Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The ‘Object’ of History

by Sara Jane Ruggles
| August 9, 2020 1:10 AM

Do you ever look at an antique and wonder what the story is behind it? The nostalgia that exists within and around objects has fascinated humans for centuries. It inspires us to collect, archive, and protect the sanctity of historical artifacts because they tell our story.

For example, I have an antique trunk in my possession that once belonged to my great-grandmother. It traveled with her as a young child in 1908 when her family of nine members migrated from Kearney, Neb., to start a new life in Sacramento, Calif. Imagine the history that was discussed in this trunk’s presence, the ancestors who packed it and unpacked it dozens of times, and the contents it held through the decades of American fashion and consumerism. How can we preserve the history of such objects, which bear the stories of a bygone era? That is the subject of today’s article.

I was inspired to write this article because of an experience I had recently when my parents shared with me the story of a family heirloom. It was an old stereoscope from 1918 or 1919. It is part of a kit and is accompanied by about 50 black and white photos of World War I scenes, each mounted on hard cardstock. This is a fascinating piece of American history, but I learned from my father that my great-great-grandmother bought it for a deeper reason.

Her son was one of the American men who was drafted into the First World War and was fighting overseas. In her worried maternal state of mind, she answered the door one day in either 1918 or 1919 to find a traveling salesman who sold these stereoscope kits. The salesmen told my great-great-grandmother that this patriotic piece of Americana depicted life on the Western Front. When she admitted to the salesman that her beloved son was serving on the ground in Europe, he enticed her to purchase the kit by telling her there was a good chance she might see her son in the images. Of course, she did not, but her story struck a chord with our family; a mother’s love desperate to find her child.

I am incredibly grateful that my father took the time to write this story down on a simple notecard and he placed it within the kit for all of us to remember its significance.

This is a potent tool, not only for preserving stories, but for informing future generations of the historical value of the heirlooms you will one day pass down. After all, we cannot blame them for their ignorance in discarding objects if we do not take the time to tell them why the objects are important.

Therefore, I encourage you to take this time of quarantine and write a brief note about the historical or familial significance of some of the items in your home. Write about subjects such as: the significance of the piece, why you chose to keep it in the family, what it represents, how it came to be in the family, and maybe a special memory you have with this object. Find a way to stash the note with the item; under it, inside it, or slip it between the pages or cracks. What a treasure this simple detail will be to those who find the notes one day because it will continue to tell the story of how they came to be.

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Remember to enjoy the journey! As always, please reach out to me through my website if you have any questions: www.sarajaneruggles.com.