I’m going to be moving out of my oversized (four bedroom, two parlors and a stable) Victorian in the next few months, after fifteen years here. That means I’m going through the better part of a century of accumulated stuff. You might call this post Downsizing Part 2, not that I’ve come to terms with how much I’m going to have to let go and gained a new perspective. The process has made me realize how much the world has changed both since the house was built ca. 1870 and how much daily life has changed for many people (based on the accumulated possessions of four generations of my family). I’ve also learned some things about family members that I never knew, save through what they acquired and kept and passed down, ultimately to me.
To start with the house, or, what it means to be a Victorian home:
–There’s a servant’s room in the attic. It’s unheated, although it did at least have electric light.
–There are not one but two cisterns that collected rain water from the gutters (there was no town water when the house was built). One was in the basement under the kitchen sink, and there’s a pedestal for a long-gone pump. The other is in the master bedroom, hidden behind a wall. My best guess is that it provided water for the adjacent toilet (the kind with a high tank mounted on the wall—BTW, the tank is still in the corner of the attic, though not connected to anything). Someone once suggested to me that since there’s a water spigot attached to the cistern, it might have been used in case of fire, with the attachment of a hose to that spigot. I’ve never seen such an arrangement, but it seems possible.
–There’s a fuse panel in the basement. It has room for six screw-in glass fuses—for the whole house. One of the spaces is labeled “Toaster”. So a toaster in that era required its own fuse? The town was first electrified in the 1890s, so the panel may date from around 1900.
–One space in the basement had been walled off behind a wooden partition—with a door that locked on the outside. Inside there were shelves along the walls. A cold cellar? Since for a time the house took in boarders, were the owners then afraid they’d steal the vegetables or preserves?
–There’s an unheated room between the back of the kitchen and the stable (which suffered a mid-size fire in (I believe) 1946, and hadn’t housed a horse for some time before that). Under the floor of that room between I found a treasure trove of trash, including a bald umbrella, a wooden toothbrush, a whole slew of empty medicine bottles and a souvenir Civil War cannonball the size of a softball (I say souvenir because this town and its vicinity never witnessed a battle in that war, though the builder of the house was a Civil War veteran). And five broken china chamberpots (probably discarded when they built a bathroom!).
So there were ample clues about how the people lived in this house when it was new, and they tell a story, both about them and about the town, well over a century ago.
The Family Heirlooms:
–China. Lots of china. One full dining service, plus 69 teacups (with matching dessert plates), and fourteen teapots of varying kinds. Assorted silver (the oldest were sets of teaspoons). Six demitasse cups. A couple of old Wedgewood decorative jars (one slightly broken). And my grandmother added a lot more pieces to the collection, more often decorative than functional. Luckily the house came equipped with not one but two full-size china closets.
–Lamps. My mother’s grandmother seems to have been obsessed with lamps. She didn’t buy many, but she converted a whole host of vases (mostly antique) into electric lamps, which I still use.
–Furniture. Mostly acquired in the 20th century, so not particularly historic. (Makes me wonder where the family’s Victorian furniture went!)
–Tablecloths and table linens. I have half a steamer trunk full. Linen cloths, usually with monogrammed napkins. A full-size lace cloth, that would cover a table with eight place settings. Luncheon cloths with smaller matching napkins. Cocktail napkins. The amount of ironing must have been hellacious (oh, let the servant do it).
–A handsome silver desk set bought by my mother’s father at Tiffany’s as a gift for his mother in the 1920s. It includes a desk pad, a pen tray, a letter knife, and a picture frame, all matching.
And there’s much, much more, though no books from the earlier years. Very few photographs—my early family wasn’t very much into photography, save for a few formal portraits. Only one small oil painting, of a New England schooner. A handsome commemorative sword given to my great-great-grandfather by the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, for which he did such things as organize a regatta on the Charles River.
Many of these things have no practical value to me or my sister now, apart from admiring their craftsmanship and enjoying our sentimental attachments. We never knew any of the people who owned them in the past. Since these people rarely wrote letters (or no one thought they were worth keeping), we know them mainly by the things they purchased and loved and kept. So we begin the arduous process of deciding which pieces mean the most to us, mainly through family stories, and whether we should keep them. We bring our family with us in small pieces. But it’s not easy to say goodbye—they’re still family, if only in memory.
What about you? Are there a few pieces that you treasure because they came from your past or your family’s? And how do you choose?