Being Present with the Past

Jessie: in windy and increasingly leafless New Hampshire

Over the past several months I’ve been hard at work on the first book in a new series. It’s a historical mystery set in the late 1800s and the research has been such fun. I’ve attended seances, interviewed historians and visited museums. I’ve discovered a great many things in the course of my searchings, not the least is that the past is always present.

Last week I visited the delightful Saco Museum in Saco, Maine. The museum was featuring an exhibit on the Victorian era and I wanted to be sure to visit it before it closed later this month. There were many interesting things to see like a delicate and decorative chatelaine notebook made of intricately wrought silver covers enclosing pages made of ivory, quite similar to the ones seen here. There were fancy hats and their accompanying pins, hair jewelry made from the tresses of deceased loved ones and stereoscopes with their accompanying slides.

Antique-Image-Bicycle-Man-GraphicsFairy2They even had a tandem bicycle built in 1897 with a placard explaining that at the time it was made, the bicycle was called a courting cycle. The idea was that the lady sat in the front and the gentleman sat in the back. His seat was not only raised higher but also had a set of handlebars that steered the entire apparatus. The lady’s set of handlebars was merely to help her to balance.

While it was delightful to have the opportunity to look at so many interesting and novel items, what struck me most was how many of the things I was seeing were not new to me at all. New England is filled with history and also with frugality. People here tend to take care of their things and are none to eager to discard them. Most of the homes I have spent time in over the course of my life have been filled with the same sorts of furnishings, tableware and accessories that were on display at the museum.

Everywhere I turned there were fainting couches, gate-legged tables and drop-fronted desks like the ones I grew up with. Which got me thinking. fashionplatehatswm

I thought about how people have changed and how they haven’t. About what entertains us. About how we seek to provide our families and ourselves with comfort. I thought about how we still love meals shared at long dining tables and evenings spent reading in cozy sitting rooms. I thought about the nights I’ve spent turning over in a creaking antique bed, huddled beneath an elderly quilt.

Today, I write notes in a trusty Moleskine and steer my own bicycle.But I adore hats and I would like to construct a mystery around a murder involving a hatpin.

Sometimes the notion of writing about other times feels daunting. And sometimes it feels like home.

Readers, do you find the past all around you? Which things from times gone by most tickle your fancy?


19 Thoughts

  1. Ooh, guess I’m going to Saco today! Sounds like an exhibit I must see. I have lived in a series of antique New England houses since I moved here more than thirty years ago and love thinking about how the earlier occupants lived in them.

    1. Do you know anything about the history of your homes? The great grandson of the man who built ours stopped in to introduce himself almost 20 years ago. He brought a photo of the house when it was quite new, a photo of the original owner and a history of the family. It was a delightful surprise!

  2. Those of us who live in New England can’t plead ignorance of the history around us, thanks to place like Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village, or the Lexington and Concord battle sites (and don’t forget all those authors’ homes). Me–I’m the crazy one digging trash out from under my Victorian house and creating a profile of the people who lived here before me (and who the heck broke all that china?).

    1. My husband and I always joke about finding a diamond ring in amongst all the cast offs we find during renovations. Of course, I always imagine the ring perched on a boney finger!

  3. I am very eager to read your upcoming series. It sounds well-researched and familiar! I’ve lived in the South my entire life, and the homes I lived in and spent my childhood in were full of well-worn and well-loved things. New is nice, but old is awesome!

  4. Does anyone else want to do a site visit to Sheila’s house? Seriously, I love that she has her own dig.

    Jessie, I also think that the “things” from that period were meant to last. My great nieces and nephews will still be eating off my grandmother’s table, but my Ikea dresser will long be in a landfill.

    Can’t wait to read this book!

  5. I don’t think we have that kind of history in So Cal. Part of is is, like Julie said, newer things aren’t made to last. And part of it is because we want to have the newest and best.

    Of course, I tend to hang on to stuff. Most of my bedroom furniture is the stuff I grew up with, and the end tables in my living room are ones I took when my uncle and aunt didn’t want them any more.

    1. It is remarkable, isn’t it, how disposable all kinds of things have become? Even in the course of my adult life I see a difference in the quality of so many things. I hate to buy small appliances because they are so unreliable. My mother had a food processor for over twenty years. In the course of that same amount of time I’ve had four. I sort of wonder if antiques in the future will be even more expensive since there may be fewer things that reach a ripe old age!

  6. We’ve always lived in old houses, including our 1879 sea captain’s house in Boothbay Harbor. My father’s mother’s family were interior designers and I always wonder if the Victorian couch and oil paintings I’m holding onto were commissions that some client rejected.

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