Strutting our stuff

Historian Patricia Keller studies family keepsakes, like the 1880s teapot shes holding.
Historian Patricia Keller studies family keepsakes, like the 1880s teapot shes holding. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

From top hats and parasols to items mundane, heirlooms are handed down with stories reflecting our changing culture. A workshop will explore the things we keep.

Posted: January 13, 2012

Things and possessions have come to define 21st-century American life. We're one nation, under stuff.

All is not junk. Some is precious. And this is the idiosyncratic province of Patricia Keller. She's a historian and decorative arts curator who studies cherished objects, from high-end museum collections to hand-sewn Lancaster County quilts, which were the focus of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Delaware.

"Above-ground archaeology" is how Keller describes the study of what she calls "material culture," those family heirlooms infused with powerful stories that connect us to earlier generations and communities.

On Saturday, Keller and her husband, conservator Kory Berrett, will share what they know about those connections at a workshop called Understanding Heirlooms: Exploring Your Family Objects, at Stenton in Germantown. That historic house was built for James Logan, William Penn's secretary, in the 1720s.

"We'll get beyond the object itself and use it as a window into how people in your family lived, which is part of the day-to-day time period's conduct," says Keller, who grew up near Norristown, the daughter of an inveterate collector of "stuff."

For this story, I decided to open a window into my own family - on Mom's side, from Lancaster County and western Illinois, where the women saved and cataloged special items to an extent that surprised even Keller. (Dad's side, scattered from Prince Edward Island to Maine, Rhode Island to Massachusetts, was apparently not so inclined. Little of his "material culture" made it to Philadelphia.)

We start with a classic Victorian-era top hat, size 71/2 and stored for decades in my grandparents' home in Ephrata and for a couple decades more on the third floor of my family's house in Philadelphia. All those years it stayed, undisturbed in a corner, in a vintage hat box from "Dobbs Fifth Avenue New York."

Sleek and shiny, the hat is made of silk plush (the successor to beaver pelt). According to the handwritten note tucked inside, it first belonged to Edwin Stock Royer, my great-great-grandfather (1844-1890), who owned coal, lumber, and wholesale/retail liquor businesses in Lancaster County.

Can't you just see him, man about town all gussied up, tipping that way-cool hat to the ladies?

"Anyone wanting to project a persona that was socially respectable would wear such a top hat, and not just for formal occasions like weddings or opera," says Keller, who nonetheless notes that, despite its use by men in every circumstance, the top hat universally bespeaks prosperity and status.

(Even today. See "Rich Uncle Pennybags," the mustachioed, top-hatted mascot of Monopoly, and the similarly lidded Uncle Sam, capitalism personified.)

The next family item dates to the 1880s and, Keller says, "is another accessory for the public presentation of self" - a silk parasol most likely belonging to my great-grandmother, Martha Miriam Hartshorne Chidester (1851-1925) of Bushnell, Ill. It's the burnt-brown color of autumn leaves, with a pagodalike shape recalling that era's infatuation with all things Asian.

The print on the parasol is blue oak leaves and acorns. The decorative fruitwood handle sports a pistol grip and brass talons set into the wood. And there's a ruffled silk lining, the color of cream but deteriorated now, designed to flutter in a soft breeze.

"Gorgeous," says Keller, who describes the parasol's double duty - one, as a fashion accessory, and two, as protection for a lady's porcelain-white complexion. (Provided you were Caucasian, that is.)

"No sunburn, no freckles, was an indication that you were not working outside. You could afford to hire people for services. Your face and hands were white," she says.

For better or worse, that is the parasol's true story, in real time, in the Midwestern branch of my family. And that gives it value beyond any financial consideration in the antiques marketplace, according to Lisa Tracy, author of the 2010 memoir Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family's Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time (Bantam Books, 2010).

"These things contain stories, and storytelling is such a deep human activity. That's how we know who we are," says Tracy, a former Inquirer editor who lives in Lexington, Va.

"Even the most mundane object has a story," she adds, "and the more we live with the object or our family lives with it, the more that object is infused and invested with stories."

Keller has more stories to tell me, including ones contained in two other treasures from the Illinois Chidesters - a historical blue English Staffordshire earthenware platter and large teapot dating to the early 1800s.

Examining the teapot, Keller explains that in the 18th and 19th centuries, "coffee houses were masculine socializing places to go. The tea table was very much a female realm."

For women, tea was an essential part of entertaining both male and female guests, she says. With the pouring of the tea came an outpouring of another sort - talk of family and neighbors, the latest news and politics.

This may surprise: Tea time was not confined to the affluent.

"Even the most rural, provincial farm woman would at least aspire to breakfast tea. Tea had a lot of social value," Keller says.

And what of that value? Watch Antiques Roadshow and you'll see a lot of dollar signs. When Keller interprets heirlooms, that is not her role or intent.

"I have made a career out of trying to understand why objects have value," she says, wondering aloud why some objects accrue more meaning than others.

Sometimes it's the object itself. The teapot brews tea; that has practical value. But objects are not just their physical selves. They are, Keller reminds, "the embodiment of bits of reality about our ancestors' past."

Why do they mean so much to some and not to others? And what is the nature of that meaning? It's comforting to know that even Keller doesn't know for sure.

It's a mystery, like falling in love and loyalty to family.

Now there's a good story or two.


Care and keeping of your heirlooms

Want to make tea in that 200-year-old earthenware teapot you inherited? Or toss the hand-sewn, Civil War-era quilt onto your grandson's bed?

Not so fast, says curator Patricia Keller.

"These things are objects. They do not last forever. The more fragile they are, the less likely they'll survive use," she says. "If you decide to use them anyway, give yourself permission. It's up to you."

Something that's easily replaced carries less "emotional freight," Keller adds, "so every time you use it or move it or dust it, you've placed this object in harm's way. Some objects won't make it."

That's the risk with any object, from day one, but the fact that this teapot or quilt has survived this long makes it all the more precious.

On the other hand, if heirlooms are never used, displayed or talked about, their stories will be lost. How many times have you thought to yourself: I should've written down the story of that teapot. I should've listened when my grandmother talked about the quilt.

Keller has some suggestions.

Take digital pictures of all your heirlooms and type up those stories on your laptop. Put it all together in a scrapbook - photos, descriptive captions, and all the recollections you have, and make copies for your children.

If they aren't interested now, they might well be later.

"People tend to start valuing things from their family after they have children or in midlife. They start to gauge who they are, all the changes that have happened, how much time is left, how they fit into a bigger picture.

"This is when family history becomes more meaningful," Keller says.

- Virginia A. Smith

Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/ginny


Heirloom Workshop

Understanding Heirlooms: Exploring Your Family Objects will be held Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at Stenton, the historic house at 4601 N. 18th St. (at Windrim Avenue) in Germantown.

Curator Patricia Keller and her husband, conservator Kory Berrett, will discuss how to incorporate family heirlooms into genealogical research to learn more about your family history.

The program will also cover how to "read" objects and use what you learn in your research, and how to properly care for your heirlooms.

Feel free to bring some of those heirlooms to the workshop to learn more about them. Refreshments will be provided.

Cost: $10 for Friends of Stenton; $15 for others.

Information and reservations: 215-329-7312.

Website: www.stenton.org


Watch curator Patricia Keller explain how to research family heirlooms online at www.philly.com/ginny


Contact staff writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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