History and Mystery: A Baby Named John

baby cupWho was baby John?

All we know for certain about the baby is that he was a boy, born long ago.

Born in 1916, he’s probably left this world by now. But we can guess he was a valued addition to his family, enough so that someone commemorated his birth with a simple and beautiful baby cup, engraved to honor that special boy and year.

What was his life like? The bottom edge of the cup shows little dents and dings—was he a rambunctious boy, who beat his cup against his highchair and laughed when the cat ran away, startled?

Was he born in upstate New York? His baby cup turned up at a garage sale here. Were his parents farmers like so many in this rural area? Did he grow up drinking milk from the family Holsteins and gathering eggs from disgruntled hens? Were his days spent rambling the fields and finding his way home, at dusk, in time for the evening chores?

Was his dad, perhaps, away in the Great War when he was born? Did John himself take up arms in the next war? He’d have been the right age. Did he make it home?

Did he go to school past 8th grade? Did he find love? Was there a son, also named John, who played with the silver cup? Or did the cup sit at the back of a china cabinet, forgotten?

Who puts a baby cup in a garage sale? Maybe John’s children’s children’s children, none of whom remembered him, except as the occupant of an old picture frame, and who had little use for a bibelot, so pretty but prone to tarnish and dust?

A small object like this baby cup, so evocative, so full of secrets, so eloquent in its silent silver glow.

My fond hope is that someone will buy this little treasure, to give to another baby named John, maybe one born in 2016, one hundred years after that other baby was born. I’d like to see this little cup polished and set out, reflecting the sun and another child’s smile.

A Great Day for Saling

IMG_7350It seems to me there might be just two types of people in the world: those who love and understand shopping at garage sales (yard sales, jumble sales, tag sales, etc.), and those who don’t.

I am firmly in the former camp! If you’re in the latter, be assured I’m not trying to convert you—heaven knows I don’t want any more competition for the treasures at these sales!

But I know that non-believers question whether anything of value comes up at garage sales. And I’m here to tell you, “Yes, it does!” Consider this post a way to gain insight to those of us who get up early on the weekends, drive miles out of their way, and dig through piles of dirty junk just in case there’s a treasure to be found.

The photos here show my haul from just one day of garage saling, last Saturday.

IMG_7358To be completely honest, the previous day had been dismal, with no treasure, no thrills. Absolutely soul-suckingly bad.

And taking the honesty further, many of the Saturday sales (we stopped at about 10) were dismal.

But all a person like me needs is one or two great sales (or one or two great finds at a dismal sale) to be re-energized.

The first sale I went to had no junk, just tidy tables of interesting and odd items. At least I think that’s what she had—I was so completely focused on one table, a great big table, of vintage linens that I barely looked at the rest.

This, this, is what keeps a garage saler going. Beautifully kept, clean, old, unusual items, for remarkably reasonable prices.

A perfect tea cloth with Italian embroidery and drawnwork.

IMG_7439 Another tea cloth with a spectacular embroidered design. IMG_7447An antique coverlet, surely made for a hope chest, that is a tour de force of hand stitching and lace crochet work.IMG_7480

A lovely tablecloth, hand embroidered and brought from Scotland 60 years ago (this one might just deserve its own post!)

IMG_7422 And this was just one sale. We also found vintage hand-crocheted afghans, beautiful damask napkins, and unusual china and ceramic pieces, including a little souvenir pitcher from Vermont, showing a maple sugaring scene! You know how I feel about maple sugaring!! And I bought many perennial plants at the rate of three plants for a dollar.

Yes, this was an unusual and rewarding day.

But, you see, dedicated garage salers live for these days, and a day like this will keep us going through many a lean, dry spell. We are optimists. We always believe that, around the next corner, will come the heart-pounding thrill of finding something really special.

So, what will I find tomorrow . . . ? And which camp are you in? Garage sales—yea or nay?

From the Permanent Collection: The KerryCan Tablecloth

IMG_6786I got into the vintage linens biz on Etsy because my collection of vintage linens had grown to massive, ridiculous, and embarrassing proportions. Beautiful tablecloths, napkins, runners, pillowcases, (etc. etc., to the nth power!), boxed up and stored, never seeing the light of day or being appreciated.

So, I decided to find good homes for them and have done so for almost 600 pieces, at last count!

But, as you might expect, I keep a few special pieces for myself—some lovely, some quirky, some with sentimental meaning.

One item that has entered, and will remain in, my permanent collection is this appliquéd tablecloth of a 1940s housewife, engaged in her daily tasks.

When I started to develop an on-line presence, on Etsy, Facebook, and here on my blog, I needed an avatar. I’ve never been much of one for posting many photographs of myself on-line and I was in a rush to get my little Etsy shop open so I just decided to use a picture I had taken for one of the tablecloths I intended to sell.

IMG_6805It was, I’ve decided, a most fortuitous decision. Over the years, I’ve come to feel like the woman on the tablecloth is like a little portrait of me, done in faded cotton and thread.

I love the details in this hand-sewn appliqué—the hairdo, the big apron bow, the seams up the back of the stockings! I don’t have that hair, my apron is sturdy canvas with lots of smears of chocolate, and I avoid nylons at all costs, let alone ones with seams up the back.

And yet, I feel great affection and affinity for this woman. She’s busy, she’s industrious, she’s always into something. She keeps a cleaner house than I do but, like me, she spends a lot of time in the kitchen.

She turns her loving hands to home.

If you look at her closely, you’ll see she’s come a bit undone, she’s wrinkled, and faded. Hey, it happens to all of us at some point! But she still stays presentable and engaged in her world.

She was for sale for a while but, thankfully, no one saw her for the lovely star she is. I came to my senses and returned her to the pile of my special linens. She keeps me company in the kitchen and at craft sales.

IMG_4037I love the thought of the person who sewed her and the layers of handiwork. The maker worked long and hard to make a tablecloth—a practical, working item—and decorated it with designs of a woman working. And now it’s come to represent a bit of work I do.

That’s a lot of loving hands at home!

Little Bitty Pretty Ones: Vintage Risque Towels

These vintage towels are not only pretty, they’re a little sexy!

Often labeled as “risqué” towels, these fun vintage linens were popular in the 1940s and were placed in guest bathrooms.

When I saw these first I thought they were made by those loving hands at home and just reveled in the image of proper 1940s housewives having a little fun by making these and feeling a little scandalous.

I have since seen many of the towels, and cocktail napkins with similar designs, with original labels and price tags and know that, while they were made completely by hand, they were made by experts, probably as part of the Madeira linen tradition, which was begun on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the 1860s. Madeira linens are known for exquisite quality of materials and handwork.

So, I had to re-vamp my mental image, from women making these and feeling scandalous to, instead, spending their egg money on them and feeling scandalous. Not much of a difference when it comes right down to it!

To me, in the 21st-century, when our ideas have changed about what defines titillating, these towels are a charming reminder that a sense of humor and a love for a little fun know no era. I display them in my guest bathroom, as my foremothers might have, and smile every time I see them!

Little Bitty Pretty One: Vintage Swedish Baking Cloth

IMG_6470Little bitty pretty one,

Come on and talk to me . . .

Sometimes, when I see just one perfect vintage treasure, that old song from the 1950s pops into my mind.

Some items are just so simple and understated and perfect, that I wish I knew their full story. I wish they could talk and tell me where they came from, who made them and used them and loved them. “Come on and talk to me . . . “

Such is the case with this little baker’s cloth, with its sweet red embroidery of a pastry-crimping tool

I actually do know more about this cloth than many vintage linens that find their way to me. I bought the cloth on eBay and the woman who sold it to me sent along a note.

IMG_6475My little cloth came from Sweden and has been used by three generations of girls in one family. It was used to cover rising dough for bullar (buns), which are made with cardamom, and limpa bread, which is scented with anise and fennel.

But, of course, I’d like to know more. When was it made? Were the women who used it homemakers, who made all their own breads, or was this kept for rare occasions of holiday baking?

Who did the stitching? A practiced hand, certainly; the stitches are infinitesimal! Did she make a practice of decorating her kitchen linens in this simple, effective way? Did she pass her skills down to her daughters, and through generations?

When did the little towel come to the United States? Was it a gift from a mother to a daughter who was leaving home and moving so far away? Was it brought to America as a little reminder of home, and family, and tradition?

And why was it sold?! It’s so small and easily stored or displayed—surely the previous owner could’ve found a spot for it?

But, she didn’t. She passed it along to me, saying, “It has been well loved, and we hope you will have your day brightened by the cheerful red embroidery!”

I have, indeed, had my day brightened, and this little bitty pretty one continues to be well loved!

What little bitty pretty treasures in your home just make you smile and say, “Come on and talk to me”?


The One That Got Away: Dansk Paella Pan

IMG_0911In two and a half years of selling vintage treasures on Etsy, the online marketplace, I’ve found loving homes for a lot of cool stuff. Mostly I sell things that I like a lot but that don’t fit my very relaxed lifestyle or that I simply don’t have room for.

Every once in a while, though, I regret parting with one of my beauties.

One such regret is this fabulous Danish Modern paella pan.

IMG_0919These pans were made by Dansk in the 1950s and ‘60s; the line is called Kobenstyle. The exterior color was a rich, deep yellow enamel–the color of French’s mustard. The interior was glossy, bright white with a thin black hint of metal showing around the edge.

I found the pan at a garage sale and I could see it was special. Even though my usual taste does not run to Danish Modern, the pan was priced very reasonably and in perfect condition, so I bought it with the intention of selling it.

After I took photos of it and listed it on Etsy, I put it out on my coffee table, just as a place to keep it until it sold.

And I got used to seeing it there. It was sunny, and sleek, and made me think of a perfect fried egg.

In the couple of months I owned the pan, sometimes I’d fill it with fruit but mostly I thought it looked great empty.

But it was rarely empty.


Because it was the perfect size and shape for a cat.

IMG_0657And when a cat wasn’t sitting in it, it made the most amazing cat toy. The concave interior shape of the pan made it just right for containing a ping pong ball.

A cat could (and did) bat the ping pong ball around the slick interior and it would sail around that perfect groove, making the most fascinating zhoop-zhoop sound. Once in awhile the ball would go flying out, and bounce around the room, providing more fun.

But then, just when we got really attached to it, someone bought the pan. I heard the special “cha-ching” that the Etsy app makes on my phone and checked to see what had sold.

Oh, no! My pretty bowl. My cat’s favorite toy and spot to nap.

There was nothing to do but package it up and mail it off to its new lucky owner.

I found a ceramic bowl I had sitting around, to put on the table. It’s sort of the same shape but has never caught on, with the cat or with me. It’s pedestrian and has none of the verve of the Kobenstyle bowl and it doesn’t make a ping pong ball sing either.

So, now I have one more thing to look for when I go garage saling. Maybe someday, I’ll find another yellow Dansk paella pan, to replace the one that got away. The cat hopes so!





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?