Objects and their history

Penny at podium_croppedRecently a colleague mentioned a web-based series of interactive discussions called “Windows to the Past: Discovering History Through Tangible Things,” in which “participants will assess fascinating objects . . . to see how any material thing, when examined closely, can be a link between the present and past.”

Reading this description made me think about how often such items turn up in the family histories we hear and read: the piece of jewelry, the silver, the diary, the clock, the clothing. . . From my husband’s family, we have Civil War–era letters and a diary; his great-grandmother’s china, saved for special occasions; the odd piece of sterling silver; a cut-glass bowl; a sword made from the sword of a swordfish; and some dark, heavy, ornately carved furniture – relegated to out-of-sight rooms and the garage – made by a great-uncle.

teapot 2
Mumma’s coffeepot.

From my family, though, such tangible items are few and far between. Both my parents were from large families, and poor families at that; the few passed-down items were spread among many descendants. I do have some twentieth-century items from my parents: my father’s driver’s license and draft card, and service pins from his employer, as well as a collection of Emily Dickinson poetry that contains my mother’s handwriting. I also have a copper coffeepot that belonged to my mother. As she died when I was very young, I have long treasured it as link to her.

Recently, when polishing the coffeepot, I noticed the hallmark on the handle: Rothberg Oy [Ltd.], Turku. Turku is in Finland, where my mother’s parents were born. I wondered: Did it make its way to the United States with my grandmother, Sandra Eliina Matalamäki, in 1900? Or might it have traveled over later, perhaps as a wedding gift when she married my grandfather, Juho Panttila (John Isaacson), in Nanty-Glo, Pennsylvania, in 1901? Or perhaps it came even later, and maybe directly to my mother.

I haven’t been able to find out much about Rothberg coffeepots, but many are for sale on eBay and Etsy and other sites. I’ve seen them dated between 1890 and 1930. The Finns use them to make tea or coffee – and, as I learned when I visited Finland in 2012 – they drink a great deal of coffee. Certainly my grandmother did, mixing it with lots of milk and sipping it from a saucer.

I suspect at this point I will never know just when and how this coffeepot came into our family, but I like to imagine my grandmother, “Mumma,” leaving her home in Teuva with it in her bag, making her way to Kristiinankaupunki (Kristinestad) on the west coast of Finland, and sailing to Southampton and then, on the Saint Louis, to New York. I see it with her as she traveled overland to Nanty-Glo, and then as she unpacked it when she arrived at the home of relatives. It would have been a shiny piece of home to sit in her new residence, which no doubt was soot-blackened from the coalmines where my grandfather and other family members worked.

Whatever the coffeepot’s story, for me it’s a tangible tie from the present to the past: from me to my late mother and also to Mumma – and to Finland, a place that has come to feel like home to me.

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

19 thoughts on “Objects and their history

  1. Material objects are invaluable to the historical record and those that are uncovered via “digs” can support or more importantly can refute the written document.

  2. I have an 1820 Ezra Stone tall clock inherited from my aunt that belonged to my Raymond family. While it is an antique that is not what is important to my family. The slow tick tock and chimes bring us back to family gatherings with laughter, stories, tears and love. My aunt sold it to me for a dollar as my grandmother sold it to her years before. I have sold it to my daughter for a dollar carrying on the tradition. Although it sits in my living room keeping me company until I pass over as it sat in my aunt’s living room until she died and in my grandmother’s until she died. It is much more than a clock it is a friend.

    1. Dear Barbara Bailey,
      My family also has a tall case clock by Ezra Stone. I have not been able to find any information about him and the Massachusetts Historical Society responded to an e-mail with no information found. Do you by any chance have a reference or record concerning him? I would love to be able to Photograph our clock and compare it to yours if you are agreeable to that. I have found a 1986 reference to an Ezra Stone tall case clock from the LA Times under current prices:Tall case clock, Federal, mahogany, Ezra Stone, Boston, Mass., c. 1800, 95 in., $9,900. Here is the link to that:http://articles.latimes.com/1986-10-18/news/vw-6161_1_boxes. Please let me know if you have any information. I would particularly like a photo of your clock. Sincerely,
      Stewart Mclean

      1. Stewart McLean, a nice Scottish or is it Irish name? My family names include Douglass, Gallt, Currie, Beaton, Currie and Finney/Phinney. We are Scot/Irish with some French and Scandinavian mixed in. I was surprised to find anyone who knew about Ezra Stone tall clocks. I will send you a photo via e-mail beb100acrewood@verizon if you send me your e-mail. I have very little information but will scan the info. I do have and send it along.

        1. Stewart guess I had the Curries on my mind as I listed them twice. I have been trying to locate them in Scotland. Barbara

        2. Hi Just reviewed my Aunt’s file on the clock. Found much more information than I remembered. In the meantime I will take a new photo and scan the info. Hoping to hear from you soon.

  3. I have an old lidless sugar bowl reportedly passed down through my mother’s family that [I was told] dates from the early 1800s and was carried in the wagon west…What I don’t know is which family…. if it went from Mothers to daughters, it might have belonged to Elizabeth Wray Walker who emigrated to Michigan from Yorkshire England in the 1830s and west in 1850s…or to Sarah Lester Thorn(e) whose family arrived in New Netherlands in early 17th C and lived there [New York] until they, also, joined a wagon train west in the 1850s where she died on the trail…perhaps if Antique Roadshow is still traveling and comes here, they can date it and pinpoint its place of manufacture, and assure me it’s only value is familial …Jerri

  4. One of my favorite tangible objects handed down to me is my grandfather’s cobalt blue glass eyecup. The story goes that he worked with chemicals that would splash up into his eyes, thus the need for the eyecup to rinse out his eyes. That story made sense when I found my grandfather’s naturalization record from 1906. He listed his occupation there as “electroplater”. A genealogy friend explained that this process involves lifting items in and out of liquids. That gives a lot of meaning to the eyecup now. When I look at it, I see my grandfather as a 28 year old immigrant from a fishing and farming village, trying to make his way in a rough and tumble manufacturing city. Thank goodness he persevered, and eventually found work as a tool and die designer.

  5. I’ve said that I live with the communion of the saints being surrounded with furniture and knickknacks from my families and those of my husband.

    1. I envy those Brits (in towns and villages outside of London) who live in homes – passed down from previous generations, and like you, live among the furniture and knickknacks left by their ancestors as if it were the most natural thing in the world. which in their case, it is. Note, I’m not referring to the entailed “manor houses”, only the homes of “average” people.

  6. Your story came at a perfect time, as I figure out who was the first ancestor to purchase the schoolhouse clock ticking away in my kitchen. My husband and I found it in an attic room of my great grandparents’ home in Wollaston, MA years ago, long after those who came after them were gone. It must have been purchased at the time the home was built in 1864 by my great grandfather, George Franklin Pinkham. I love this clock and am using it as the starting point for my research into the Pinkham side of my family.

  7. The oldest object that links me to the past is a shard I brought back England. It was from the shoulder of a 1685 wine jug stamped with the name of the ancestor who owned the farm in Somersetshire (now a B&B) in whose “kitchen pit” it and dozens of other shards were found when the current occupant was digging a flower bed in the back garden.

    Each year in those days, wine from a local vineyard was delivered to landed gentry in huge barrels in horse-drawn wagons, then transferred into jugs provided by the “lord of the manor” stamped with the year and his surname.

    1. Oops, I hit “submit” before adding that another cherished link to the past is my grandmother’s oil lamp which I keep within reach for times when the power goes out. Or not. Sometimes of an evening I’ll just turn off the lamps in a room, light Grandma’s lamp, and have a “chat” with her. Very comforting.

  8. For what it’s worth, the Finns are the largest per capita consumers of coffee in the world, followed by the Swedes!

  9. I have a bureau I inherited from my mother’s Sheldon and Stebbins side of the family from Deerfield, MA. The interesting fact about it, painted on the back is the name Caroline Stebbins and the date March 20, 1810. That was the date of the marriage of Caroline to Seth Sheldon, my 4th great, grandparents. What remains a mystery is if was a present from her husband, her parents, or her in-laws. While some hardware changes were made over the years, it is still a priceless family heirloom that I hope will continue to be passed from generation to generation.

  10. Unfortunately, there’s the flip side of objects that family members fought over literally for decades. My mother “won” the battle for one of these items, and I think that eventually I shall see if I can convince a cousin on the losing side to take it off my hands. Otherwise, I may ceremoniously burn the blasted thing!

  11. Several wonderful items have come down to me and other family members. I believe I’ve already mentioned the top hat my Norwegian g grandfather wore when his men’s choral group was invited to sing before Queen Victoria in the 1880s. It now sits proudly on the top shelf of the bookcases in my brother’s great room. My Norwegian grandmother, who taught school before she married, also took painting lessons, something genteel young women did even in the wilds of Minnesota around 1905. I remember seeing several of her oil paintings in their home when I was a child. I inherited the largest one, a dramatic black and white study of two horses. My sister didn’t like it! I hope the others found good homes too. My grandfather gave me some of their wedding china for my wedding present, apologizing for not being able to afford to buy me anything. I was thrilled to get the delicate Limoges, trimmed with a great deal of gold. I didn’t think to ask him how they found room for it in their tiny sod hut on the prairies of South Dakota (my grandmother hated homesteading).

    On my father’s side of the family, I always envied my great aunt’s small spinning wheel, which had come across the prairies from Illinois to Idaho with her parents and their oldest children in the late 1880s. What did come down to me was a box of documents, including photographs going back to my gg grandfather, both his wives, and a Bible belonging to him with birth, marriage, and death data including my grandfather. There’s also a box of dusty post cards I still haven’t gone through, written mostly between my grandparents during the year of their engagement, 1910-1911. This was pretty public communication, so I was thrilled to find a long, sweet, love letter he wrote her in 1907. Excellent sources for genealogy!

    None of these items, except perhaps the spinning wheel, are of any monetary value. But they all give me a special feeling for the people involved, especially the writings of my grandparents, who died before I was born. Thank you for the memories.

  12. Treasures, one from each of my grandmothers, passed down from previous generations. One is a simple stoneware bread bowl that I know goes back at least to my paternal grandmother’s grandmother, who emigrated as a very young woman with her parents from the British Isles during the 1800s, the last of my immigrant forebears. It may be one of the first things she acquired for her new household (she married a Welshman she met on the boat coming over). I used it almost daily as my children grew. There is also a collection of the fine needlework that she did to help support her family, working in winter evenings as the family gathered together after dark. She was widowed young, and these lovely pieces are tangible evidence of both her perseverance and her skill.

    The other treasure (a set, really) is the remnants of a collection of small pieces of fancy porcelain and glassware from my maternal grandmother. It was assembled by her mother, and quite possibly included pieces inherited from earlier family members. My mother was always sad that her mother had to sell some of the glassware during the depression to make ends meet, while she worked as cook at a nursing home. I once had them displayed in a glass-fronted vertical secretary, and my children were enchanted by the light shining through them.

    The difference between these two reminders of my grandmother’s very much reflects their families’ different social and economic standing when they were young women. Changing circumstances during the early 20th century brought their economic positions closer together, as it did for many people at the time. Both ended up working hard to help support their families. The stories I heard about their lives as I grew up helped me to grasp my own strength and potential as a woman. These small treasures remind me of the other gifts, not so tangible, that they left me.

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