By Tara Roberts
One person’s trash is another’s window into the past.
Jessica Goodwin, a first-year graduate student in anthropology at the University of Idaho, spends her
research time cleaning, sorting and analyzing items found in an 11-foot well once used to store trash at
a 150-year-old Boise mansion.
She studies artifacts found at the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House archaeological project, which began in
the summer of 2012.
More than 1,000 people visited the dig site in Boise’s Basque Block, where anthropology and
archaeology students and professors excavated historical items. Goodwin is now taking the project to
the next step: analyzing artifacts to understand the lives and habits of some of Idaho’s early settlers.
Goodwin, advised by professors Stacey Camp and Mark Warner, is cataloging more than 10,000 items
– delicate dishes, ceramic dolls’ heads, tobacco tins, pharmaceutical bottles and other detritus that
together tell stories of Boise life in the 1890s and early 1900s.
Cyrus Jacobs was a businessman and entrepreneur who helped develop Boise’s early economy, and his
family was influential in the city’s social sphere. “In the newspapers they’re mentioned just all the time,”
Although the family had money, they weren’t rich – and even ran into financial trouble when Jacobs’
store closed around the turn of the century.
Goodwin hopes the artifacts will offer insights into the Jacobs family’s class and social standing. Her
clues come from discoveries such as plates in multiple sizes, blue-patterned table settings and a celery
dish, which to Victorian minds represented an upper-class ability to buy specialized ceramics. The quality
and origin of dishes help show what items and ideologies the Jacobs family brought to Boise from back
“It was kind of a Victorian ideal that good families had good ceramics,” Goodwin says.
Department of Chemistry students are contributing to the project by analyzing the contents of bottles
found at the site. Some of the drug and beauty product bottles bear the names of historic Boise
pharmacies, while others show that this frontier family was wealthy enough to have access to brands
from the East and Europe.
“One of most incredible things about this collection is we find things from all over the world,” Camp
Goodwin also is particularly interested in studying the toys, tools and food scraps that reveal the
lifestyles of the household’s children and women.
“This is just so fascinating to me,” she says. “I’ve kind of fallen in love with all the artifacts.”
The researchers soon will present their findings in Boise and across the state, continuing the project’s
public-service focus, Camp says.
“It’s been an opportunity to show why the material culture beneath the ground is important.”