Museum Musings: Trash or Treasure
Thud. The heavy trunk landed on the porch of a bright, cheerful house whose designer had an obvious penchant for flowers and birdhouses. The young lawyer straightened a tie that was too large for him and reached out to knock on the door. To his surprise it was opened underneath his hand and he found himself face to face with a young college student who looked like she was about to go for a run. They both started at the sight of each other; “Oh!” they exclaimed simultaneously. The lawyer cleared his throat, “Uh, Hi. My name’s Dennis; does Priscilla Cummins live here?”
“Well, yes that’s my sister. May I ask why you want to know?”
“Sure; I’m opening a law firm down-town, but the building in prospect dates from ancient history. I didn’t want all the old stuff in it, so I contacted the historic society and they said to bring it here. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, as they say.” He paused, “This is 34 Historic Lane, right?” The girl Emma smiled at his sudden worried expression. “Yes it is. So my sister told you we could fit another trunk-load of ‘historic treasures’ into this house did she? I don’t know why she keeps some of them; they’re rustic in every sense of the word. With all the things she brings home you’d think we were starting a house museum! Oh well…do you want to bring that inside?”
[A few hours later] “Hi Emma, I’m home!” A tall girl with thin, light brown hair and a cheerful intelligent face, who looked like she was somewhere in her twenties, dropped a book bag in the hall and flopped on the couch. Her bright eyes immediately lighted on the trunk that had been left in the middle of the room. “Wow! Where did this come from?” Emma stuck her head in the door to find her sister already kneeling on the floor opening the chest. “Hello Priscilla, some lawyer named Dennis dropped that off this afternoon; he said he had called you earlier this week. But honestly Cilla, do you think we can fit any more in this little house of ours? It’s beginning to look rather eccentric.”
“Why? You ought to love all this, especially since you are taking history this semester… wow! Look at this fur beret!” Priscilla plopped the hat on her head purposely cock-eyed and kept rummaging.
“Since I’m taking history? Sure, all the old stuff you bring home is interesting, but just to let you know, I’m beginning to dislike history; emphasis on the dislike. It gets tedious after a while, all those battles and dates and fill-in-the-blanks etc. How come you’re such a history fan?”
“Well mostly because this is what I call history.” Cilla gestured toward the overflowing trunk and things scattered about, “at first glance it just looks like dusty stuff, but if you look past the moth-eaten clothes and think about the people who wore them and where they wore them and why, that’s when it gets exciting. “History isn’t just battles and dates, it’s learning about people long ago who were like you in some ways and yet different too. It’s about discovering what they loved and fought for, what they believed in and, on a smaller scale, what their daily lives were like. What sort of tools or animals did they use? What did their homes look like what sort of parties did they hold and what churches did they attend? As a historian once said, ‘[t]he study of everyday objects reveals much about the early republic – from small habits to the fundamental ways in which society was being transformed.’ (Davidson and Lytle 2010, 98) “Do you see what I mean Emma? History is only boring if you breeze by it so fast you hardly know what it is. It’s fantastic once you start to understand a little. And some of the best ways to do that are to start reading good books, dressing up and going on field trips! You laugh, but I’m serious; house museums are great places to immerse yourself in history.”
“My gracious, I never really thought about it like that before. You should teach my history class.” Emma suddenly giggled again, “You’re still wearing that fur beret! By the way, did you really mean that about dressing up?” Priscilla grinned good-naturedly, “Of course,” with a mischievous twinkle she bounced up and tossed the yellowed hoop-skirt over her head. “Good afternoon Miss Emma,” she warbled in a high prissy voice, “would you care to come to tea at my gorgeous plantation? My cook makes the most charming biscuits.”
When she finally stopped laughing, Emma shook her head incredulously “I can’t imagine actually living and working in a dress like that. Did all the ladies in the 19th century wear those sorts of dresses?” Priscilla sat back on her heels from where she had knelt down again in front of the old trunk, and cocked her head to one side to ponder the question. “Nooo, not necessarily,” she said thoughtfully, “there were more places, and fashions for that matter, in 19th century America than just those in the urbane south. Take for example the Mid-Atlantic frontier. The pioneer life that you picture with the log cabins, calico dresses, traveling preachers and barn raisings and corn husking bees, all of that was in the 1800’s too.” Cilla’s eyes wandered back to her new treasures, then they suddenly brightened and she pounced on something. Emma had seen that look before, Oh boy, here comes a history lesson complete with visuals, she thought with a grin.
“See, look at this!” the older sister held up a metal object made with a long, thin handle which ballooned out to a round pan at the end. “What is it?” Emma queried. Her sister grinned impishly, “Guess.” Emma crinkled up her eyebrows, “A blacksmith’s attempt at being a glassblower?” Priscilla laughed, “No, of course not! He’d blow himself dizzy, the handle is solid. This is a bed warmer. “Back in the day, fireplaces were necessities instead of quaint decorations. But they weren’t the most efficient heating system because most of the heat was blown up the huge chimney and only heated the outdoors. The houses were quite drafty, snow as well as wind coming through the chinks between the logs; and as there was only one fireplace for the most part, the rooms farthest from it, like the children’s bedrooms, were friged. Usually in the winter they would have to break the layer of ice that had formed in their water buckets before washing up. Talk about waking yourself up! Anyway, these bed warmers were filled with hot coals from the fireplace and then placed at the bottom of the bed to help its occupants keep warm. Warmed bricks or stones worked well too.
“Do you remember Emma, the huge four-poster bed with flowered curtains – just like the one Felicity had in the American girl books – that you wanted so badly when you were younger? Well those also had a more practical use than just showing off to your friends. The heavy curtains were drawn shut around the bed so that the heat your body produced while sleeping would be contained in a smaller space and therefore more effective. It also provided a little more privacy in a crowded house, or bedroom for that matter. Do you know the saying, politics make strange bedfellows? Well so do drafty fireplaces! Often siblings or friends slept together for extra warmth. Maybe that’s where that children’s song comes from, ‘there were ten in the bed and the little one said role over…’” As soon as Cilla had started singing, both the girls burst into a fit of giggles.
Emma peered over the trunk’s lid at the jumbled assortment. She was beginning to appreciate more fully her sister’s definition of “historical treasures.” She saw the wooden end of something sticking out from underneath a battered hat housing a cornhusk doll. Emma shifted and yanked things around a bit until it came free in her hand. It was made out of light but sturdy wood, probably hickory, she guessed, but in a curious shape. A dowel connected two scalloped end-pieces which were set perpendicular to each other. It looked vaguely familiar; maybe I saw it in a history book somewhere, Emma thought.
“Hey history wiz, have any idea what this is?” Priscilla dragged her attention from the tarnished, presumably silver teapot she had been inspecting for the smith’s mark. She cast an experienced eye over Emma’s discovery. “Oh, that’s a niddy noddy.” She said matter-of-factly and returned to her teapot.
“Right; which translated into the vernacular means…?” Emma asked. Priscilla’s eyes sparkled in fun, “It is a mute witness to the material culture of the 19th century and a symbol of the industrious middle-class household.” Her sister threw up her hands in mock frustration, “You’re impossible! ‘Vernacular’ doesn’t mean ‘historian jargon’! what on earth is ‘material culture,’ and how is this thing a symbol of the industrious middle class? You left me in the dust.” Cilla chuckled, “Did you have anything else you had to do today? Judging by those questions, this conversation could go on for the rest of the afternoon.” Emma punched her playfully, “Stop stalling! I want to know.”
“Okay, Okay. Here ‘goes: first of all, this is a niddy noddy, like I said before,” Priscilla picked the tool up and turned it around in her hands, “it was used during the process of spinning wool into useful yarn that people could turn into thick, warm blankets and cloaks and other things like that.” Priscilla paused and Emma jumped in excitedly, pleased to air her knowledge on something she’d recently learned, “Oh I know about that! Christa and I went to Old Sturbridge Village recently and we saw a woman carding wool – that takes out all the burrs and tangles – you have to do that before you can spin it out using a drop spindle or a spinning wheel. The lady told us that a good day’s spinning produces about six skeins, or 480 yards of yarn. Oh, and if they were using a walking wheel, which means they had to walk away and then back towards the wheel to keep the wool spinning out, the spinner would have walked as much as twenty miles by the time they were done with their six skeins.” Emma leaned back against the couch looking very pleased with herself, and slightly out of breath from having talked so fast. Priscilla clapped her hands, “Exactly! Very good; see I told you learning history is fun! After all that is where the niddy noddy comes in. That twenty-miles-worth of yarn would lie in a basket until the spinner, or one of the children in the family wound it onto the niddy noddy in a figure eight fashion. Once they had wound it about four times or eighty yards, that’s when it would technically be called a skein.”
“Oh, okay, that makes sense. So is this tool a symbol of the industrious household because they made so much yarn, and everyone, including the children, was involved?”
“Well yes, but not entirely. See, in the early 19th century the home was defined by work instead of leisure; but even though work was integral and almost continual people did their best to make it enjoyable as well. Hence the reason for quilting bees, corn husking bees and barn raising dances.
“So you see,” Cilla rattled on, “they did have frolics and recreation but it was for industrious purposes. Later on in the 19th century and on into the 20th, there is a gradual though clear shift in the people’s approach toward work versus leisure. The steady and consistent production of the textile mills eventually eclipsed the faithful labor of the domestic scene. That was when the growing middle class discovered, to their benefit and delight, that as their workload decreased, they had more time for recreation; a word the hard-working pioneers hardly understood. There was also more time and therefore more emphasis, on giving their children a ‘proper’ education. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but do you understand what I’m driving at Emma? Basically in a nutshell it’s this: the well organized, industrious household of the early 19th century was a precursor or contributor to the booming mill industry which developed later on.”
“Wow, that’s a good bit to wrap your brain around,” Emma commented, “I used to wonder how PhD’s could find enough to say to fill 800 pages or some huge number like that, of a dissertation on some miniscule part of history. Now I’m not so surprised… you got all that out of one niddy noddy!”
Priscilla laughed again and shook her head “I’m not a ‘Post-hole-Digger’ yet by any means,” she said, “but from reading and studying up on things like this and with a little inference and some shrewd conjecture thrown in you get a pretty good picture all around. You’re right; it is amazing what you can discover via material culture – the everyday stuff of life which contributes to the unique shape of any particular people. It’s interesting, when you think about it: ordinary people make the stuff that’s necessary to accomplish their everyday tasks, and then, because of a consistent way of life, that stuff makes them into a unique and memorable group or society. ”
“Huh… I suppose you’re right. Well then,” Emma quipped, glancing around their eclectic room, “if people are defined by their possessions, it would certainly be interesting to see what historians would say about us in the future!”
Davidson, James West, and Mark Hamilton Lytle. 2010. After The Fact. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Greenwood, Barbara. 1994. A Pioneer Sampler. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company.