I buy a mixed lot of linens on eBay and amid the napkins and table runners is a tiny scrap of white linen with embroidery. The letters and numbers on it are:
All are stitched in white thread except the last two numbers, which are stitched in slightly off-white thread.
What do these three have in common? Well, first, they’re common. Each is an item we’ve all seen and used a hundred times—a sheet, a hankie, a napkin.
But, the second thing they have in common is how uncommon they are. Each is a total mystery.
No vintage item is completely without mystery. We’re left to wonder who chose that pink-striped dishtowel and why—because it was chosen for a little girl to use when helping in the kitchen? Because a Depression-era homemaker was seeking a little color and life in a penniless and drab existence?
That great big damask tablecloth. Why was it so obviously seldom used? Because it was an extravagance or because it was a big pain to wash and iron? Where did that stain come from and what child was banished back to the kid’s table as a result?
But some vintage items are really, really perplexing and engage my imagination. What hands worked on them? Why? How old are they? How did they survive so long? What’s the story?
I can get caught up with these questions, both in trying to research answers and in spinning tales to make sense of the oddities.
For instance, someday I’ll be able to learn more about that linen sheet. I have the name of “Nona’s” granddaughter and I know Nona’s full name and the name of the man she married. The sheet was no doubt something she made for her trousseau. When I finally cough up the bucks for a subscription to Ancestry.com, I’m sure I can solve part of this mystery.
Similarly, I will ask my aunt what she knows about the hankie with the little boy. It was unearthed as my cousin sought to make some sense of an attic packed to the rafters with . . . stuff. I may be able to solve that mystery with one simple conversation at the upcoming (and much-anticipated) pancake breakfast!
But that scrap of linen with the initials and numbers is always going to remain a mystery. The numbers seem to be dates and the stitching seems to have been done at two different times. Most of it was done at one time and then the last two numbers seem to have been added, as if when some momentous event—a birth, a marriage, a death—occurred.
But the fabric doesn’t seem likely to be as old as the dates on it suggest. And who were AU and LVH? Two entirely different people, obviously, since they share no initials. Forty-three years passed between 1795 and 1838. That’s a long time and a long time ago.
I hate that I’ll never solve this mystery but I love that I’ll never solve it.
To me, this beguiling mix of history and mystery is what makes vintage and antique items so fascinating. In some ways these things are easy to relate to and so common and so knowable.
But in other ways they are as mysterious and unique and unknowable as were the human beings who made them. And those mystery humans made these mystery items for reasons that were as completely transparent to them as they are opaque to me. It made sense to the maker.
All this musing has gotten me thinking about some of the things I have made, like the piece of jewelry with my great-grandmother’s signature I described here.
Will this piece be found someday and be as great a mystery as the ones I’m pondering here? And how do I feel about that? Should I print the blog post and store it with the jewelry and solve the mystery before it starts? Or will that take away all the fun for the future treasure hunter?
How do you feel about the balance of history and mystery? I’d be very interested in hearing other thoughts on the subject. Do you have any vintage items that have engaged your imagination and given you a mystery to ponder?