While helping a relative clear out the garage, I was thinking about Things, and the cultural assumptions that barnacle onto them. And how those barnacles gradually drop away, until the things become either joke items, or else puzzling implements a la Motel of the Mysteries.

The first time I thought about these things was when I was at a yard sale with my grandmother. I was a young teen, and this was the mid-sixties. Suddenly she cracked up. I mean she was having trouble hiding her smile, so she walked on. I knew that she adored yard sales. Having been extremely poor during the Depression (she’d been pulled out of school at age 12 and put to work full time cooking and cleaning for a family for a dollar a week) I knew how much she loved hunting for bargains at yard sales, so I followed, puzzled, and she pointed back inside, to where the proprietor had set up a bunch of pretty porcelain and ceramic giant bowls, some with plants in them. Others filled with yarn or cigarette paraphernalia. “She’s selling pots like they’re china!” my grandmother declared, half scandalized and half amused.

“Pots?” I said. “You mean plant pots?”

She looked around the street, lowered her voice, and whispered, “Chamber pots!”

Chamber pots? Now, I’d come across the term once or twice in my voracious reading, but back then, books especially for kids were squeaky clean.

“What’s that?” I asked, and she looked around again, making sure none of her neighbors were lurking around with hand cupped to hear before she said, “In the winter, when it’s fifteen below, you don’t want to go out to the outhouse in the middle of the night, so you take and put the chamber pot under the bed.”

Bingo! A whole new raft of associations opened in my mind—the books that referred to noxious night airs, to “Gare de loo!” and so forth. Now I knew what they were talking about!

Another thing sitting out there gathering dust was a princess phone. For those under, oh, probably thirty is a safe guess, this is a plastic round-dial phone that looks just like the ones in the noir movies, except it’s a slightly cut down version, and—this is important—it was never black, though it could be white. It was usually pink or baby blue or possibly yellow. “She has a princess phone,” the adults used to say in that tone of voice that promised hours of gossip as soon as we kids were chased out of the room, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure why. All I knew was that nobody ever had a princess phone in the kitchen.

When I was a kid, very few people in our lives had second phones. Many were on party lines. References to princess phones were obscure, but by the attitudes of adults (especially if they referred to the woman as a “bottle blonde” or a “divorcee”) we knew that there was something really, really weird about having a princess phone in your bedroom. This was especially puzzling when the rich girl in our class, she who had seven pairs of tennis shoes of different colors (most of us had a single pair of shoes that lasted all year) and also three cashmere sweaters, just like the teenagers, was given a princess phone in her room for her tenth birthday. Did that mean she would be a divorcee or a bottle blonde?

The whole phone in the bedroom thing became somewhat clearer a few years later, my first year in high school, when a friend explained that we should never call her at home unless there was an emergency. Like the rest of us, their phone was in the kitchen, but her parents would only permit her to answer one call on any given day, and they would set a timer for three minutes, and listen to every word before the timer went off. This was for the same reason that she and her sister had a cotton cloth hanging in their bedroom doorway instead of a door. The cloth was for the sake of modesty,but also because their parents could hear every work spoken in that room. Good girls, the parents said, had nothing to hide from their parents.

When I think back, there were so many objects whose use is pretty much unknown now, and that carried cultural assumptions that are puzzling today, like the notion of the bottle, or peroxide, blonde.  Clothes pins. Rat-tail combs. Blue chip stamp books. The milk man with his glass milk bottles. “Mad money.” Skate keys.

Then there are the things I am so glad not to be using again, like a clothes wringer. Having to help my mother with that thing before she got a better washing machine was horrible. We didn’t get a dryer for many years; it was clothespins, yard lines, and the ironing board. Then there was the garbage pail. Washing the maggots out of the garbage pail in summer was a horrible job.

Anyway, do you ever go to yard sales and see objects whose use you can’t guess? Or objects that have been repurposed, like the chamber pot that now grows spider plants?



Things — 32 Comments

  1. We never had a chamber pot repurposed as a flower pot, though I have seen that quite a few times among people with a taste for antiques. But my mother has a vintage milk pot that used to belong to her great-aunt and now holds flowers. It’s neither particularly valuable nor particularly beautiful and doesn’t even have a manufacturer’s mark, but she keeps it as a memento of the long since deceased aunt Caroline, who worked for decades as a mid-wife in a small village in North-Eastern France and died in the 1970s.

    As for stuff the purpose of which I don’t know, I’ve been interested in and collecting antiques since my teens, so I can determine the purpose even of pretty obscure objects such as a cigarette holder cum ashtray combination with whimsical graphics from the 1950s that stands on my shelf and would be right at home in Mad Men.

    What sometimes has me stumped, though, is old farm equipment. Friends of my parents live in an area known as devil’s moor. Their house is decorated with vintage farm equipment such as machete-like knives for cutting peat, snow-shoe like implements to prevent sinking into the moor and wooden overshoes for farm horses. I’d never know what all of those things were for, if the owners hadn’t told me.

  2. I love old things! They’re like strands of a time-spiderweb that can connect you to the past. Awesome.

    @Cora: Farm equipment is the best! Working on a farm that has roots back to the mid 1800s I’ve found all manner of things we had to research to understand. I have a milk separator on my porch. It’s got a plate on it that proudly proclaims that it was made in America and names the company that produced it, the year, serial numbers.

    @Sherwood: I think one of the most beautiful things that means nothing to people nowadays (except maybe as a creep factor) that I’ve ever come across is a set of handmade wicker ‘removal baskets’ that live in attic of the funeral home where my father works. The funeral home as been in operation since the Depression era. The silk-lined baskets were used both to remove bodies from the home and to hold them for viewing before they were moved into much simpler coffins for burial.

    Not only are they beautifully made, but there’s a certain reverence associated with placing the body of a loved one into vessel to send them on their way, one that’s lost to plastic body-bags nowadays. Even more touching is that there are three sizes of the baskets, adult, child and infant.

  3. Cora: I love seeing old kitchen and farming implements! We have a few of my spouse’s grandmother’s kitchen implements, brought over from England in the nineteenth century. There are a few whose purpose we can’t figure out.

    Artemis: oh yes, I so agree.

  4. You’ve given me another walk down Memory Lane. Princess Phones! They just seemed like the daintiest, most elegant thing ever! Of course, my one-phone family didn’t have one. And hanging clothes out to dry on the line, which was normal for one of my neighborhoods.
    Remember the hoo haa over multi-bathroom houses? Spoken of in a whisper by the adults I knew. Oh yeah and color TV. We talked about that far more than the Princess Phones and probably even more than two toilet families.
    Your childhood friends’ parents went too far. Ugh. I know plenty of kids who never learned to handle themselves because of no freedom and constant supervision.

  5. Pilgrimsoul: Oh yes, some parents were so very controlling, and I don’t know that it turned out that good for many kids.

    Yeah, color TV! I remember we got ours in 1969, my last year in high school, Were we surprised to discover that the middle part of Wizard of Oz was in color!

  6. Growing up in England in the ’50s; I well remember chamber pots (or gazunders as they’re sometimes known because they gazunder the bed).

    I also remember the tin bath hung on the back of the kitchen door. We had no bathroom so on bath nights the tin bath was taken down and put in front of the oven. Then the stove was filled with saucepans and kettles to get enough hot water and the family took it in turns to have their bath. Going first was the luxury as you had the clean water!

  7. Skate keys! Oh my, that brings back memories.

    And does anyone use a bread box any more? Or fish knives? Or an egg spoon? Actually, I can answer my last question – I love soft boiled eggs, and an egg spoon really is the best thing to use to eat them. In an egg cup, of course.

  8. Thanks for the stories, Sherwood. I always enjoy them.

    @intertext: bread box over here! I keep meaning to get ours mounted onto the underside of the cabinet above, but maybe being on top of the toaster oven (with silicone trivets in between) helps the bread keep better, too.

    Also, now I miss soft boiled eggs.

  9. My friend’s mother is addicted to having garage sales (and going to them, as well), and once she had one object that stymied all of us as to what it was. It was slightly larger than fist-sized, made of thick twisted metal with some pokey bits on it. We thought it looked like a weird pair of brass knuckles. My friend’s boyfriend did some research, and it turned out that it *was* a pair of brass knuckles from about fifty years ago, and worth some money.

  10. Intertext, I still use a bread box. One of my cats loves to chew through plastic bread bags, so we keep the bread in a bread box so she can’t get to it.

    As for farm implements, one of my favorite childhood memories is walking around Historic Prairie Village with my grandma and her siblings. They chatted about each old tool and remembered stories about using some of them.

  11. Your friend with the cashmere sweaters and tennis shoes and the princess phone reminds me of a classmate with whom I had one play date (as we call them now: then it was just “going over to her house”). She had twelve Barbies and eleven Kens. Aside from the sheer number of these things (I had one of each, and used them to people the strange structures I built out of blocks, but then, I was an odd kid) I was puzzled by the disparity. If she had enough money to have twelve Barbies, surely she should have enough money to even up the numbers and get a twelfth Ken? No, no. She liked it this way: two of the Barbies always had to fight over one of the Kens!

    My father used to collect bits of found iron–parts of farm machinery, old smith-made nails and latches, things like that. His intention was to make something out of them, a sculpture. He never got around to it, and when the Yard Sale Locusts descended, no one seemed interested in the iron stuff, alas.

    As for chamber pots–I knew a girl whose mother had found one at a yard sale and proudly, happily served clam chowder from it. “It’s a tureen” she said, repressively. “Want more soup?”

  12. Sometimes, old things are like old memories. For every item you mentioned, it conjured memories for me of the wonders my grandparents’ house contained or items we had at home.

    In Nashville, having a princess phone was a status symbol. If you had one, everyone thought you were so cool.

  13. Madeleine: Ayeeee! I guess that’s akin to someone drinking from the fingerbowl.

    Yeah, I made ball dresses for my Barbie because the other clothes were not only expensive but relentlessly fifties. Balldresses, and I made my castles out of shoebox cardboard!

    Chris: I vaguely remember a bath tin, only my mom used it to scrub clothes. I think I was around two, the memory is pretty dim. Then we moved, and the house had a deep sink for that kind of washing, and a clothes wringer above it.

  14. My family was blessed to have a summer cottage up in cool Michigan — my grandmother bought it to keep her four daughters away from the polio you could catch at the public pools in the summer. It had a very fancy wringer washer — an electric one! I was fascinated with feeding clothes to it with a huge, thick stick. Eventually a more modern washer came in, but I think my cousins still have that wringer covered and to one side — “just in case.” Like the pie closet that stored cans of paint for many years, but one aunt retrieved it, stripped the stains off it, repainted and turned it back into a china hutch inside the house.

    My own favorite repurposing was for some tiny glass plates that had dragonflies etched into the bottoms. I quickly snatched them up when my mother was getting rid of some of the things she no longer used. They were individual ashtrays, used during fancy dinners to go at each place setting. Since I am VERY allergic to cigarette smoke, my sisters just stared at me, the question on their faces.

    “For tea bags at tea parties,” I said. Ah — that, they could see!

  15. I must share my triumph of the month. I have refinished and set up a round dining room table. I bought it at a yard sale some years ago, and it has hung around in the garage until this year. Only today, when we laid it face down to screw the legs onto the underside, was I able to read the label taped to the bottom of the table slab. It’s a Jens Risom, a noted Danish mid-century designer.

  16. I heard a sermon once in which the priest mentioned how a hardware company gave his order some seconds, and they sent them off to Africa, and then this priest went there. . . .

    They were performing the rite of sprinkling the congregation with holy water, and you know, toilet brushs make very good aspergers, they hold a lot of water.

  17. Wow…Oz in color after Oz in black and white for the length of a childhood would be even more magical! 🙂

    The neighborhood kids are completely fascinated with my old record player. Not one of them has recognized it. And typewriters! I impulse bought a t-shirt with typewriters all over it because my daughters kept asking where the monitor was. 😛

    It’s funny because some women my age now *choose* to hang their laundry on a clothesline…it’s pretty common within my little sewing/crafting community (so is canning and sewing). Well, in the US. My friend in Germany used a clothesline at her flat until fairly recently. But using the clothesline is a choice, and I certainly don’t need to do so!

    I’m trying to think of artifacts that I couldn’t recognize… It’s not really a mystery implement, but I have pieces of my great-great grandmothers “Grandma’s Flower Garden” quilt which I’d always wanted to complete. I didn’t realize that the material came from feed sacks, nor that my favorite apron to wear at Grandma D’s house was also sewn from a feed sack.

    Oh yeah! My grandma had these ancient straws that we definitely should NOT have used due to their age… The straws were coated with flavoring so that, if you stuck them in milk, you could drink chocolate milk. Mom said they had strawberry milk straws too.

    I thought they tasted dusty. 😛 Not a fan of the paper straw.

  18. I have — but confess I don’t use for its intended purpose — a treadle sewing machine. It still works, though, and last time I checked — some years ago — you could still take it into a Singer store for repairs.

    I also have, and use, a hand-cranked coffee grinder. I found it in an antique store, but apparently you can still buy them new. Does a great job. The electric one I used to have developed a short and sometimes refused to work, plus it made a lot of noise for a device being used so early in the morning.

    I also still use clothes pins, though mostly to hang up my skirts.

  19. Down here, on the Eastern Shore, everybody knows what everything is, and as much of it as possible still exists — which in this county at least, which didn’t get burned during Independence, the War of 1812 or the Civil War, and was originally settled in the 17th century, and which was very very very affluent, and lots of that affluence still is around — that’s a lot of historical Stuphs! Going into 4 centuries of Stuphs!

    They’re like Hobbiton’s mathoms — so many of the articles get passes around, from household to household over the decades and generations — generations of families who are still here.

    Love, c.

  20. Jennifer, clothes lines are still fairly common in Germany, though they are gradually becoming a thing of the past. Many of my elderly neighbours still use clothes lines, as do people living in small flats, who often didn’t have room for a dryer until the small washer-dryer combos appeared a couple of years ago.

    My parents were one of the first people in our neighbourhood to have a dryer and even then my Mom only used it during the winter at first, while keeping the clothes line in summer. Though we didn’t have a clothes line but an umbrella-like construction called a “laundry spider”. They’re still around, too – I saw some at a store some time ago.

    Regarding the manual typewriter, some 8th graders at my school were completely fascinated by a courtroom stenographer and even more stunned when I told them that they, too, could have learned that mysterious code at their school some twenty-five years before.

    Regarding the switch to colour TV, my family didn’t get colour TV until 1980 or so. And sometimes, when I watch a film or TV show I first saw as a very young child, I am sometimes surprised to notice that the film or show is in black and white, because I remembered it as being in colour (High Noon is one example or the early seasons of The Avengers). Of course, the film always was black and white, but because I first saw it on our old black and white set, I added the colours in my mind.

  21. I still hang my sheets and jeans out to dry (it helps when it’s summer 360 days a year) but we don’t have a line. I hang them over the plants in our tiny patio. But choice is everything, yes.

    Those straws with flavor! They were disgusting, but we liked them. Basically they were sugar and weird flavorings, probably nuclear powered.

    A treadle sewing machine! The only time in my life I ever used a sewing machine (I made all my clothes by hand) was when I was in Vienna. I made my ball dress with my landlady’s circa 1900 sewing machine. It was easy enough for me to figure, only having a back and forward, and you controlled the speed with the treadle.

  22. Yesterday I heard an excellent lecture by Amanda Vickery on C18th commodity culture, and she started with product differentiation in chamber-pots according to rank, status, and wealth (from silver to earthenware) – illustrated with a contemporary print of a woman of loose virtue sitting in her modest room, which she had adorned with a bunch of flowers in a chamber-pot

  23. Ah, but it’s controlling the speed with the treadle that’s the art, Sherwood. My grandmother, who was very up-to-date with most things (her kitchen was much more modern than ours), used her mother’s treadle machine into the 1970s. I remember her making a whole wardrobe for my Madame Alexander doll, not to mention clothes for me. But I never really mastered the treadle (not that I sew all that well on an electric machine, either).

  24. Is it wrong of me to say that I’m keener on the Madame Alexander dolls (very rare in Europe, cause never exported) than on the vintage sewing machine (not all that rare here)?

  25. I love old and obscure kitchen implements which is one reason I enjoy reading Cook’s Illustrated magazine. (They sometimes feature antique kitchen tools in their question and answer column.)

    Using old household implements which are well designed for their jobs gives me a lot of satisfaction, as well as a feeling of connection to housewives of the past.

    I have a butter slicer from my late mother-in-law. It’s a rectangular frame strung with a fine wire that slices a whole cube of butter into pats at one go. I don’t often need to slice up a whole cube of butter, but when I do, it’s the bee’s knees.

    Oh, I just thought of one item I found at my mother-in-law’s house that was not easily identifiable — a beard-guard or quilt protector! It’s like a wide, shallow bag made of muslin and trimmed on the open edge with a narrow band of pastel fabric from the 1930s. And when I say wide, I mean wide enough to slip the top edge of a quilt into it. That’s what it was for — it protected the top edge of your quilt from getting dirty when it was tucked up under a sleeper’s chin back in the days when many men were bearded.

  26. My mother’s hobby is tagsaling (as they call it in New England). She gets up early to leave the house by seven on Saturday mornings, then drives around to people’s houses and picks through their intimate possessions and cast-offs. If there’s a “deal,” she buys it, regardless of whether she knows what it is or not. And no matter how much she wants it, she marches away with her nose in the air if it’s not a “deal.”

    Many stories can come out of this. Actually, I just finished writing one. We must be on the same wave today 🙂 Thanks for posting this!

  27. Whaddayamean: that is awesome!

    Catholic Bibliophagist: that’s like the antimacassars, whose purpose it took me years to learn. I thought it was a fancy name for the type of lacework on those things, but nope, it turned out to be pretty things put over the backs of chairs to protect them from men’s “Macassar” hair oil.

    There are some clues about some kitchen implements in the Mrs. Beeton’s book. (which is also fun reading.)

  28. And there are a vast number of artifacts from our former work weaving, sewing, and mending clothing — skills mostly lost now, since it is cheaper to buy clothing new at WalMart. Darning eggs are particularly cool. And they can date sites in archaeological digs by the type of loom weights they find.

  29. Ha! I have an Obscure Object!

    When my siblings and I were going through the house after my mother died, we divided up my father’s mother’s vanity set — the accourtraments for cosmetics (lovely leaded crystal powder containers with silver lids) and other items, silver handled. One I got had a handle that nicely fit the palm, then extended out, ending in a hook.

    A button hook! Specifically for shoe buttons – another one of those obscure things no longer used. 😀