Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Story Behind the Object

By Kristine Schmucker, Curator

Sometimes the story of how an artifact gets to the museum is almost as interesting as the actual history of the artfact.
Recently, we got a call from the EtCetera Shop in Newton.  They had just received a donation of what appeared to be an old waitress uniform.  Would we be interested in looking at it?
Neatly packed in a large Ziplock bag was a heavily starched, blue striped dress with a two pieced white apron  and a collar.  The only other clue was a typed name on each piece, "Brenda J. Odle."
Research revealed that it was actually a nurses uniform from the 1960s.  Clothes worn by nurses underwent a significant change in the last half of the 20th century.  In the 1880s, as nursing was gaining progress in becoming a respectable occupation for women, the uniforms they wore were designed to protect against illness and to protect virtue.  Nurses wore uniforms that covered the entire body.  Uniforms also helped identify the woman as a nurse.

Bethel Deaconess Hospital Training School
1916 graduates
Clara Schmidt & Martha Wiebe

Change in uniforms came during and following the Second  World War.  By this time, nursing was a career that was respectable.  Skirts and sleeves were shortened to aid in movement during care.  As function and comfort of the wearer became more important the traditional starched aprons disappeared.  By the 1970s scrubs were seen in many hospitals.  Today, most nurses wear the loose fitting garments.  The uniform donated to the museum represents the time of transition from a formal nurses' uniform to the more comfortable scrubs.

An obituary for Brenda Jean Odle Laughlin told the rest of the story.
Brenda was born May 18, 1940 in Junction City, Kansas, to Wayne F. & Louise Blaker Odle.  In High School, Brenda enjoyed singing and was in several vocal groups at school and church.  In 1961, she graduated from Stormont-Vail School of Nursing, Topeka, Kansas.  That same year, on October 8, she married William "Bud" Laughlin. 

After graduation she worked as a registered nurse in various places, including Bethel Deaconess Hospital in Newton, Kansas.  Possibly she wore this uniform during her time at Bethel Deaconess prior to her marriage.
Bethel Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing
Students and Teachers
ca. 1957
Brenda and Bud moved to Hesston, Kansas and she was very active in the community, serving of the Board of Directors for the Hesston Resource Center and a volunteer with  Hesston EMS. She worked at Hesston Corp until her retirement in 2003.
The couple had three daughters.
Brenda died on January 16, 2012 at her Hesston home and is buried at the Hesston Cemetery, Hesston, Kansas.

Newton Kansan, 18 January 2012.
Wiebe, Katie Funk, Our Lamps Were Lit: an Informal History of the Bethel Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing, Bethel Deaconess Hospital, Newton, Ks, 1978.
For more information on the Stormont-Vail School of Nursing in Topeka, Ks
Today, the school is part of Baker University.


  1. This was a nice story to see; I am Brenda Odle Laughlin's niece & came across it while looking at obits for her husband who passed away this past week. Thank you for this story.

    1. You are welcome. Thank you for letting us know you enjoyed the post.

  2. If Brenda Jean worked as a Registered Nurse at Bethel-Deaconess Hospital after her marriage, she would not have worn this uniform at that time. Since graduation from Nursing School is a requirement for becoming Registered, and also follows that passing the State examination for Registration is also required, she would have to have been a graduate Registered Nurse in order to be employed. Her obituary states that she worked at Bethel Deaconess after she married. She married in October after her graduation from Stormont-Vail School of Nursing. Registered Nurses never wore their Student Nurse uniforms EVER after becoming Registered. Registered Nurses always wore all white uniforms ~ cap from school of training, uniform dress, stockings and polished white shoes. The only exceptions to that might be military nurses out of the hospital wards, and nurses who worked in Public Health or Visiting Nurses. They wore different uniforms out in the community. But hospital nurses always wore "the whites."
    The photograph of student nurses shown above from Bethel Deaconess School of Nursing shows a totally different nursing student uniform from the one you have. The collar is different, the white apron has straps across the shoulders where hers does not, the sleeves are long, not short, and the fabric of the dress appears different.
    What you do have is a beautiful example of what student nurses from Stormont-Vail School of Nursing wore at least up to 1961. We don't see what they wore after that, or if any changes were made to the uniform in succeeding classes.
    Too bad you didn't get a cap too. Those are almost always unique to the school in size, shape and general design.

    1. Thank you Shari for the additional information.