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.


  1. Sara~ Thanks so much for this wonderful post! I too have some magical memories of exploring some of Nanny's things with Aunt Char. You wrote so lovingly of yours, it brought my own rushing back. I recall seeing that photo of you in the green dress years ago, but had no idea it had been put on backwards - so funny!
    I really wish you had been able to know Nanny. As I was 9 when she died, I am lucky to have many very fond memories of her. When I was 5, she came to MA to visit for a few days, and at breakfast, she pulled a banana on me & began 'shooting' it!! So intelligent, funny, and with a mind that had always been far beyond the times she was born & lived in, as far as what women could or 'should' do or not do. She was a terrific story-teller and a walking history book, and I totally adored her. Thank you again for bringing all this back to me!
    Love~ Cousin Amy

  2. Ciao Sara! Ho scoperto per caso il tuo blog....sarà un grande piacere seguirti in queste tuoi post legati agli abiti del passato, che anch'io amo molto. Ho studiato storia del costume e scoprire piccoli particolari da te è davvero bello. Ho letto il post sul bonnet purple che non era un bonnet alla fine! All'università ho visto un abito nello stesso tipo di tessuto e colore e abbiamo scoperto
    che era degli anni 1864 in poi, perchè prima quel colore non esisteva. Probabilmente, come hai ipotizzato bene tu, si è ricavato un abito per la bambola, riutilizzando una parte del tessuto viola! :)
    Hello Sara! Who knows how many treasures you find in the closet of your grandmother!! I stumbled upon your blog .... it will be a great pleasure to follow you in your posts related to these clothes of the past, which I also love very much. I studied the history of costume Firenzee to discover small details from you is really nice. I have read the post on the purple bonnet that was not a bonnet at the end! In college I saw a dress in the same fabric type and color and we discovered it was the years 1864 onwards, because before that color did not exist. Probably, as you well you suggested, it was converted into a dress for the doll, reusing a part of the fabric purple! :)