 when there were only three museums in the world with similar holdings. Ficke also collected widely in Egypt, Italy, Greece, Japan and China, bringing back many artifacts from these civilizations to support the educational opportunities of the museum. 

Red stoneware bowl featuring three bowls connected with an animal head decoration, from the Putnam collection.

In 1914, noted anthropologist Truman Michelson assisted in the acquisition of a collection of Mesquakie (Fox) objects gathered at the Tama Settlement. That same year, Charles J. Beenck donated a large collection of local archaeological material (mostly projectile points). Other Native American collections were donated by Miss Elizabeth Duncan Putnam and William Clement Putnam, including his valuable collection of Native American baskets. 

In 1920, Capt. Walter P. Blair donated his steamboat photograph collection and archives as well as a large wooden eagle carved in 1845 that purportedly adorned the steamship Grey Eagle, commanded by Captain Daniel Smith Harris. The eagle recently underwent extensive conservation and repair at the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) in Minneapolis. The Museum also acquired the records from the Frances Black General Store, in business from 1830-1890, containing 24 linear-feet of original manuscripts that document the early settlement and steamboating era of the Upper Mississippi.

Capt. Walter P. Blair steamboat eagle from the original Putnam Museum.
Capt. Walter P. Blair steamboat eagle in it's current location in the Putnam Museum.

Fig. 8. Carved wooden eagle before (left) and after (right) conservation. The process included stripping off layers of paint to reveal the details of the carving beneath.

The Academy changed its name in 1927 to the Davenport Public Museum in recognition of the institution’s development as a “public museum of science, history and art.” Since that time, the Museum has focused its collecting on objects, artifacts and specimens from eastern Iowa and western Illinois. This emphasis on the collections and interests of local citizens has enabled the museum to remain relevant to changing generations while documenting the cultural heritage and environmental history of our unique region. 

In 1927 a series of Friendship Dolls (tôrei-ningyô) were sent to the United States in response to the gift of over 12,000 dolls sent by American children to the children of Japan for the annual March Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri). After traveling the country the friendship dolls were placed with each of the then 48 states. Miss Bernice Ludien, General Secretary of the Young Women’s Christian Association of Davenport, was asked to find a museum to adopt the Iowa doll. In 1929, Miss Hokkaido arrived at the Davenport Public Museum to begin her tenure as Japanese Doll Ambassador to Iowa. A truly international treasure, Miss Hokkaido returned to Japan in 1988 for some much-needed conservation and was reunited in a tour of Japan with 20 of her sister Friendship Dolls.

Collection of Asian artifacts featuring four shiny black boxes with multiple drawers and gold textures and trim.

Preserving the early history of the region was definitely part of the museum’s mission during the 20th century. Furniture, personal items and documents belonging to Davenport pioneer Antoine LeClaire were obtained by the museum in the late 1940s, and additional items and documents associated with Antoine and his wife Marguerite have subsequently been added over time. As recently as 2010 the museum acquired a business agreement between Antoine LeClaire, George L. Davenport and Mr. Norva, dated January 1, 1853, about a brassworks.

In 1961 the museum set the cornerstone for a new building at 12th and Division streets in Davenport, and in October 1964 the museum opened in its new home. In 1965 a gift from the B. J. and Mabel H. Palmer Memorial Trust added over 2,000 artifacts and objects to the collection, and a new wing was added to the museum building to house and display the collection. Representing the broad and varied interests of B. J. Palmer, the President of the Palmer School of Chiropractic and internationally recognized as the developer of chiropractic, the donation strengthened established areas of the museum’s collections and provided important documentation on the life and travels of one of the region’s most prominent families. The Palmer bequest included a mummy and the sarcophagus of Isis Neferit (an Egyptian temple chantress), as well as art objects, archaeological, ethnological and natural history material from more than 20 countries. 

Colorful red, blue and gold beaded Egyptian necklace from the Putnam collection.

From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Mr. V.O. Figge donated taxidermy mounts of big game animals, representing his travels to Africa and other continents. A number of these can be seen today in dioramas in the museum’s Hall of Mammals. During that same time period, Gene McGreevy presented the museum with a major collection of political memorabilia. From posters to buttons, event tickets to paperweights, the collection encompasses memorabilia from before the Civil War to the mid-1980s. 

The 1960s saw a resurgence in the museum’s acquisition of natural science material. In 1964 Iowa Wesleyan College transferred its collection of mounted birds and bird eggs to the museum. The bird egg collection alone numbered approximately 2000 eggs, doubling the size of the museum’s pre-existing collection. And, from the early 1960s into the late 1970s Pete Petersen added a substantial number of local bird specimens to the zoology collections. Recent grants from the Iowa Science Foundation and the Riverboat Development Authority (now the Regional Development Authority) have supplied the funds for the museum to document and improve storage for these zoology collections.

Small white bird egg with black speckles, set against a black background from the Putnam collection.

In 1974, a major gift of pre-Columbian gold jewelry and other materials was donated through a bequest from Alice Dodge Schaeffer. Also in that year, the museum officially changed its name to the Putnam Museum to honor the family that had done so much to support and provide for the museum’s future. The Shorey Mineral Collection was received as a gift from Carma Shorey in 1986. The donation included fine jewelry and over 500 mineral specimens from around the world collected by Mrs. Shorey and her husband, Wilson H. Shorey. 

Multi-colored mineral with green, orange and blue starburst formations, set against a dark gray background, from the Putnam Museum collection.

In the early 1990s, Mrs. Dorothy Lundahl donated the personal “toy” collection of Mr. and Mrs. A. B. Lundahl—Mr. Lundahl was the original “Buddy-L.” The collection of over 100 Buddy-L toys includes early designs made at the Moline Pressed Steel Co., as well as some later models from the 1950s and 1960s. The collection was augmented in 1999 and 2000 with the acquisition of a large archive of photographs and documents relating to the toy company from Albert W. McCollough. Finally, in 2010, the museum received a small collection of Buddy-L toys from Mr. and Mrs. Tom Smith that included the last toy produced at the Moline, Illinois, plant, as well as the last toy to be produced by Buddy-L at Neosho, Missouri.

Black and white of 6 young boys from the 1930's with a collection of toy cars, of varying sizes from the Buddy-L toy company.

The Free Photography Studio Collection, acquired in 1998, documents the lives of local residents and significant rites of passage in the Quad Cities during the 1900s in photographs. The museum subsequently was able to acquire one of the studio cameras used at the Free Studio as well. 

The paleontology collection saw the addition of a small collection of fossil animals from the famous Mazon Creek locality of Illinois between 2012 and 2013. While possessing a substantial collection of fossil plants from Mazon Creek that dates to the early days of the Academy, the museum lacked any animal fossils from the site. More importantly, this new collection includes a specimen of the state fossil of Illinois, the Tully Monster (Tullimonstrum gregarium).

Specimen of the state fossil of Illinois, the Tully Monster. A red-orange oblong rock with a faint lined pattern in the center.

As long-lived companies and institutions succumbed to the realities of late 20th century and early 21st century economics, documenting local businesses became even more important. To this end, the museum has acquired archives and artifacts from local businesses and organizations such as Eagle Foods, the Eagle Signal Corporation and the Telephone Pioneers. 

Other recent efforts have included an emphasis on documenting the cultural diversity of the Quad Cities area. The museum has sought out both historical and modern materials from groups and communities that are/have not been well-represented in the museum’s collections. We are currently collecting oral histories and creating a digital archive of images in an effort to provide a more complete picture of the history of the region, its people and their stories. 

Skull painted with blue and a portrait of artist Frida Kahlo in a sunflower with a green and white flower headdress.
Antique curling iron with red handles set against a white background, from the Putnam collection.


Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences, 1867 – 1900
Davenport Academy of Sciences, 1900 – 1927
Davenport Public Museum, 1927 – 1970
Davenport Museum, 1970 – 1974
Putnam Museum, 1974 – 1990
Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science, 1990 – 2014 
Putnam Museum and Science Center, 2014 – present. 

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