Just in Case Uncle Sam Should Take Me
One of the best things about finding an antique or vintage item is learning the history or story behind it. As a former owner of an antiques' business, I found many relics of the past but the ones closest to my heart came with names, notes, dates and photographs. Maybe my love of history compels me to feel this way, but it's pretty special when a unique piece brings historical events and people to life.
Certain items catch my eye over others, including particular types of vintage jewelry. When I had my business, I would attend auctions and estate sales looking for good quality pieces to resell. I came across one with a meaningful history that I couldn't part with: a double-strand necklace of blue and pink translucent beads (moonstone in appearance) in beautiful, mint condition from the early 1940s. In its original Carson Pirie Scott & Company Chicago box, it also came with something extra. Inside the box was a note in an envelope with the name "Eleanor" written on the front. The gift giver lovingly wrote:
"Darling, Just in case Uncle Sam should take me. This will be my substitute to hang around your neck. Love, John."
I learned the man's full name and that the gift was intended for his wife, prior to him leaving for service during World War II. No one could tell me his fate, whether he returned to Eleanor or if she lost him during the war, but I guessed it might have been the latter. I came to that conclusion because of the note, and the necklace appeared to have never been worn, but carefully stored away. A symbol of special memories preserved for later generations to enjoy.
I also love particular vintage jewelry designers and knowing their history makes finding one of their pieces special too. Miriam Haskell created some of the most exquisite and feminine pieces of costume jewelry during her time. She was born in 1899 in Indiana and opened her first boutique in New York in 1926, working with the likes of designers Coco Chanel and others. Even though she has passed away, the company she founded still bears her name and each Haskell creation continues to be made by hand. I came across a Miriam Haskell bracelet (pre-1950) at auction and was fortunate to walk away with the winning bid. Deciding to keep it for myself, I wear it for special occasions, its taupe seed beads and flowers delicate and unique. I'm always on the lookout for vintage Haskell jewelry, particularly necklaces and bracelets.
Furniture and vintage photos also catch my eye. My home is an eclectic mix of antiques and new, with the older furniture blending well and being used as much as the newer pieces. From a unique drum table to a vintage piano that contained original sheet music and photos from the 1940s in the piano bench, I recall how and where each one was purchased and the stories behind them. My dining room furniture came from an antique store in Detroit. I like to think of the previous owners and the families who enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners around this same table, or the children who learned to play piano while sitting at the one I now own. It's the same with the other antique furniture I own and the ones I come across in stores. My imagination comes up with all kinds of stories.
A particular vintage photo lot I won at auction contained an interesting photograph. It was an 8x10 photo of a mock wedding held, circa 1900, at Bellevue Place in Batavia, Illinois. This was the same Bellevue that hosted Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, when she was committed there by her son in 1875. Bellevue Place was a private sanitarium for women from 1867-1965. The photograph I acquired came with a description and names of those featured: all females, the photo was taken at a shower of one of the attendees, while a mock wedding was held and most of the women in the photograph were employees of Bellevue (groom and groomsman were women dressed as men). I've no idea if the "bride" and "groom" were employees or patients, but it is a very interesting and unique photo. Bellevue has now been turned into condominiums and apartments. I imagine its walls have a lot of stories to tell.
A little whimsy and nostalgia would keep me from parting with certain items too. At one particular sale, I came across a 1960s blow mold Santa Claus intending to resell immediately. Standing nearly four feet tall, something about its blue-eyed stare prevented me from sticking a price tag on it. After my husband rewired it, Santa now graces our front porch every Christmas season.
My personal collection also includes vintage perfume bottles. Whether deco, ormolu or lovely cut bottles and stoppers made in Czechoslovakia, I find these items beautifully designed and worth displaying. Sometimes the faint scent of perfume still lingers leading me to wonder what that meant to the woman who wore it.
Even though I made the decision to close my business, I still love going to antique stores and browsing the rows and shelves of collectibles and artifacts. Part of the joy of the search is always wondering how these items fit into the lives of the people who once owned them. John's love for Eleanor spoke from the wonderful necklace I now own. To think that every item from our past had meaning to someone adds significance to preserving and learning about our history.