Saturday, November 19, 2011

Urban Archaeology!

While putting some textiles away after an exhibit, I noticed what appeared to be child graffiti on the bare plaster walls of a small closet underneath the stairs. I pushed the dozens of dusty tablecloths back to find signatures, a crude drawing of the British flag, the alphabet in a wobbly cursive, and other apparently random scribbles. One of the signatures, in a child's pencil scrawl, was "Selma".

Selma Goldberg lived in the house from 1897 to 1904. I was VERY excited to see this name after having spent my summer researching her family. She was a little girl when she lived in this house, prime age to be hiding under the stairs and tagging up secret places.

What was more exciting, and strange, was that none of the museum staff knew about the writings. Oooh discovery! Although I felt like - really, guys? You've never skulked around inside of the closets...? Because that was basically my first move after taking this position. Phone flashlight in the closets, and open all the books. That closet is the only place in the house that wouldn't have been refinished or painted or stripped in some way over the years or during the renovation. The place has been a museum for 35 years, so the director checked the archives for any mention of the scribbles during the renovation or after - nothing. People had to have noticed them, but the "Selma" inscription is very hard to see in the dark, and that's what gives the scribblings a little more relevance and gravity or age.

I might not have thought to look for anything in an understairs closet if we didn't have one in my childhood home, and if I hadn't written in a few closets myself. Secret inscriptions are apparently a big historic homes "thing," but no one knows about that sort of thing here because we have so few of them.

Top says Hattie, with Selma below. I need to figure out who Hattie was.

This says Annie. There was a young girl by the name of Annie living in the house beginning in the nine-teens.

The alphabet in a childlike but stylized cursive scrawl.

Fat, rat, cat, carved into the inside of the doorframe. This kind of reminds me of that period after kids become comfortable forming letters into words, and start writing on everything.

Another interesting detail, noticed after emptying the closet and crawling inside with a lantern, was that all of the undersides of the stairs are numbered. The staircase came in three pieces from somewhere on the east coast, and each step was apparently numbered for ease of assembly. The lettering is so period and fancy, an amusing secret construction detail.

It is interesting to think of simple workaday details being around for GENERATIONS after you are dead. The guy who wrote his fancy "N" on each plank - did he think someone would ever be interested in that? Or that those letters would ever be seen? Of course not! And now it's on the internet. It's something living people rarely think about, or I assume. I used to frame pictures in little galleries around town, and it kind of weirds me out to think that things that I put together and possibly designed will be in someone else's family for god knows how long. We used to sign everything we did. Sometimes people were rude. Will some kid one day turn a frame over and wonder, was my great-grandfather a dick, or were the initials of the person who assembled this really "FU"?

I'm not sure why I think it's weird that our belongings will outlive not only us but the memory of us, particularly since half of my shit used to belong to other people I have never met. How fucking strange is that? Anyone who loves antique things has to deal with this. The hand mirror I use every day to check if the back of my hair is a rat's nest is a 100+ year old stray from an ebony vanity set. I passed on the bristle brush. Can't help but wonder about whatever girl may have had this thing first.

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