The Urge to Embellish


The history of embellishment likely reaches back to the beginning of human existence and continues through today.   Embellished objects are signposts of civilization and cultural diversity, past and present.   They help define the material culture of a particular moment in time.  As we explore the development of embellishment, we seek answers to several questions.  What does “embellish” mean?  Why embellish?   Who embellishes what?

Embellishing an object requires changing its appearance by adding or subtracting something to make it more beautiful, interesting, or personal.  People can also create objects as embellishments to enhance their surroundings.  Makers sometimes produce embellished objects to develop technical skill or amuse themselves.

The urge to embellish is a basic, universal, human impulse.  It stems from the need to express creativity.  Learned behaviors, tradition, or specific events awaken the urge.  At some points in history, people were even expected to embellish, regardless of their financial means.  Others created embellished items to support themselves or a special cause.

Almost any object can be embellished.  Clothes, home decor, things created for a particular occasion, and ordinary tools used for daily tasks are all potential objects of embellishment.   

The Illinois State Museum collections contain numerous examples of embellished objects created over many centuries.  Included here is a diverse range of examples spanning two centuries separated by theme.  Some are easily recognized; others may seem strange.   A few are embellished modestly, but many are “over the top” by today’s standards.  

We invite you to explore these fascinating examples of embellishment and encourage you to discover their stories.   Learn how to create your own objects of embellishment through the activities and projects. Or, delve deeper into the history of embellishment with the support materials.

To view the issue of The Living Museum dedicated to this exhibit, visit the Illinois Digital Archives page.