The Story Behind the Tobacco Tins


Among the many items we have in collection are a pair of simple tobacco tins.


But what is that? An evidence label?


Why were these held as evidence? Lets take a closer look.


Well, they held “bulk marijuana.”

It turns out these tins were collected in the 1930s as part of the first arrest for the sale of marijuana in Douglas County. Oddly enough, the objects were secured by a Mr. Benhamm and witnessed by a Mrs. Benhamm. I was talking to the curator and she wonders if this was a incident of citizens arrest by a married couple. Could you imagine some husband and wife arresting some people on the street today?

Now for historical context!

(Source: PBS) From the 17th-19th century, hemp was not a big deal in the US and was a common crop used for ropes, fabric, and clothing. In 1619 every farmer was REQUIRED to grow it and was considered legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. During the late 19th century, marijuana was added to various medicines and was sold in pharmacies. However, after the Mexican Revolution in 1910, there was an influx of Mexican immigrants who introduced Americans to the recreational use of marijuana. Racism towards these immigrants gave rise to the new association of violent crimes to both marijuana and the Mexican immigrants.Then came the Great Depression, where poverty and unemployment increased racism towards immigrants and prompted the government to became more involved in the issue of marijuana. The 1930s saw the emergence of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the Uniform State Narcotic Act, the film Reefer Madness, and finally the Marijuana Tax Act, which basically criminalized marijuana. The subsequent years would witness ups and downs in public sentiment about the drug, so if you would like to learn more check out PBS.

So how does this all connect back to those little tins? Well I do not know who owned those tins, but by the time they were confiscated on October 23rd, 1934 popular option was that marijuana was an “evil weed”. According to the Encyclopedia of Drug Policy, the Uniform State Narcotic Act allowed each state to decide how they handled marijuana. However, due to racism, states closer to Mexico and/or ones with a large population of Mexican farmers often decided to crack down on drug.

As you can see, Kansas wasn’t too close to Mexico, however according to the Kansas State Historical Society, the period between 1900-1930 saw the largest influx of Mexican immigrants into the state and, as we know, farming has and still is a big deal here. I couldn’t find out exactly which states became anti-marijuana but by the time it no longer became a state-by-state option in 1942, 22 states already were.

So what happened that day when Benhamm seized these tins? Unfortunately, our records don’t reveal much. Still, isn’t it amazing how a couple of tobacco tins can take lead you to so much more information! That is why they are my favorite objects. So innocuous and yet they hold such an amazing story.


-Jilliene Jaeger, Public Programs Intern

Extraordinarily Ordinary History

I always loved history growing up, but preferred learning about the daily life of people rather than the big battles and political affairs. In my opinion, history needs to be understood in context and context includes topics like what people wore, what they ate, family dynamics, and everything else that makes up daily life. Even extraordinary figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were just men. We get so caught up in the extraordinary and forget the ordinary that made these people who they were and influenced what they did. Historical understanding is incomplete if we do this.

In college, I also learned about something called material culture. Basically, it is using objects to understand history. Clearly, museums are all about material culture, however the majority of history teachers rarely talk about using objects to understand history. I remember learning a lot about primary sources in high school, but no one ever mentioned that stuff could be primary sources too until I was a junior in college. Considering stuff is a bigger part of our lives than political treaties, diaries, and essays, this seems like a huge oversight in history education. Even in the world of professional historians, material culture is still fighting for recognition.

So with these things in mind, I decided to create a blog called Extraordinarily Ordinary History, which is inspired by Emily Graslie and her blog & YouTube series called The Brain Scoop in order to explore these topics. I am so lucky that I intern here at the Watkins and that the staff here supports my new endeavor.

Since you are fans of the Watkins, here is a sneak peek of one of my posts! Please check out for more looks at the Watkins.

-Jilliene, Public Programs Intern


Working in a museum that is also a historical building is an interesting experience. You always find remanence of the building’s original features tucked away among the modern adaptations. The weirdest one in the Watkins Museum is definitely the washroom up in collections storage.

Because all banks need bathtubs?

Because all banks need bathtubs

The little wood paneled room, original to the building, is complete with a sink and bathtub. There are two theories about why this room exists. One is that JB Watkins, the owner of the bank, had an apartment in what is now collections storage. However, at the time this space wasn’t heated so it is unlikely he would have stayed in his own bank. In addition, there are records of him staying at the Eldridge Hotel a few block away. The theory that the director and curator both favor is that it served as a washroom for employees. Employees might have needed to visit to distant or rural places to survey sites or meet with clients. Since this was rural Kansas in the 1800s, meaning no cars with protective windows, people tended to get dirty pretty fast. Once employees returned to the bank, they could wash up and return to looking like proper Victorian bankers.

It would be a crime to allow that mustache to remain sullied.

Because it would be a crime to allow that mustache to remain sullied.

However, the bigger mystery is why in the world is there a little door at the top of the room?

This door

This door

Clearly, there is no easy way to reach it and if you did go through it all you’ve accomplished is reaching the attic, which is accessible by a set of stair. Also, it is small. Can you imagine a Victorian banker shimmying in or out of that thing?

The answer is yes but do you really think he would.

The answer is yes but do you really think he would?

So for now the mystery of the door remains. Was it a highly impractical fire escape? Did it once lead to Narnia?

Share your theories!

Hardworking Models

Even a former history major that works in museums can overlook the importance of seemingly ordinary objects. When I was up in the Watkins collection taking pictures, I passed by two objects in the toy area.

 A model house


And a model ship


They are both very intricate and in great condition, but I didn’t think much of them and didn’t take a picture. Later on, the curator was taking me through the collection to point out a few more things that might be interesting to write about. She took me over to the house and ship again and told me what they are. Turns out they aren’t just fancy children’s toys.



You probably learned about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in your history classes. The WPA emerged in 1935 during the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal to try and revive the country. Various projects were started to supply people with the jobs they desperately needed. The WPA was responsible for building and improving roads, public buildings, airports, hospitals, and parks; however art and education were not left out of the WPA program (Source). You might have seen murals, paintings, or sculptures around your town that were made by Federal Art Project artists.

In Kansas, the WPA provided classes in literacy, citizenship, housekeeping, art, parenting, and vocational training (Source). One specific program that combined art and education was the Kansas Museum Project. FDR felt WPA art projects needed to have an educational purpose, therefore the KMP made objects like dolls for museums and schools to use as educational resources (Source). We have two types of these dolls at the museum: historical dolls and pairs of dolls that represented different countries around the world.

Dolls from the Kansas State Museum Collection

Another project was to create small, historical dioramas that portrayed different scenes in Kansas’ history (Source). Evidently, even one of the studios that made these dioramas was located in Lawrence, KS aka where the Watkins is (Source).

Studio in Lawrence, KS

SO! Where do historical models come in? Well, I can’t find anything about them beyond the fact that they were made as part of the WPA. We also know that the house is Mount Vernon and the ship is the Santa Maria (of “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” fame). However, I think we can make a logical jump and assume these models were part of this project. I couldn’t find other examples of these models so if you know of any please let me know!



So what is the point of all of this? Well, think about it. These nice but seemingly unimportant toys were created during the Great Depression to provide jobs for people desperate to survive. Their existence let someone feed their family. They were also probably made by women who were not well represented in other areas of the WPA (Source 1, 2). This means that these models might have allowed women, who still weren’t prevalent in the workplace, to bring home money to support their families. So when you think about it, those models are pretty important.


-Jilliene, Public Programs Intern