Sunday, December 20, 2015

Getting Intimate With History: The Lessons Everyday Items Teach Us About the Past

Getting Intimate With History:

The Lessons Everyday Items Teach Us About the Past

By Guest Blogger : Sarah A. Chrisman

"From my earliest boyhood, ancient wearing apparel, old household and kitchen utensils, and antique furniture, have appealed to me with peculiar force, telling facts and relating incidents to me in such a plain, homely but graphic manner of the every-day life of our ancestors, that I look upon them more as text-books than as curiosities; for it is only by the light of truth reflected from these objects that we are enabled to¼pierce the¼fiction with which the perspective of years surrounds the commonest objects of those remote times."
—Beard, Dan C. "Six Feet of Romance."  The Cosmopolitan. July, 1889. p. 226.

            The more we use something, the more familiar we become with it.  For instance, no one would expect watching French films once a year to make them fluent in the language, let alone intimate with the culture, but living in the country is a different matter.  Until someone invents a functional time machine we can't emigrate to different times to study the cultures of other eras.  However, we can learn about them through all the everyday artifacts people left behind.  Familiarity with the things that shaped people's world helps us understand them better. 

            My husband Gabriel and I live with as many everyday Victorian items (especially things from the 1880s and '90s) as we possibly can.  It's an extraordinarily tangible way to connect with and learn about a time that fascinates us.  The antique objects which fill our days and nights are our teachers, and they constantly teach us new lessons.

            We started by collecting antique clothes, then gingerly wearing them for short periods on special occasions, then creating meticulous copies we could wear every day.  Clothing is amazingly intimate.  It shapes the people who wear it, and they shape it in turn.  Some of our earliest lessons in the depth of this relationship came from Gabriel's antique suits.  We could find garments that fit him in every single dimension save the chest and shoulders, where the proportions would be dramatically different.  This baffled us, until we realized Victorians were trained from a very early age to hold themselves erect, with shoulders back to expand the chest.  They didn't spend hours every day slumped over driving wheels or in many of the other hunched postures that destroy so many modern backs.  Gabriel began doing workout routines which tightened his back muscles.  He made a conscious effort to hold himself upright every day, and slowly his proportions shifted until he could wear those antique suits he admired so much.  (Always very carefully of course, since age had rendered them delicate.)  In my case changing my physiology was much quicker and easier: it only took a corset.

            We made copies of those original garments so that we could wear them every day without damaging irreplaceable antiques.  It's important to remember that they weren't always antiques, though .  The damage done and repairs made by the clothes' original owners tell their stories in very poignant ways.  One of Gabriel's antique suits is nearly immaculate, and one could easily assume it had been worn only once or twice before it was forever stored away.  Looking down the viewer sees the reason: an enormous tea stain across the front of the trousers.  Another of his antique suits is made of relatively fine fabric —except for its pockets, which are rough as sailcloth.  The former owner must have carried heavy items (keys, perhaps?), and knew his own propensity for wearing through pockets.  These sorts of details are considered flaws by most collectors and dramatically lower antiques' financial worth.  (This is why we can afford them at all!)  However, they increase their educational value in a way that has nothing to do with money.  To us these aren't flaws: they are memories of people long gone, details too mundane at the time to write in books, but recorded forever in the items they touched.

            When Gabriel and I moved to a house built between 1888 and 1889, we expanded our explorations beyond clothes and into nearly all of life's intimate details.  Using oil lamps as our main source of artificial light has taught us that paraffin oil burns more dimly than kerosene, but with a cooler flame less apt to crack the chimney of an especially small fingerlamp.  The light of oil lamps, magnified and reflected by mirrors and mercury glass common in Victorian houses, has given us a much deeper appreciation for light and darkness and the ways they play off each other.  It has taught me that natural daylight is best for sewing with dark fabrics, but that white and other pale colors can be worked at night.  It has made us more conscious of questioning exactly how much light —or any resource— we truly need at a given time.

            When Gabriel first presented me with a Victorian kerosene heater, the device made me distinctly nervous.  Could such a large flame possibly be safe?  But I remembered peeps into modern Japanese home life when I'd taught English in the small town of Komatsu for a year.  Kerosene heaters are still quite common in Japan, and my friends there didn't think twice about using them when the weather turned cold.  Remembering their nonchalence made me willing to try the Victorian heater.  Now after five years of using the dependable, utterly safe device, I recognize my old anxieties for what they were: narrow-minded prejudice against something unfamiliar.  Familiarity with the tool gave me confidence in my ability to use it.

            I bought my eyedropper fountain pen with a portion of my first book advance, and I came to look on inkstains on my right hand as a mark of pride which proved I was doing my job as a writer.  They also incline me to think that inkstained hands were a contributing factor in the popularity of gloves in Victorian wardrobes: an insight I would never have gained if all of this hadn't become such a part of me.

            Every object humans create says something about its individual makers, and every item we use bears our fingerprints in one way or another.  My husband and I love our antiques for their beauty and utility, but most of all we love them for their lessons of the past.  They allow us to literally touch history, and to connect with its most private details.

For more on Sarah please follow her on and her web site


1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for your very interesting blog!