History . . . and Mystery

IMG_5956I buy a heavy linen sheet at a garage sale, with beautiful drawnwork at the hem. In its folds is tucked a card on which is written, “Nona made the hem all by hand.”

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.

IMG_5962I find a little piece of fabric in my aunt’s attic. On it is embroidered a quirky, grumpy little boy, pulling a wagon and carrying a flag.

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.

Banker quilt pendant-5Will 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?

51 thoughts on “History . . . and Mystery

  1. It too have a drawer full of old items, mainly linen. There’s the damask cloth: yes, almost impossible to restore to that crisp, shiny condition I found it in, despite starch, a hot and heavy iron and lots of patience. Most of the rest is hand embroidered or drawn thread work. Who worked it and when? My ancestors were not rich people: not the sort of family where young ladies would have whiled away the afternoon on stitch-work, but we had stacks of it. Finally I gave some to a hospice charity which specialises in restoring and then selling such pieces for the benefit of the charity. But I’ve kept enough to share a representative selection with my children. Perhaps they will manage to find keys to the mystery of who worked these pieces, and when. But I doubt it. Even without their stories attached, these are lovely pieces, an I’m in awe of the skill and patience it must have required to complete them.

    • Thanks for your comment! You’re lucky to have those linens, even if it isn’t completely clear where they came from. I think table linens were so much a part of daily life that even poorer families had them and, for a wedding, bought the best they possibly could–remember, they weren’t buying small appliances or a lot of other things we give to brides today! I’m also glad you kept some of them to pass on. It’ll be interesting to see if your kids “get it.” I sell tons of linens to young people who love them but haven’t inherited any but then there the others who just canNOT understand why anyone would want that old stuff!

  2. Great post. I love history, and as I’m sifting through the piles of linens at the thrift store or antique store, I always wonder… who did these belong to? Who so lovingly took hours/days/weeks to stitch these intricate designs & beautiful handwork? It will always be a “mystery” unsolved, but like you, I’m ok with that 🙂

  3. I like some mystery. It’s part of the charm of vintage or antique items. It would be boring if we knew absolutely everything, and historians and archaeologists would be out of work if there were no puzzles to solve. But, sometimes, it would be nice to know just a little bit more than the barest of bare essentials, especially when the items are closely connected to family members. By the way, look out for free offers with Ancestry. Sometimes you can get a free trial period and can gather a lot of information during that time. Also our library offers us free access to Ancestry.

    • I agree about the yearning for more information–one of my grandmothers attached notes to a lot of the old things she had and I now appreciate it so much! With Ancestry.com, I keep telling myself that when I have a free week or two, I will sign up for a trial but . . . I haven’t had a free week or two! So much to do, so little time!

  4. Kerry. you know how much I love to research the items I list at my Etsy shop. And the big thrill for me is when a famly member connected with that item finds it in my shop, buys it, and thanks me for the research I’ve done. Sometimes they even learn something about that relative that they didn’t know before. And this happens quite frequently. It gives me quite a feeling of satisfaction….

    • I thought of you and your research skills when I was writing this! You are a rock star researcher and I remember reading in your blog about how you sometimes found relatives of the people who owned your treasures (or they found you)! So wonderful. I’m a little stumped with researching the old linens since there are so many patterns and makers and so many of them were then embellished at home.

  5. Lovely! I have totes of old linens..some damaged waiting to be made into something else and some just too pretty to part with yet. Some do come with notes “Aunt Bertha made this collar” Gramma Jones made this”. So much time put into these lovely pieces!

    • So much time, indeed! I look at some items and can’t even figure out how the work was done, like drawnwork and some other fancy embellishments. Lucky you, to have a lot to play with!

  6. Oh, I adore that brooch with your great-grandmother’s signature in it! Ingenious!
    I have a stack of linens, unfortunately with stains on them. They have nice embroidery and a lace edge – still thinking of using them for some DIY project….(sans the stains). The lettering on your hanky is intriguing 🙂

    • Have you ever seen products called Biz laundry detergent and Cascade dishwasher detergent for sale in your country? If so, I can give you some pointers about getting those stains out . . .
      And thanks for the comment on the jewelry–I loved making that piece!

  7. Hi there, I’ve been following you blog for several months now and thoroughly enjoy your writing, your photos, and especially your fabrics. I love antique fabrics, especially damask and anything with hem-stitching. I very much enjoyed the “mystery” you gave us in this posting, and it’s what prompted me to write to you.

    I grew up in Champlain NY, worked at Ayerst in Rouses Pt for several years, then married and eventually moved to Connecticut where I’ve lived for about 35 years. I travel to Champlain in the summer to visit my brother. My parents, Ruth and Harold Smith, ran an antique shop, The Wagonshot, out of their home in Champlain for many years, and my mother particularly loved fabrics. I found your blog by accident but once I discovered your photos and your fabrics, I was hooked.

    Keep up the great work, and thanks for putting it all our there, so to speak, for us to share and enjoy. Gail in CT

    • This is so neat! Thanks for speaking up, Gail, and letting me know you’re out there! I grew up in the area, too (Rand Hill, near Dannemora) and left for a long time, then moved back a few years ago.

      Writing the blog has been a lot of fun but I never expected to form connections with readers the way I have–I’ve found so many people with shared interests and experiences and, knowing you’re out there, just makes me want to write more!

  8. I love the mystery and the connection to people long gone. I have many things from my grandmothers, some of which they got from their grandmothers, including my wedding ring. I often wonder about them – how excited was that young 1879 bride when she got these dishes, or that table cloth? Whenever you can find some of the story, that is so special. And if you can’t, then you can imagine what the story might be – also special.

    • Yes, to everything you said! I love thinking about those women in my past, too, and how much the world has changed and how much it hasn’t! It’s so nice that you have that wedding ring!

      • My grandmother (born in 1909) used to tell me a story about begging HER grandmother for lavender dancing slippers for a date with my grandfather. that would have been mid-roaring 20’s. I wish she had kept those dancing slippers, I would have loved to have seen them. Apparently they were VERY stylish and pretty. I do have the remnants of her wedding gown, which I will do something with, someday. Before it rots away. The lace is totally gone as she did not know about acid free wrapping. But the silk is good.

  9. Enjoyed your blog on old linens. I have a few that I collected. My mother wore out all the lines that was left to her so I only have a couple of things that I salvaged from her. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

    • Yes, those old linens were meant to be used so some of them took quite a beating! But it seems like there are still a lot of things available in goof condition and the quality of the old stuff is so superior to what we can get now!

  10. What a wonderful, thought provoking blog. When you write of fragments of linen; cloth which has been tenderly stitched and laboured upon, then used in a way which reflected the social conditions and times the maker lived through, or the mystery of not knowing who owned it and their story, then you are pushing at a half-open door with me. I am someone with an attic full of linen both from my family and other sources and I am an avid collector still. Because your journey so resonates with my own I find it terribly hard not to want to share it all with you! And I feel so emotionally pulled towards exploring all the tales of the many treasures I hold- such as the exquisite baby dresses my Grandmother made or the struggle my Great Grandmother had to survive, taking in washing and making beautiful shirts and night shirts for gentleman farmers.Thank you so much for writing as you do and for helping to keep us all in touch with the very fine threads in life, which seem so fragile, but which are in fact strong enough to hold us all together.-Karen.

    • That is SUCH a lovely comment! Thanks for taking the time to write and be so supportive. And, regarding all the tales behind your grandparents’ lives and creations, you have the perfect place to tell those stories–your blog. I hope you’re keeping notes of ideas for blog posts as they occur to you. It sounds like you have such rich narratives in your history–you’ll be writing blog posts for years to come!

      • You made me smile with your reply. You have so put me in touch with so much treasure that I hold in my attic and my heart. I do keep notes, but I have too many ideas! It is like quilts, or making any craft item, we would have to live to be 200 years old to fit them all in. Well- to finish them, anyway, because of course finishing them is quite another issue. I don’t feel that I can work everything into my blog and do it well. Finding you and the way you express your interests has taken the lid of a dusty box of memories so for now, I will am just peeping in!

  11. I love this post, I’m surrounded by acquired artefacts that Beloved & I have collected over the years, some I know a little about, other nothing, yet they all share a place in my home & heart, each time I touch one of my treasures I’m aware that it had a life loved before it came to me, and has seen the passing of time & history made, I spend happy moments pondering and long may that continue

    • Yes! Long may it continue, indeed. As much as I like something new and shiny, I always am drawn back to the pre-owned and pre-loved, and the stories those things tell.

  12. Lovely post. We share the same thoughts on these treasures. I simply can’t leave an embroidered cloth in a charity shop. I feel those hands and the hours that have gone into the making of these exquisite pieces and I have to take them home. Recently I have made 3 cloths into summer jackets from a 60s pattern and I love the idea of adding to the layers of their history and giving them a new purpose…..many I just can’t cut into though.

    • That’s neat that you have the skills to re-make pretty things into new pretty things! I tend not to cut into any old linens that are in very good condition. But, if they have bad stains (and I can get most out!) or holes, then I’m always trying to think of a way to use them. But I don’t sew very well . . . .

  13. Too bad things can’t tell a story, although it’s great to think of your own story as well. My aunt dropped of a whole bag of napkins and table cloths yesterday because she has a bigger table and is doing some sort of a spring cleaning. I guess part of this weekend will be spend washing ironing and sorting out which ones will stay, which ones will go and I think some might end up as pillow covers (or another DIY project). By the way, I adore your blog!

    • Thanks, Marieken! I would never have found your blog if it wasn’t for the blog team on Etsy and I love seeing your fresh take on the world! I hope you find some treasures in the stuff your aunt gave you–I get such a thrill from going through piles of old linens, just waiting to see what I can find!

  14. I have an antique bedspread bought in Slovakia for our first wedding anniversary. It’s on our bed every day because I think it should be used..but the material is almost sacking..yet the embroidery is divine…I suspect it has many a tale to tell..I also have a cushion cover made for me by vintage attitude above from a beautiful tea cosy that belonged to my grandmother! xxx

    • I think it’s great that you’re finding ways to use the pretty things you love. I go back and forth about using what I have–I want it to live the functional life it was designed for but then I don’t want to love it to death. Of course, I have so MUCH of this stuff around, I can choose. When I come across a pretty dish towel with a little hole in it, I tend to use it with abandon. If something is perfect, I’m more careful (or I sell it!)

  15. I love old linens. I remember my great aunt sitting at my grandparents business with her crochet and embroidery work every day. I always love finding boxes of old linens at auctions. So many hidden mysteries. xo Laura

  16. What fun finds. I love the one with the initials and the date. As you said, they must have marked momentous events of some kind…and so long ago!

  17. I love this post on History and Mystery… one Mystery I like to dig further (If i can) is something my Granny did for stitching in her younger days.. she has an unusual way of ending it and she can stitch motifs from her memory.. she is 90+ now and memory is failing her a bit.. too bad she can’t really tell me much now…. emmmm.. but your post reminds me that Maybe I can see how I should dig further.. LOL..

  18. It is intriguing and I love the mystery behind second hand objects. I have a number of items: a sampler and a diary amongst other things, which I will one day try and find out more about and if the previous owner was a relative or not. They are not with me here in Singapore as they would perish in this climate, so I will have to be patient… 🙂

  19. I love buying vintage (mostly clothes) because they have so much history. All of my favourite pieves of vintage clothing are handmade. I love looking at the stitching and realising that it’s handmade, and knowing that I can give a second life to an item that’s been lovingly created by hand! xx

    • Yes, I know you love vintage! I didn’t realize the clothes were mostly handmade, though–which makes them so much more interesting! Have you ever tried sewing clothes for yourself?

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