Treasure Chest Thursday: Ancestral Decoupage

Postcard + log = decoupage, a classic 1970s craft.

This treasure sits at the crossroads of 1970s kitsch and family history. I have had it since the age of 14, when my parents and I acquired it on a visit to Oberailsfeld, the chief village of the district in which my German grandparents grew up. They were christened at St. Burkhard’s, the church whose tower dominates the villagescape.

One of my great-aunts gave the plaque to my mother, who said I could have it as a memento of the trip. And I have had it ever since.

My plaque has survived my many interstate moves, just barely. It was actually intact right up to my last move, the first time I switched states with a tiny child in tow. It kills me that I left it to the mercy of the movers — I knew better, believe me — but somehow my powers of concentration and organization weren’t what they used to be (imagine that!).  And indeed, the plaque had a rough time. It lost some birches and a piece of the sky. But the village is still intact:

Oberailsfeld, a little closer up. See the church?

Decoupage on random bits of lumber is a faded art, I’m afraid. Once upon a time, you couldn’t graduate high school without doing a decoupage project, either by choice or force. And craft shops overflowed with them.

I don’t see a lot of decoupage around these days, except at church jumble sales, so I assume it’s fallen out of fashion. But I still love my plaque, chips and all. It started out as a connection to an ancestral village, but now that my parents have both passed away, it’s also a connection to a long-ago time shared with them.


Armchair time-travel

There is nothing better than a gigantic used-book sale, where you could spend a whole Saturday happily digging. I always expect to come away with a wheelbarrow’s worth of reading.

I don’t always expect to come up with a window into my grandparents’ lost everyday life, but that’s what I found at one book sale.

The window was Daddy Danced The Charleston, a vintage cultural memoir by Ruth Corbett, a veteran ad-agency artist. She also had a huge stash of memorabilia – a perfect source for her history of everyday life, circa 1920-1940.

Writing in 1970, Corbett aimed Charleston squarely at her daughter, a miniskirted mod-squader who giggled at flappers and raccoon coats.   “Maybe she’ll laugh at her getup in 1990!” groused Corbett in her introduction. (No kidding.)

Corbett’s book resurrects vanished fixtures of everyday life, such as:

•     full-service grocery shops

•   irons you had to heat on the stove

•    vacuum-tube cash-carrying systems in department stores

•    oleomargarine you colored yellow with the capsule in the package

These are the details that bring old family stories into clearer focus. Corbett’s book is like the missing text to some of my family photos. Here’s the inside scoop on marcel waves, middy blouses, “Terry and the Pirates” and Fibber McGee’s closet. (If you ever had a mom or grandma tell you your room looked like “the inside of Fibber McGee’s closet,” you now know it wasn’t a compliment.)

Who knew that George VI’s unexpected accession to the British throne touched off a wave of coronation fever that swept everyday fashion in 1937, sparking a vogue for tiaras and brass coronet buttons on blouses?

And who can resist white-hot, now forgotten celebrities like the “girl diva” Marion Talley, “youngest lady to ever trill on the great opera stage”?

I can’t. And the book only cost me a dollar. I guess I got a pretty good deal.


Link Love, March 1

Among this week’s links: a worrisome report about NARA – sorry! – a pair of apologies and an inspiring genealogy search story. (I had to end on an up note.)

Records access: Concerns are growing about changes at the New York facility of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In 18 months, NARA/NYC will move from Varick Street to a 5,000-square-foot space in the Customs House. It is possible that only about 20 percent of NARA/NYC’s current holdings will move there too, according to one report. Much of the remainder may end up in a storage facility in northeast Philadelphia, to be pulled by request to be transported to New York for researchers. Read this report by Jan Meissels Allen of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. The IAJGS’ Public Records Access Monitoring Committee has a lot of interesting material about records-access issues at the federal and state levels; click here and go to “Alerts Page.”

Mistakes were made: A pair of governmental apologies last week shed renewed light on two traumatic historical episodes, and might interest some family history researchers.

• First, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for a British program that sent children from London overseas to labor in British colonies. About 100,000 “home children” journeyed abroad from the 1860s to 1939 to Australia and Canada to serve as cheap farm and domestic labor; working conditions were often harsh. “It’s a beginning,” said one Canadian “home child”  descendant.

• Another apology concerns the community of Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a mostly black neighborhood which was dismantled in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal. (Students of Robert Moses’ highway projects in New York neighborhoods might find this story sadly familiar.) Unfortunately the apology by the city of Halifax doesn’t seem to have ended disagreement among heirs over how best to move forward. However, the Africville Genealogy Society backs the current plans for financial and civic restitution, saying it’s what the former landowners would have wanted.

The uplifting part: I promised we’d go out on a high note, didn’t I? Well, it doesn’t get more inspiring than the story of Susan Hadley, a Washington D.C. psychologist and genealogy buff who became determined to unravel the mystery of what happened to her mother’s sister Elinor, the relative nobody talked about.  Elinor was institutionalized in 1936 with a diagnosis of “postpartum psychosis,” and remained so for four decades before being released to live in a group home. Amazingly, Elinor was still alive when Hadley finally tracked her down in Ohio in 2008, and what happened next is just fantastic.

Makes you feel good to have this as a hobby.


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