History’s Orphans — those items I can’t let go

I’m a historian. I teach history for three local colleges, and while I started out as a medievalist, and still love that, I’ve gotten much more into American history since I started teaching eight years ago. There’s something about it – we learn one thing in elementary school, mostly propaganda (at least, that’s how it was when I was in elementary school!), and then you don’t learn anything else unless you really start to get into it and study it more.

All the little stories. All the hidden history. All the things you never knew, or took for granted. (For example: did you know that the KKK of the 1920s was far more likely to attack Catholics or bootleggers, than African-Americans? It’s true!)

I also collect historical items – vintage items, to be more precise. Some, I sell through my store on Etsy. But sometimes, I find those things that I can’t quite let go. That 1930s passport. Research for a book. A wood cheese box that I store Post-It notes in. More than a hundred snapshots and World War II letters, left behind. To some, they’d be things to throw away. To me, they’re orphans. Not perfect; sometimes I can’t even put them in my shop because they don’t meet my own standards. But I keep them nonetheless, because I think everything has a story behind it. My shop’s motto is “Finding homes for history.” Sometimes, that home is with me.

For example: I collect vintage dresses. This week, I found a 1920s silk flapper dress at an estate sale. It’s fragile, but beautiful; a golden yellow with purple edging. Flowers dancing down the skirt. This is my third flapper dress. I showed it to a friend, and then I told her about one of my other dresses. One that I know has a story behind it.

I found it in a trash bin at an antiques shop – it was wadded up in a box of stuff to be thrown away. It’s gorgeous: white silk, sleeveless, with a blue and red striped skirt with heavy glass beads, in red and blue, all down it. So heavy, in fact, that the dress can’t be on a hanger; it has to lay flat. But all that would just be interesting if not for the fact that the dress is also covered in blood stains. I definitely understand why the shop decided to toss it – but I couldn’t let that happen. What tragedy did this dress see? What happened on a summer night in the 1920s? Why were the stains never washed out?

So many stories. So much imagination. I’ve no idea. Yes, I know I’m strange; a normal person would not bring that dress home. But I’m not normal. I’m a historian. And more – I’m a writer. This orphaned dress needed a home. I am slowly working on cleaning it, but the fact is, I’m not sure I want to. Every time I touch it, my mind wonders what the girl who wore it was like. What happened to her – or more likely, to the person she held, as there are no holes in the dress itself. Clearly, it was never taken as evidence. Was it an illicit relationship gone wrong? Where did the tragedy take place? And why?

These are the questions that haunt me sometimes, when I pick up objects, as I decide whether or not to bring them home. Photographs do this to me the most – so many times, the photos I collect have no names attached to them. They are strangers to me, but their stories are still there, somehow, in the paper and ink. But then there are those “orphan” items, like the christening gown I picked up at an auction a month or so ago, clearly tossed in a box and forgotten for generations. I intended to put it in the shop, but . . . I spent so much time cleaning it, I fell in love. 🙂

And that’s why I haunt estate sales and rummage sales. It’s true that sometimes, one man’s trash is just another man’s trash. But it’s also true that sometimes, there’s an item that doesn’t belong in the trash. That deserves better. Those are the items – those orphans – that come home with me.

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2 thoughts on “History’s Orphans — those items I can’t let go

  1. I’m pretty sure none do! 🙂 Although I did go back to that estate sale this weekend — the one where I said Something Was In the House? — and they had opened the upstairs. It used to be a rooming house for the railroad, and I didn’t feel that sense of “get out!” But then I went upstairs to one of the rooms, and it was a room that I noticed no one was really going into or spending a lot of time in, and yeah. You could definitely feel that Something was in the closet, hiding. I felt so bad. I wished I could have just saged the place and sent it on. Or had the guts to suggest they call in a priest or minister to do a blessing.

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