Saturday, February 25, 2012

Nanny's Closet

My great grandmother died about a year before I was born, but she was still very much a presence in the family when I was growing up. Pictures of Nanny were prominently displayed at my grandmother’s house, and her stuff was everywhere. In many ways, Nanny was to me what the Disney princesses are to today’s little girls. She was this sort of unreal character who had beautiful, old, mysterious things and wore the most amazing dresses I ever saw.  Even her name sounded worthy of old English gentry: Georgiana Mayhew Duncan Seavey.

Georgiana Mayhew Duncan, or "Nanny" as she is known in our family. This image was taken in 1906
just after she graduated from La Salle University. She was 21. This dress is one of the ones she stored
away in a closet near her room when she moved in with her oldest daughter's family in the 1940s. 
So can you imagine my enthusiasm when I was given the opportunity to dig around in the closet that held all of Nanny’s oldest dresses and nice things? Grammy Rivers had just helped me start collecting antique purses (story here), and she thought that there might be some purses in the closet that Nanny, her mother, had used until she died in 1976. For the most part, this closet had been left alone since Nanny died. The Christmas things were piled high right inside the door, so its depths had not been accessible. I had already decided by this time that I wanted to be an archaeologist, so excavating the depths of a large closet full of family heirlooms was like blisspalooza for me. I vowed to devote whatever vacation time I had to Grammy’s offer to go through the closet together.

Nanny's closet as it appeared in October 2011. It's actually less crowded here
than it had been in the late 1980s, but I didn't take pictures back then.
By the end of the first hour we had completely trashed Nanny’s old bedroom with piles of things we had to get out of the way, and we successfully reached the first trunk. There was a lot of dust, dirt, rodent excrement, and suspicious debris, but I was a kid who had never read up on biohazards, and at the age of 11 or 12, I had little guilt about ignoring messes (like complete mouse skeletons) that Grammy was too blind to see. I was just excited to be there, and the discovery of really old clothes and purses—the only things I really cared much about at the time—was about to begin.

There was too much stuff for me to remember all of it, but here’s a sample: piles of gently used wrapping paper, a plastic garment case full of circa 1960s coats and dresses, suitcases full of older dresses, circa 1850-1925, hats-a-plenty, furs, a pitcher and basin in its original shipping container, complete with mouse nest inside, a box of wooden jigsaw puzzles, really old photo negatives rolled up with age, a trunk full of linens, shawls, and newspapers, a box of Japanese parasols, a folding lap desk full of letters, and a huge trunk full of fabric scraps. And that barely represented a fraction of what was there. We didn’t even get to about half of the boxes in the closet, but still, it was more memorable even than the Milli Vanilli concert I went to that year!

The trunks in Nanny's closet were in the same place in 2011 as they had 
been when I first went though the closet with Grammy Rivers. On the right 
are hanging bags with furs in them, and the shelf in the back has boxes 
with puzzles, letters, and old photos.
A box of Japanese parasols.
A major highlight of the treasure hunt for me was a chance to try on the most amazing green dress. The bodice was so tight that I had to take short shallow breaths and I could barely move (and it wasn’t just because I was unknowingly wearing it backwards). Also, the skirt was missing the crinoline it needed to reach the diameter it was intended to have, so it dragged on the floor and I accidentally stepped on the hem a couple of times. I am ashamed to admit that I heard it rip. It’s hard not to be haunted by that now that I know so much more about the age and fragile condition of the dress. I’m still grateful that I tried it on though; had I waited even one more year, I would probably have outgrown it or developed some scruples about using an 1850s gown to fulfill my dress-up fantasies. The memories mean so much to me though, that even my current curatorial ethics can’t convince me that the minor rips weren’t worth it.

Extreme dress-up aside, Grammy and I also had the pleasure of finding what we were originally looking for: several antique purses. Most of them were ones that Grammy had never seen before, meaning that they had probably belonged to her mother or grandmother before she was born in 1912. Grammy gave them to me for my collection, and I have cherished them ever since. I’ll devote a whole blog entry to those later.

This 1850s dress boasted a pagoda sleeve and slightly pointed bodice, but  you can't tell since I put it 
on backwards. How was I supposed to know? The skirt suffers a bit without a crinoline, but I was still 
ever so happy.
Purses were no longer enough for me though. After this foray into Nanny’s closet I decided that antique dresses were too irresistible to admire only on family visits, and I resolved to start my own collection of those as well. By the time I entered Jr. High, I was saving my allowance for antique shows. Now, as an adult, I sometimes I wonder how much money I’d have in my IRA if I had saved up instead of investing in my costume collection. But I have no regrets. My collection may not pay for my retirement, but the enjoyment I get from it is priceless.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

This isn’t my day job (most days)

I am an archaeologist. Yes, it is a real job. This is the career I’ve wanted since the 3rd or 4th grade (see pictures for proof). I used to work on excavations, but about 12 years ago I took some classes on conservation and some major guilt kicked in. I learned all about how the evil “agents of deterioration” were acting on everything I had ever excavated, and I knew from experience that artifacts sometimes turn to powder because of neglect. Since learning that, I have worked to assess and research collections instead of creating new ones. It’s not that I have a problem with new collections being generated, far from it, I just find it more rewarding to be the one caring for the artifacts when the excavation is over. I’m now a curator in a museum where I compile research on archaeological collections, keep them organized, and make sure they are kept according to archival museum standards.
Behold my first archaeological dig. I am a 5th grader in these photos, and I had gotten a book about how to do archaeology. It went over the supplies needed, and said to set up a grid. Grammy Rivers and my parents helped me gather the tools, and then Grammy, in rollers, helped me drive in the grid stakes (top left). But the book didn't really say what to do next. For example, it didn't point out the folly of sifting into the unit you are digging. Still, I got a school project and a boat load of 19th-century artifacts out of it. Big thanks to the 'rents for cutting the lumber off our land in Maine, revealing the site, and for donating the use of the dining room table as my mending station for a year or two (bottom right). I didn't do it right back then-- Elmers glue is not recommended on archaeological ceramics-- but I was a kid with the coolest jigsaw puzzle I could have ever hoped for. I kind of regret the bangs and the purple moon boots, but not my interest in archaeology, even if I didn't do it according to professional standards. 

Usually, this career has nothing to do with the private collections that I post about on this blog. My personal treasures are almost entirely clothing articles made of fragile textiles, and fabric rarely survives underground in the Chesapeake region where I work; there are too many little microbes that find them tasty. So in theory, home and work should not overlap.  But, of course, they do.

Collections management is collections management no matter where you are. I’m trained to do it professionally, and I can’t discard that knowledge when I get home. In a professional museum setting, collections care calls for organization, inventories, tracking, archival materials, safe handling, pest control, and sufficient storage space. Ideally, you should have a budget and staff to maintain this order. Pest traps, acid-free boxes, sufficient shelving, database software… You get the picture. Also, when you are paid to care for collections, you have 40 hours a week to stay on top of these things.

At home? Well, the budget isn’t really there for one thing. Archaeology as a career isn’t lucrative from a cash standpoint, though I do feel rich when it comes to enjoying my work. So my house is small, archival storage is expensive (and not something I want to use to decorate my living room), climate control is impossible because my small house is also old, and pest control is only going to happen if my cats take an interest. Conditions for my collections at home include such curatorial no-nos as overstuffed boxes, boxes stacked perilously high, major fluctuations in temperature and humidity, use of wooden storage containers that off-gas acids, and the placement of collections in a closet that is known to have had mold and moths.

I do my best to monitor things and get the right storage materials as my budget allows, but even when I purchase archival-quality supplies, there’s no telling when I’ll get around to using them. As I write this, a brand new pack of acid-free tissue sits on a table in my living room and it has been there for well over a month. Because here’s another thing I usually lack at home: any motivation whatsoever to continue doing what I did all day at work.

I like getting my collections out, looking at them, inspecting how they were made, taking pictures, and putting garments on a dress form to see how they once fit. I do not, however, like putting it all away again, nor do I let myself dwell on a stain I saw or a smell that lingers. If my goal in getting things out is inventory or condition assessment, that takes all the fun out of it! Truly, if the word “systematic” enters my mind with regard to going through the collection, I immediately feel some urgent need to check Facebook or watch TV.

All that being said, I do know what I’m supposed to do as a responsible steward of collections. I do make myself put things away, and I do eventually use those storage supplies. From time to time my posts will focus on techniques for caring for costumes in a non-museum setting. I have to take a practical, low budget approach, even if it’s not up to par with what I would do at work. If my readers also have collections, maybe it’ll be useful to share what I like to call “best-ish” practice for collections care at home.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

It Started with a Purse and my Grammy

Charlotte Seavey Rivers (1912-2011). 
Shown here in 1929 at age 17. 
About a month after I started this blog, my grandmother, Charlotte Seavey Rivers, passed away. She was 99. My commitment to this blog increased exponentially at that point, but turning it into the resource I need it to be will be daunting. The provenance of much of my collection, and in fact, my reason for having a collection at all, is tied to Grammy Rivers. Her passing sparked a need to reorganize my house, my closet, my collections, and my thoughts about family, old clothes, family, hoarding, and family. All are tied up in one big tangled yarn ball at the intersection of my career, my beloved hobbies, and my relationships with people I love. If you can picture that tangle of yarn, comprised of three colors-- my collections, family heirlooms, and my job-- then picture this blog as snippets that I have freed as I have time to sit and pick through the jumble.

For this entry, I’m concentrating on finding the beginning of one strand: my collections. Here’s how it all started with a purse, a pocket obsession, and a purchase.

Shopping with Grammy

In the late 1980s, before there was such a thing as eBay, antique dealers used to set up booths at the mall from time to time. When I was in 5th or 6th grade in Fulton, New York, Grammy Rivers was visiting us from Maine when our family decided to hit the local mall. There was an antique show going on, and Grammy and I split off to look at the booths while the rest of the family did their shopping. I had a coin collection, and usually at least one booth featured coins, so I brought my cash.

While my memory of the day is fuzzy, here’s what I remember vividly: One booth had two purses hanging from a shelf, one smaller than the other. Both were tapestry purses, both had interesting decorations on the frame, one was $15.00, the other was $20.00, and I WANTED ONE. I actually circled the mall twice, stopping each time to handle these beauties. Finally, I asked the dealer if he could come down on the price and he complied: $11.00 for the little purse and $15 for the big one.

Here it is: the purse that caught my tween eye.
I loved the fantasy castle scene, the enamel
work on the frame, and what I found inside... 

I had always had a thing for wallets and purses with a lot of pockets. Whether a hand-me-down of an old purse from my mom or a yard sale find, I measured the value of the accessory by the pocket count. Which is weird, because at that age I had pretty much no need whatsoever for a wallet or a purse. I only made money through a small allowance and the rule that I could keep any change I found around the house (except for quarters). When I did have something important enough to store deep in the recess of a hidden pocket, I usually forgot it was there. Still, I was a kid and ‘need’ wasn’t really factoring into my decisions. I was probably thinking something like: “Neat. Want. Pretty.” Given my mantra “more pockets are better” I was naturally drawn to the larger tapestry purse because it had the coolest feature; a mini-purse within the purse! But sadly, I had only $12.00. It was frustrating, but at least I could afford the little one.

A mini purse INSIDE the purse. Brilliant!
Grammy Rivers had witnessed my interest and torment as I weighed my options; I had dragged her back to the booth twice, after all. And then she did something I totally didn’t expect; she offered me $3.00 so that I could get the BIG purse. I was in awe. The idea that my Grammy was even a participant in the market economy hadn’t ever really occurred to me. She grew and canned a lot of her own food, she was mostly blind and couldn’t drive, and as a retired mother of ten and grandmother of 25-ish (I seriously don’t know) she wasn’t someone who threw money around. In my mentalverse, cash from Grammy: A) came from a birthday card via mail, and B) never exceeded $5.00. This was like getting an unexpected raise for a job I didn’t do from a person I didn’t ever think of as ever even having touched a dollar bill. I was so joyful. Grammy had helped me obtain a completely impractical but fascinating antique AND she had expanded my view of her from just “my Grammy” to “member of society at large.”

The $2.00 yard sale find that brought my purse
count up to two: an official "collection."
Not long thereafter, I found an adorable little embroidered purse with an Asian scene on it for $2.00 at a yard sale and bought it. The clouds parted, the sunbeams broke through, and lo, a collection was born! I added to my ‘purse drawer’ with all of the enthusiasm my child-sized budget allowed, while my other collections- coins, pretty rocks, seashells, and matchbox cars -were relegated to storage in my closet.

Most importantly, however, Grammy and I bonded over this new interest that she had helped me pursue. She saw how much I loved these old purses, and old things in general, and boy did she ever have access to old things! We were set on a course that led to Nanny’s closet, but that is a story best left for another post…