x20080704Today we have an impressively-titled history textbook, used in Barnesville: History of the United States, from Their First Settlement as Colonies to the Peace with Mexico, in 1848, Comprising Every Important Political Event; with a Progressive View of the Aborigines; Population, Agriculture, and Commerce; of the Arts, Sciences, and Literature; and Occasional Biographies of the most Remarkable Colonists, Writers and Philosophers, Warriors and Statesmen.  Accompanied by a Book of Questions and a Key, By William Grimshaw, Author of a History of England, &c., published in Philadelphia by J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1858, and donated to MCHS by Mary Beth Fleming.

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Thanks to some pencil notations inside, we know that this book was owned by a Mary Jane Knott of Barnesville. Ms. Knott, or another user, also added some mathmetical equations, doodled faces, and other scribbles, as you do.  The cardboard covers and leather spine show a lot of wear, the page edges are torn, and in fact the pages and the cover are completely separated; this book has seen a lot of wear, and it seems likely that it was read and studied by more than one student over the decades.  However, only Mary Jane identified herself in writing.


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Though this seems like a nice, specific piece of info (I do like people who write their names and hometowns in books), there are at least two possibilities for our original owner:  Mary Jane Knott of Barnesville, born in 1854 to Stanislaus and Bridget Knott, died unmarried in 1935; and Mary Jane Cissell, born in 1845 and married in 1862 to Francis Knott of Barnesville.  I lean a little more toward the former, but who’s to say that Mrs. Knott didn’t take up the study of history after her marriage (or write her name in her stepdaughter Sarah’s book)?

My favorite part is the fact that, out of all the possible images from U.S. history to use on the cover, the author or editors chose an illustration of Mount Vernon.  Our new exhibit on the colonial revival movement (at the Beall-Dawson House through May 15, 2014) includes a small section on representations of George Washington and his home throughout the centuries – so of course I had to add Mary Jane’s textbook to the display.  Come visit; you can see the adorable (if slightly inaccurate) “Mount Vernon” picture in person! If you’d like to read the history yourself, here’s a list of the prolific Mr. Grimshaw’s books, many of which are available online.

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Following up on last week’s “things left behind” post, here’s another item that contained bonus artifacts.

This beaded purse belonged to Sarah Austin Walter (1858-1932) of Kensington.  It was saved by her daughter Julia Walter Linthicum (1904-2000), and donated in 2006 by Mrs. Linthicum’s friend Mary Hertel.  Several things were inside the bag upon donation: a handkerchief, a thimble, a rosary, a Sacred Heart badge, and a note that read, “Dated back to 1908, these were Mother’s.”

Sarah “Sally” Deborah Austin grew up in Barnesville, one of the younger children of John and Jerusha Ann Rabbitt Austin.  In 1882 she married Robert Bruce Walter of Frederick, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Barnesville; by 1900 the Walters had moved to Kensington, where Robert worked as a carpenter.  (Fun fact: Sarah and Robert were the parents of Malcolm Walter, a local photographer who’s responsible for many fabulous 1920s-30s images of Montgomery County people and places; his photograph collection now resides at Peerless Rockville.)

DSC06377Unfortunately, Mrs. Linthicum’s note doesn’t explain the specific date of 1908, though it’s a reasonable one for this style of handbag.  The frame is marked “G. Silver,” or German (nickel) silver, and features both floral and geometric designs; the bag exterior, and the handle, are made of a red knit decorated with dark blue Bohemian beads. Though not necessarily an everyday handbag, it seems to have gotten a fair amount of use; the heavy beading is pulling away from the frame, and the lining, a dark pink silk faille, is a replacement.

DSC06381The silver thimble, and the simple wood-and-metal rosary (marked only “FRANCE”), are difficult to date, though they could also be from the 1908 era.  The two-sided paper-and-felt badge measures 2″ tall and reads in part, “The Apostleship of Prayer in League with the Sacred Heart.”  The printed copyright date is very faint, but looks like 1915. Sacred Heart badges are similar to scapulars – both are sacramentals worn by some members of the Roman Catholic faith. The presence of both the rosary and the badge make me wonder if this was Mrs. Walter’s going-to-Mass handbag.

t2582-2The linen handkerchief is likely much earlier than the other items here. It shows considerable wear from both age and use, and has Mrs. Walter’s maiden name cross-stitched in the corner.  Almost certainly, it was made by or for Sally before her 1882 marriage, but evidently she continued to use it (or at least carry it) for many years afterward.

One of my favorite questions, as a ‘stuff person,’ is “Why was this saved?”  What meanings did these pieces hold for the Walter family?  Are the pieces tied together by an event or a memory? Did Sally deliberately place these pieces in the handbag, or did her daughter Julia select them later as reminders of her mother’s life? It can be easy to overthink a little collection like this one, however; perhaps the purse was a just convenient vehicle for storing a few treasures, or the pieces were simply left inside the last time Sally used the bag.  What do you think?  What stories can you take away from a fancy beaded bag, a youthful handkerchief, a silver thimble, two well-worn religious pieces, and a daughter’s note?

In the Beall-Dawson House, on the small landing between the kitchen and the dining room, stands an unassuming steamer trunk, circa 1880s, green and black with wood braces.  It is well-worn and used, but there are no outward hints that this trunk and its contents make up one of the more interesting, and in some ways mysterious, collections held by the Society. 

I use the word “collection” advisedly, because as far as we know, that’s what the contents consisted of: a deliberately created collection of personal objects and effects, owned by Bessie Rebecca Claggett of Barnesville.  Miss Claggett was born in 1881 (or 1883) and died around 1985, and lived most of her life in the home built by her father, a freed slave, on Old Hundred Road.  The trunk and its contents were acquired by a private individual after her death, then donated to the Historical Society.

Since I learned Miss Claggett’s story through the artifacts first and the records second, I’ll try to tell it that way too.  The steamer trunk’s shallow tray contained the following items: A woman’s suit jacket with rhinestone buttons.  A blue silk reticule, decorated with cut-steel beads.  A small Catholic prayer book, with the inscription “Alice Claggett 1913.”  An extremely battered Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, with many notations in a tidy hand.  A souvenir sewing kit from Luray Caverns, Virginia. A small key on a wooden spool ‘keychain.’  Two pieces of white lace trim.  Two novels, published in 1893 and 1909.  A 1914 edition of Marianna Wheeler’s Before the Baby Comes.  A checkbook for Germantown Bank, with stubs dating from 1950-1958.  A box of Rexall Remedies playing cards, used.  An empty tin box, a glass eye cup, a patented (1936) scissor/knife sharpener, a “Magic Glo” antenna amplifier in its original box.  Four silver and silk lampshades with beaded tassels.  One ceramic bookend/figure of Ramses II (as indicated by a German label on the bottom).  A newspaper clipping from 1949, with the headline “Ewing Lauds Dawson, Urges Race Problems Be Settled Gradually.” A 1938 souvenir calendar, courtesy the Reverend Benjamin Arnold.  A cardboard box containing a plastic fashion doll’s head, an empty bottle of “Florida Water,” two broken pairs of eyeglasses, and a Christmas gift tag inscribed “to Bessie from Mr. Russell.”  A package of correspondence, bills and receipts to and from Miss Bessie Claggett of Barnesville, mostly about family and financial matters.  A hand-written menu for a nine-course meal. And last but not least, a matted photograph of an unidentified woman, taken in a Washington, DC studio.

We knew that the trunk came from Miss Claggett’s estate, but little else. However, thanks to research donated to our library by descendants of the Claggett and Ambush families, some of the items in the trunk began to make sense. Charles E. Claggett married Edmonia Ambush in 1881, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Barnesville. Both Charles and Edmonia were born into slavery. Barnesville historians say that Charles built his house, on an eleven acre farm off Old Hundred Road, around the time of his marriage.  The 1900 census lists Mr. Claggett, a plasterer, living in Barnesville with his wife and seven children. Bessie was the second child. Alice, whose name is written in the prayer book, was the youngest; she died in 1913. Miss Bessie Claggett inherited the house in which she was born, and though she may have worked and lived elsewhere as a cook for some years, papers found in the trunk indicate she was based in Barnesville for most of her life. 

Letter from Aunt Mary E. Claggett, 1934

A 1978 article in the Washington Post, about Miss Claggett (then in her late 90s) getting a grant to help restore her historic but decaying house, quotes her lawyer: “She’s very intelligent and very opinionated.”  But it says nothing else about her personal life, and factual records can only tell us so much.  What remains for us to study is this collection of items.  BUT, before I let my fancy run away with me (as I so often do), who made the collection?  Some of the items – like the prayer book, the key, the small box of keepsakes – would appear to be special, but then there’s the knife sharpener.  What if what seems to be a woman’s trunk of keepsakes is nothing more than the leftovers of a post-funeral clear-out?  On the whole, though, I’m inclined to think that most of the items in the trunk were put there – or at least saved somewhere – deliberately, by Miss Claggett. Maybe the antenna aerial was a present from a relative or neighbor, valued more for the sentiment than for practical use. Who am I to say what can or cannot be held dear?

Think about your own Saved Things. You know what they mean to you, but what would someone else make of them?  Do you leave explanatory notes for posterity?  (Curator’s aside: explanatory notes are very helpful, please consider them.)  Now look at Miss Claggett’s collection. What do the artifacts tell us individually, and what is the difference if you take them as part of a whole? (And what if some pieces are missing? There was a lot more room in the trunk.) What stories can you weave from these things – or are there only questions?  

To Bessie from Mr. Russell