Friday, October 18, 2013

Digging Up the Past

by Sheila Connolly

I do seem to be wallowing in the past lately, don’t I?  Maybe it’s because it’s fall, which is the ending of another year, despite the glories of the foliage.

This time it’s close to home, and the digging is literal.  We live in a Victorian house built around 1870.  It has a barn that once housed a horse and carriage, with a hayloft above (house and barn and what little lawn that’s left occupy a quarter-acre—not large), which suffered a fire in the 1950s and lost most of its interior, and with that its period charm.  The kitchen and the barn are connected by a ramshackle structure that I’m guessing was either the summer kitchen or the laundry room (or both) in the past.

It’s an odd space, cobbled together with salvaged materials from who knows what.  It has four doors, none of which match each other, and two windows, which also don’t match.  And it has lots of rot.

Since my government-employee husband was furloughed and had some free time, we decided this week would be a good time to rip out the floor in there and fix it.  Of course we found more rot than we expected—doesn’t everyone?  But I also found what to me was a treasure:  the house dump.  In one corner of the space, under the floor, was a heap of discarded, broken household items—and I was thrilled.

Okay, I may be crazy.  But I’ve done the genealogy of the house—who built it, who owned it, and who lived here before us.  Early in its life the household included as many as eight people—the owners (a young couple), five boarders, and an Irish serving girl.  I’m still trying to figure out where they put everybody (there was only one bathroom!).  Then the wife’s mother moved in:  the boarders left, and some improvements were made, like heat on the second floor.  The family we bought the house from moved in the week they got married in 1943.

I must have been an archeologist in a former life, because I see a heap of trash and I have to start rummaging through it.  What people throw away tells you a lot about how they lived.  The organic waste is long gone, and paper would have been burned, so what remains is mostly glass and china shards (and a lot of women’s shoes, for some reason).  Most of the glass was broken, except for more than fifty bottles that held patent medicines, vanilla extract, and ammonia (others have no labels or stampings in the glass).  Most have their original corks.  More than a dozen of the bottles contained Atwood’s Jaundice Tonic, a popular cure-all that contained a lot of alcohol.

What I have learned from my dump digging:

--      glass lamp globes were broken with alarming frequency (they’re thin and fragile)—I found many, both plain and fancy.

--      whoever was washing the dishes was pretty clumsy and broke a lot of pieces, both plates and serving dishes, as well as drinking glasses

--      Dinnerware was much smaller back in the day (plates, glasses, serving china), which says something about how our eating habits have changed.
--      There was no discarded clothing, but there was a surprising number of ladies' shoes.

I also found the remnants of at least four chamber pots, plus one intact one.  That explains at least part of how they managed with only the one bathroom.

There were also a few interesting objets that are harder to identify or explain.  Plus one fork and the remains of a wooden toothbrush, the bristles long gone.

What intrigues me is how all this ended up where it did, because there’s no outside access to that corner.  The board above it had a hole cut through it, with traces of lead around the edge, so I’m assuming there was a sink or drain there, with some sort of plumbing).  Was there a loose board, where they pitched anything that wouldn’t decay or burn?  Over what period?  Why there?

Not all the broken pieces were utilitarian.  Some were simply pretty things, and I kept finding myself apologizing to them for someone, now long dead, having been careless enough to break them.  A few bits I may be able to salvage, with the help of SuperGlue.

Why would I do that?  Because together they carry a story about how people lived in this house, and that makes me feel more connected to the past here.  And their trash is a lot more interesting than ours will be to future generations?
P.S. I did find one clue for dating:  there was a broken glass with "Thomas" etched on it.  The Thomas family lived in the house between 1897 and about 1906, which fits well.
One final note (unrelated save that it involves an old house--which will no double reveal a trash dump sometime soon):  my most recent Orchard Mystery, Golden Malicious, was a New York Times Mass Market Bestseller in its week of release.





Kathy Lynn Emerson said...

What a wonderful find! We kept finding marbles when we first moved into our house, built right after WWII. Traces of an older house that burned down turned up when we excavated to pave the dooryard. Little things to spark the imagination.


Sheila Connolly said...

Kathy, our last house (likewise Victorian) also produced a lot of marbles. I kept envisioning a lot of children there.

Yes, I'm busily constructing a story of how and why this particular dump came to be there, based on a few scattered clues. But the shoes still mystify me.