What’s In Your Attic (or Basement)?

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I’m writing this article at the beginning of my second week in Salt Lake City. I’ve spent a very full week amongst my ancestors, filling in the gaping documentary holes in my family tree. This next week will feature several days of further research, plus attendance at the RootsTech Conference (stay tuned for a conference round-up in next week’s post).

All of my time among my familial generations has turned my thoughts to the remembrances, or belongings of theirs, that I might have. While many objects and documents have found their way from my mother’s house in Massachusetts to my house in Virginia over the past ten years or so, a majority of them migrated south in December of last year, as my son and I cleared out my mother’s house after she moved into assisted living. I began to realize that I am the only one left in the family who knows whose spoons were on display in the dining room (my great-great grandmother’s “coin silver” teaspoons) or why we’ve kept a rather amateurish oil painting of a street scene (my parents lived in a house on that street in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts). I’m afraid to say that I’ve begun to distrust the accuracy of my recollections of the original ownership of some of the items.

What I have found are treasured pieces of my family’s history. A beautiful crazy-quilt dating from the late 1800s, that includes Grand Army of the Republic reunion ribbons for all the units in which members of that family served (10th Massachusetts Infantry, 6th Connecticut Infantry, and 1st Connecticut Cavalry), holds the place of honor over my mantelpiece; family portraits of my grandfather as a child, my grandmother as a child, my great-grandmother and great-great grandmother grace the stairway wall to the second floor; a very worn child’s chair, perhaps the only item remaining from my maternal grandmother’s family, sits in front of my fireplace.

As I have begun to sort through the boxes we packed last December, I have found my father’s high school yearbook, filled with well-wishes from his friends and teachers, as well as letters of appreciation from the students he himself taught throughout his career as head of the English department at Longmeadow (Massachusetts) High School, and scrapbooks commemorating the early years of the school, student plays he directed, and his retirement. Two wonderful discoveries were several pages from a letter he wrote my mother in about 1942, as he traveled on a train from his basic training in Florida to his next assignment in Oklahoma (although he didn’t know where they were going as he wrote it), and another letter, written as he traveled from his duty station in France to the coast prior to boarding the troop ship that would return him to the States and civilian life at the end of the war. Unfortunately, my mother must have destroyed the rest of the bundle of his war-time letters that I know existed at least a couple of years ago, so these two extant descriptions of my father’s experiences were most welcome.

Several picture albums span a period of many years and include pictures of my then teen-aged son’s trip to England to stay a few weeks at my parent’s cottage in the Cotswolds, where they lived half of each year between 1980 and 2001, as well as pictures of my husband and me as newly-weds, visiting England in the late 1980s – we looked so young. Other photos depicted friends from the United States who visited them during those summers, and new friends made in the English countryside. Again, I may be the only person left who can identify them all – a sobering thought. Boxes with probably fifteen large slide storage containers wait my return to Virginia from this trip. Conversion to digital images will be, perhaps, a life-long project.

Friends have shared with me stories of their “finds” in attics and basements. One has found a series of family pictures that also help document scenes around where they lived in Washington, D.C. during the 1920s and 1930s; another discovered a cemetery deed from Chicago among the belongings of a maiden aunt (and doesn’t yet know if the ownership was ever sold or transferred to anyone else).

If I’ve whetted your appetite for what might be hidden in an attic, here are some things you might want consider:

Look at absolutely everything. It takes time, but in the pages of that book might be a notation of some family significance. (“This is the last remembrance sent to me by…” was a statement a friend found on the fly leaf of a book, referring to the owner’s fiancé who died before they could be married. His death date had been noted as well.)  Military uniform patches can help focus military research; pictures may document the display of an object in someone’s household, or show someone wearing a piece of jewelry or clothing.

A cedar chest may often yield interesting items. The one which I brought back to Virginia once held quilts (made annually by my great-grandmother), an “old fashioned” woolen men’s bathing suit, and a Highland Baptist Church (Springfield, Mass.) baseball uniform. Look for signature or memorial quilts that might commemorate a specific event in the family’s history. Preserve such items by carefully wrapping them in acid free paper and placing them in acid free storage boxes. A large selection of such storage materials of all shapes and sizes are offered by University Products.

Jewelry boxes are always worth investigating. They may contain items from fraternal organizations, employment anniversaries, church attendance pins, military insignia, and items engraved with initials or inscriptions. I now have my grandfather’s Odd Fellows Lodge officer’s insignia and a lovely little pin with a propeller on it that my father sent my mother during the war.

Did anyone in your family do embroidery or perhaps crocheted or tatted? Women often made beautiful pieces as a part of their trousseaus. I have preserved several doilies, pillow cases, etc. with work much finer than I can imagine doing. Such pieces may include initials or monograms, and sometimes even a date, to help identify the workmanship.

You may find clothing. While my mother had long ago destroyed her wedding dress (why, I don’t really know), I found mine in her attic, where it had hung since 1969. It is much yellowed, but my dry cleaner believes that it can be restored reasonably well. Maybe one of my granddaughters will want to wear it. I also found a dress my grandmother wore in the late 1920s during a trip she and her husband took to Bermuda shortly before she died. It is a wonderful example of the “flapper era” style.

Several generations of my family had silver napkin rings, which they used daily. Everyone‘s was a different size; all were monogrammed. There were also sterling baby cups and pewter shaving mugs and match cases.

I could go on with other examples – shelves and shelves of books, some of them histories of the local area, and sheet music that brought to mind summer evenings around the piano – and much more. I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is to look at these family objects and documents with someone who can tell you how they relate to your family history. Take notes or record the conversation. Place informative notes on the back of pictures and paintings with (archival quality) labels so that future generations will have the benefit of an accurate story behind the piece. That attic may look like an awful job to clear out, but the riches it may yield will be well worth your time.

Leave a Reply

Next ArticleLooking Back on RootsTech 2012