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.
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!
A box of Japanese parasols.
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.