The Way We Were

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).

Tiffany picture frame, with a picture of my great-grandmother Mabel Barton Floyd

–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?



16 Thoughts

  1. You are valiant to sort through all that, Sheila! And so interesting about the cisterns. I wonder if I can use something like that in my Victorian-era books. I have my mother’s china, which I keep and display because it’s simple and elegant, and use for meals like Easter and Thanksgiving. I doubt either of my sons will want it, so at some point I’ll have to decide what to do with it.

  2. Sheila, I love- really love – this post. Love your photos too.Yes, objects have their own stories, even if we don’t know exactly what they are. Is that why we make up stories? The house you are leaving – two china cabinets! – sounds like it was perfect for you. Once. Now its time for another life. My parents were not sentimental people and were children of immigrants, so there was not much to keep and treasure. Plus, they downsized themselves as they got old. Now I wish I had a bit more of those objects with memories attached. On the other hand, my mother in law believes every object she ever owned is of great value and she cannot part even with clothes unworn in 30 years. There will be quite a chore cleaning out her many closets someday. .

  3. I use my grandmother’s (though it is much older than that and I have no idea how long it has been in the family) desk every day. It has been through a lot and I love the memories that it has. Also I have lots of family things like pictures and silver, and my brothers also have things. My mother decided to give things to us when my father died rather than keeping them when she didn’t use them. I also wear my grandmother’s and mother’s jewelry often, and my son’s wife’s engagement ring was my grandmother’s ring. I know that the kids will have to decide what to do with other things, though some they have already spoken for. I’m pretty sure that none of them will want the Victorian chair which my grandmother, my mother and I all worked on the needlepoint seat because although it has memories for me, it doesn’t mean the same to them and doesn’t fit their lifestlyle. We all go through these times as we get older and start to downsize.

  4. When we greatly downsized two years ago, fortunately we had time to go through things not once but a few times. Each time you look at things with a new eye figuring out what really means something to you and what you have room for. By having the time to give it thought, we didn’t make the mistake of having the mindset that we might get rid of something and then later regret it. Going smaller meant space something would take and its size were a big determination lot of times too.

    An example of things that were on the definitely moving with us list is my great grandmother’s little dinner bell. I can remember my great grandmother, but it’s really more being able to ring that bell to gather everyone for dinner at my Granny’s home when we went to visit. She had gotten it after the passing of her mother. It’s small in size but oh what big memories. I think it was that bell that led me years later to collect bells. Thankfully years ago I changed over to large outside old bells (like church, ship and railroad bells) so less of those to contend with concerning the move.

    Like I’ve said before, it was a process of finding out what evoked a strong emotional attachment to us – not just stuff a relative had, where was it going to be places if we kept it due to size and would it be used or just stored again never to be seen for years at a time. The same process was involved if we just loved it due to design, color or time period. Being able to go through it with new eyes a few times greatly helped too because each time we found we could turn lose of a bit more.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  5. My mother’s china cabinets looked a lot like yours. She was a caterer who also loved to collect china, crystal and silver. It was all beautiful stuff, but not of my taste at all. I’m an only child and it was my duty to disassemble her home when she died. My daughter wanted a few of the things, but then what? I made many an 8-hour drive to her old house to clean everything out. I found homes for many things at churches (I didn’t care what the denomination was – all church kitchens need things), nursing homes (clothes and dressers), florists (loads of beautiful and not so beautiful flower vases), etc. Then the Salvation Army really made out. The china, etc. I sold. I kept very few things. One old table that I am told my mother and her family used as a “radio” table when she was little, and a few small items are all I really wanted. My daughter made me promise that I would never put her through that, so re-evaluate everything on a regular basis. Do I really want it? I don’t buy things unless I truly have room for them. I have everything I want and need to be very comfortable and happy. She will still have a time of disposing of everything, but at least it’s manageable since she, too, lives a long way from us.

    Each time I have moved, I’ve gone through every item in the house and asked myself did I really want to carry it in and out of houses another time. It’s amazing how much stuff is gotten rid of that way!

    Good luck at finding a happy medium on what to keep and what to give away.

  6. Gone are the days when things were passed down house to house. I have nostalgia in the bones and history in my veins and sentimentality in the heart, but… my children and nieces/nephews do not. My kids have lived on opposite coasts, have minimalistic homes so they can be world-wide travelers instead. That is their reality and I can appreciate and even envy it. Making peace between generations and the ‘stuff’ passed down is an act of give and take, give and take, and eventually just give away. I am doing that downsizing in spurts and bursts mainly so my children will not have to be “burdened” with it; because to them it would be a burden; to me it was a treasure. Times change, and so must I. Writing is in its own way what I hope to pass down.
    Great article. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. I’m starting to sort through a basement full of things. Do I keep the little china figure of a girl who sat on my grandmother’s windowsill but will mean nothing to my daughter? It’s hard. Good luck, Sheila.

  8. I had a plethora of Christmas ornaments from my mother. At one point, The Hubby made me go through them and weed out what I wanted to keep and what could go to the church flea market. I also have a set of china teacups (mostly ornamental) from my maternal grandmother. We display them in our china cabinet, but I’m not sure either of my kids will want them when the time comes. A decision for another day.

  9. I have a plaster Ten Commandments Tablet which used to be on display on my grandparents’ mantle over the fake fire place. I’ve had it cleaned up and had it mounted in a shadow box where it hangs on the wall over the table where the Sabbath Candles are lit every Friday and on Holidays.

  10. Hi Shari,

    Oh, how I related to your post. I too, am living in a house that’s much too big for me. Four bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, dining room, family room, utility room, and front parlor. However, because I have a reverse mortgage on this house, I’ll probably be here until I’m carried out.

    My reaction to the photos of your china cabinets was, “Oh, they’re so empty compared to mine.”

    My mother wasn’t a hoarder, but she definitely had issues with getting rid of things. She wasn’t physically able to sew for ten years before she died, but she insisted on keeping cupboards packed with dress patterns as well as other cupboards packed with half-made clothing. I tried many times to get rid of those things, but she always insisted she had plans to get back to sewing those things, probably next week.

    There was a joke amongst the family that she kept a jar labeled, “Pieces of String Too Short to Save.” Whenever I tried to send something to Goodwill or the dump, her response was invariably, “I might need that.”

    It’s been four and a half years since she died, and despite valiant efforts on my part, I’ve barely made a dent in disposing of those things which are without value.

    On the other hand, there are a great many things I’m grateful she saved, treasures passed down through the family for several generations. There is a lot of Victorian-era china and cut glass. I’ve never seen anything to equal the generous collection of truly fabulous cut glass my grandmother received as a wedding present (probably around 1880 or so). The edges are so sharp and deep that you could cut yourself if you aren’t careful handling it.

    And then there’s the china. Like all well-brought up young ladies of her time, my grandmother painted china. And she was extremely good at it. (She did oil painting as well; we have many landscapes and still-lifes she painted, and they’re wonderful.)

    My greatest treasure from her is a medium-sized scallop-edged china bowl so thin that you can almost see through it which painted with the most beautiful violets you can imagine. After my grandmother died, we had to have her estate appraised, so we brought in an antique dealer to do it. When he saw the violet bowl, he immediately offered to sell it for us, saying it would fetch the value of a medium-sized new car. Needless to say, selling it was never a possibility either for my mother or me.

    To me these treasures are worth having for their beauty alone, but for me their greatest value is their connection to my grandmother (who I greatly loved). I can imagine her sitting with the bowl propped in front of her carefully and with great precision painting the tiny violet leaves onto the bare bowl. How I wish I could have watched her doing that. No, that’s something I’ll never part with.

    However, if you have any interest in around eight hundred or so Simplicity and McCalls patterns, we should talk.

    1. Sherry, I have no idea why a called you Shari. Perhaps with Easter coming soon, I was channeling Shari’s Berries. Mea Maxima Culpa.

  11. I had my Dad’s collection of tin soldiers which I’ve given to my oldest son. Great grandmother’s Nippon vases have gone to a pair of sweet great granddaughters.Mama’s china to oldest daughter. I stll have assorted knick-knacks and costume jewelry I’m not ready to part with yet. But fortunately my family wrote and saved letters! Precious memories on paper which somebody had darned well better preserve or I will haunt them!

  12. What lovely memories, thank you for sharing. I may have an answer to the furniture conundrum. My mother’s keepsakes looked much like yours, china, lamps, linens, very little furniture. My mother used to lament that her parent’s generation were proud that they had ditched the Victorian “junk” furniture they had grown up with and bought modern to pass on to their children and heirs. My uncle received the papers and books. Handwritten letters and journals in gorgeous copperplate script. I often wonder at the division decisions.

  13. That Tiffany silver set? Although silver values have gone way down in the past 15 years — Tiffany has not. If no one wants yours (in your family) then go to a reputable auctioneer. You could be pleasantly surprised. (Written as a 4th generation antique dealer who is very conscious of the ups and downs of household items. 1950s furniture, by the way, is very saleable now …
    “Brown furniture” — e.g. mahogany — not so much. It’s crazy!

  14. Loved your post of your home. I would hate to be u, as I Love antics and probably would keep most of it. Barbara

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