This little vest/blouse combo was, for some years, something of a “problem” artifact. Part of a large donation by the Prettyman family of Rockville in the 1980s, its history consisted of a cryptic note added to the paperwork: “‘Moon King’ bodice to Curly Jack’s costume. Dorothy (age 11).” Well, presumably that made sense to someone at some point, but it was mystifying to me. For one thing, Dorothy’s identity was unknown; for another, both blouse and vest looked much too small to be worn by an eleven year old. Happily, Dorothy was easy to track down, thanks to the extensive genealogy resources in our research library. Dorothy Clark was born in 1905, in Colesville; she married Charles Wesley Prettyman of Rockville in 1931, and they were the parents of the people to whom most of the donation was related. But who is Curly Jack?

One nice thing about mysteries is that they stick in your brain. When looking through old issues of the Montgomery County Sentinel some years ago, researching some other question entirely, the words “Moon King” jumped off the page at me – wasn’t that the name on that cute little Prettyman costume? Here is what the Sentinel of June 12, 1909 had to say: “‘The Moon King,’ a grand spectacular operetta composed by Mrs. S.M. Hamilton, under the auspices of the [Silver Spring] Home Interest Club, for the benefit of the new Woodside public pool, will be rendered at the Odeon, Forest Glen, under the direction of Mrs. E.B. Clark.” Mary Hamilton (Mrs. Edward Berry) Clark was Dorothy’s mother; the Clarks lived in Colesville, near Silver Spring; and in 1909, Dorothy would have been four years old, not eleven, which makes much more sense size-wise. Hooray! Mystery (almost certainly) solved! (BUT: see update here.)

The Montgomery County Historical Society has been collecting artifacts since it was founded in 1944. That’s a nice long time, time enough to accumulate lots of great stuff… and to lose a lot of information along the way. Over our 66 year history we’ve changed ‘homes,’ changed curators, and changed our thinking about what we should collect and keep. Even with the best intentions in the world, my predecessors forgot to write things down, mislaid paperwork, figured they’d eventually get around to asking Mrs. Donor a few more questions, or didn’t even think those questions were important. My personal favorite problem: In the 1950s, curator Dr. Adams took copious catalog and inventory notes… in his own personal version of shorthand which no one today can read. (And, no doubt, despite my best efforts, some future curator here will be muttering imprecations against me.)

Every artifact has something to say, even when you don’t know anything about it. “What on earth is that?” is a great story (or the beginning of one). The problem is that at a historical society, we generally want our artifacts to tell a specific story, a local one. Often, enough clues remain that the story can be teased out through research (and luck), as in the case with Dorothy’s costume. Some clues are still waiting – but then, getting to solve these puzzles is part of what I love about my job, so who am I to complain?

** Image seekers: You’re in luck! While I’m still working out the logistics of putting photos on this blog, Dorothy Clark Prettyman can be seen on our website as the “Staff Photo” of Liz Otey, our Education Manager. **