What’s in the bag?

Posted on September 28, 2012 by



… inanimate things.

But, it’s not things in general that I’m considering here. No. Rather, it’s things having been bought, that we walk away with when leaving historical places… and… it’s historical things that we can buy. What is the purpose of these things?

As I grow older, I see them differently than I once did.

For one… I seem to be more fascinated these days with things carried in the stores at historical sites. Personally, I can’t help but visit such stores, and I have to hold myself down a bit (fighting the urge to buy… something) by keeping in mind that 1) most of the things that I might be compelled to purchase will likely become “dust magnets” in my house (and most likely in the limited space of my study), and 2) the books, unless on sale, will be cheaper online. Of course, one also has to keep in mind that the sales from these things are of benefit to the historic site, so chipping in a few dollars more is not necessarily money poorly spent.

But, these things… especially the range of things destined to be shelf-sitters (or framed on the wall) in the home…  do they/can they have another purpose… within the buyers? It’s really a subtle sales pitch that the buyers might not realize. Museums/historic sites want you to take home connective devices (things) of some sort, and since one can’t take home anything that is original to the place, the people in these places purchase things to be sold to you, that might satisfy that need to have something from the place. Therefore, by purchasing things from a museum store, you still, to some degree, have the ability to take a piece of the place with you. Granted, it is likely not original to the place, other than the fact that you bought it at that place. To some, it is akin to a trophy from some historical place, and still they are left to proclaim, if only in their heart… “aha! I have a piece of the place!” And, really, in some ways they do, but actually it’s more of a mental trigger than a trophy. Books purchased at a place may or may not serve the same purpose… unless the book are about the place, in which case it would seem the trigger mechanism may be equally present.

Nonetheless, how are items purchased at these places… triggers? Unless our memory begins to fail us… seeing the things, handling the things, even thinking about the things that we own… in some ways, transports us back to the place. They become triggers to our memory. Even though they may not be original to the place, they do take us back, in our minds, to the originality/historical significance of the place… or perhaps just our personal memories of being at the place.

Strange to say, however, some trinkets purchased at these places take us to places other than the place in which the thing(s) was/were purchased. My watchful Ebenezer, for example, was purchased at the store at the Library of Virginia, and yet, for my determination in finding its origin (it was molded from a headstone in Lexington, Massachusetts), the item is more successful in triggering memories of that place than Richmond… although my memory in relation to the piece is a bit crowded for the fact that I purchased it in Richmond.

Yet, triggers for history (things) aren’t limited to museum stores, and they aren’t always about reconnecting to the place from which an item was purchased. Antiques (yet, more things), for example, can also be historical triggers. Sometimes they offer triggers for personal connections to familiar places, time, and/or people… and sometimes they offer imagination portals to place, time, and/or people.

My grandfather clock, for example, is a connection to the more familiar… one that holds many memories that take me back in time to a point no more than 40 years distant, but also offers a bridge to other memory triggers, with my grandfather and the fact the frame of the clock was made from black walnut trees from his land. The tree likely stood for a hundred years or more before it was used as a frame for a clock… dating the wood to a time in which my great grandparents lived on the same land, and even when their parents (nearby) visited. Not only that, but if standing at least 110 or more years… the wood that makes up my clock bore witness… an actual living witness… to the passage of Stonewall Jackson’s Second Corps, from the Valley, in November 1862. The historical connections seem endless with that one piece, and the memories are both genuine (realized) and imagined.

For those antiques that may not hold familial and realized memory connections, but rather serve as historical portals for imagination… they might take us back to the time in which the thing… the piece… was made… or at least our perceptions of that time. I take the example of my marble top parlor table. It was made ca. 1860, so, whenever I see it, I can only imagine the things it must have seen. It might seem a little strange to some, but it is a connection to the past. I find it very well suited as a major piece in my study, especially as I sit next to it and write about the time in which it existed… which it witnessed, in its youth. It might be that the table did not witness some of the specific instances about which I write, especially since I narrow the scope so much, but then again… maybe it did. The point is that it still offers a connection… even a trigger, to a point on the historical timeline.   

Whether these things are triggers or personal time portals… is the need to have such things a need to fulfill something within ourselves… especially the history connectors among us? Do we benefit from certain types of things… physical things… inanimate things… to take us back; to help us in our journey to reach out and touch the past, and then convey the story of the past to others? I suspect that it isn’t the case with all folks who have various passions and occupations relating to history, but to some… perhaps to more than one might realize… maybe. Do things, if only at times, add character to our ability to tell about history? Perhaps for some, things offer some sort of enhancement to storytelling. At least to the writer/storyteller, it might seem so, even though, to the reader/listener, there might be no knowledge of this third party item? When we write or tell a story… can what’s in the bag (things) provide something that even we can’t fully explain. Is it sufficiently explained in the word “inspiration”, or is it more?

So, here’s to… things… what they can do to/for us… and what they can do for others, in connecting with history.


… inanimate things…

… but are they really so inanimate?


* On an unrelated note… for those anticipating more regarding German cultural influence on Civil War sentiments in the Shenandoah Valley, a post is in the works.