Dressing gowns reveal private lives of 19th-century women in Evanston.              Photos by Janet G. Messenger

The “Bedrooms, Bathrooms & Boudoirs” exhibit of the Evanston History Center opened Friday the 13th with a reception at Dawes House, 225 Greenwood. Visitors moved from bed and bath to beyond – into imaginative musings on long ago before new technology, hygiene practices and social customs changed the home’s private spaces.

The upstairs exhibit features everything from Charles G. Dawes’ shaving mug to Orrington Lunt’s slippers, from cans of Ex-Lax and perfumed Boraxo bath powder to vaseline pomade and Tar Soap for hair. Helpful steering guides explain the evolution of Evanston’s water department and the trajectory from outhouses and indoor chamber pots to flush toilets and finally a peek into the bunny bathroom used in the recent TV show, “The Playboy Club,” filmed at Dawes House.

The boudoir, or sitting room, was a common extra in Evanston’s mansions of the Gilded Age. It anchors the show with its display of fabulous dressing gowns from the 1860s, 1880s and 1902 – exactly the clothing seldom seen by anyone outside the family. It also shows a man’s dressing robe and shaving table replete with a bowl and mirror, brushes, a leather strop hanging on the wall and a box of Valet AutoStrop to keep those straight-edge razors sharp. Other artifacts include early curling irons, a dressing table set and an antique china chamber set with water pitcher and wash bowl, covered soap dish and the essential chamber pot.

The Pershing guest bedroom displays a metal crib, a twin bed, a variety of slippers and sleeping attire for males and females of all ages through the decades. A poster gives a rundown on the history of beds, starting with those of the 1840s when Evanston was first being settled – wood beds lashed together with ropes and topped by a cloth bag full of cornhusks, feathers or straw, an invitation to bedbugs and other vermin. In the 1860s, when Evanston was incorporated as a village, metal frame beds and metal box springs had been introduced in an effort to rid beds of vermin. In the 1920s came the spring mattress, followed by post-World War II synthetic mattresses. Although the script includes mention of the ubiquitous water beds of the 1970s, one is not on display.

The exhibit, which runs through January 2013, was curated by Janet Messmer, an EHC staff member for more than 20 years and a DePaul University theatre professor who heads the costume technology program.