Hidden Objects and Untold Histories

There are stories bound up in objects which are hidden in plain sight. A pot donkey silently carries memories down through generations; an unopened envelope of newspaper cuttings tells of journeys in the past. Untold histories surround us, on mantelpieces and in display cabinets.

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There is a small bureau in the corner of our box room in Birmingham. Standing on fresh-painted floorboards, its scuff marks and scratches and tea ring patina suggest the passing decades. A glass fronted display cabinet reminds us of what it has hidden in the past; a fold-down writing desk conceals drawers, shelves, scraps of paper. Look closely enough, and here are the traces of my family’s recent history.

The bureau hasn’t always been in a box room in Birmingham. It reminds me of other rooms, places, lives. Thinking back through offices in Oxford and Liverpool takes me to my grandma’s sunlit corner room in Nassau House in Winterton. I move on to a bungalow overlooking allotments from the top of Willow Drive in Mexborough. From there it is a short walk but several years down the hill to a dark front room in a terraced house in Schofield Street. That is where my grandma lived and my Mum grew up. It is also where that bureau came into my family.

When I notice it, the bureau reminds me of the smell of coal and dusty newsprint, the timbre of my grandma’s voice, the loves and all-being-wells that punctured her speech, the mischievous sparkle in her eyes.

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Edna Markham bought the bureau from Willis Ainley, the only furniture shop in Mexborough, around 1958. She bought it when my Mum passed the 11+ exam so she would have somewhere to do her homework when she went to grammar school. After my grandad came home from working nights at Manvers, ate, and went to bed, my grandma went to her various cleaning jobs. Scrimping and saving, she put together what was left from her earnings until she could afford to go to the Willis Ainley showrooms and buy that bureau.

I first told this story as part of the eulogy at my Grandma’s funeral almost ten years ago. It is an intensely intimate story about one person and one family. It is also a story that points towards much bigger histories of Britain in the second half of the 20th century. As you can see, it is about class and gender; mothers and daughters; home and work; education and emotion — all things of a time and of a place.

It is about all of those things, but this story is also always about my grandma, what she was like, her place in our lives and our memories.

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This is what my Mum remembers being in the bureau when she was growing up in Schofield Street:

 the little teapot etc.apparently a fishing prize won by my grandad, a “best” tea service, presents to mum from me (small pot donkey, Wade whimsies of Lady and the Tramp and a monkey) rabbit cruet set, plaque from my French pen pal. In the top were a few photos , insurance cards, rent book, death certificates for both my grandmas, obituary cuttings from the South Yorkshire Times for family members and one of Christine Beardsley and I when we were about eight watching some event in the pouring rain.

Form-filling bureaucracy intermingles with a South Yorkshire family’s ephemera of a South. Death certificates, fishing prizes, and Wade Whimsies all speak of memories and emotions. These objects hold ties that bind in the here and now; ties that bind a changing present to our changing past.

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The bureau moved over the years — not very often, and only from the mid-1980s when my grandma and grandad left Schofield Street. New objects crowded the display cabinet; drawers overflowed with yellowing paper; money mysteriously disappeared down the back of the shelves. In Nassau House my brother remembers:

 there was definitely the metal tea set, and I think maybe a small china tea set too? Egg cup with rabbits was there … Possibly also some of those Lilliput Lane ornaments? In the dropdown/writing section, mainly I remember the newspaper cuttings of us in the Telegraph etc for various sporting/academic things, the pile of photos (us, but also older ones of mum and dad, and Stan/Walt and Marion etc), and saved birthday and christmas cards. Plus a couple of packs of playing cards.

It’s strange how we each have such a vivid memory of the bureau and its contents. People go, but objects remain. Memories, stories, histories — all coalesce in a piece of furniture and a porcelain beagle.

There are stories bound up in objects which are hidden in plain sight.

I have told this story as if it were ‘just’ that of my own family. But I am sure that any of us could tell stories similar in outline, if not detail. Display cabinets and cases, mantelpieces and shelves — the ubiquitous material frame for our everyday lives. Here are the framed photographs, candlesticks, teacups, and firedogs that have their stories to tell.

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What does it mean for an object to be hidden in plain sight? Familiarity brings invisibility. It is easy to walk past a porcelain beagle when you’re busy. The reticent dog does not bark for attention. However cherished they might be, things freighted with personal meaning seem unlikely stuff for the historian to work through. Is there anything significant in a mass produced Lilliput Lane cottage or a Wade Whimsy?

Of course there is.

Display cabinets and their ephemeral contents are everywhere and everyday, familiar yet often unnoticed. They remain hidden in another sense. Placed in box rooms or living rooms, such things are the fabric of homes and families. It is in our private lives that they accrue meaning and importance. It is also in our private lives that they are hidden — isolated from other display cabinets in other homes near and far. All of us might possess a version of my grandma’s bureau, but do we really know anything of the objects, stories, histories we might share?

My colleagues Chris Moores, Kate Smith, and I have become increasingly fascinated by hidden objects and stories like these over the past few months. The more we share our stories, the more we are convinced that the material fabric of everyday life holds rich possibilities for writing new histories of modern Britain. But how can we learn more about the objects hidden in plain sight in homes in Birmingham and beyond? How might we share stories about things like my grandma’s bureau — and, in so doing, find those objects and stories that we hold in common? This bureau and its contents will not find their way into a local museum’s social history collections; these obituaries from the South Yorkshire Times will not end up in an archive. How, then, might historians begin to find these stories bound up in objects hidden in plain sight?

Histories written with and through a display cabinet and its contents — ordinary and intimate in their foundations, yet no less important for our understanding of the past.

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Do you have a display cabinet or case in your family? If so, we would love to learn more about it — to see your hidden objects and hear the stories you have to tell. Please feel free to share your stories through the comments section on this blog.  

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15 thoughts on “Hidden Objects and Untold Histories

  1. The old wooden glove box on my sideboard which acts as the shrine to my ancestors contains:

    my father’s medals, Long Service And Good Conduct and For Campaign Service (South Arabia, Radfan, Northern Ireland);

    my grandfather’s watch, given to him after he helped his brother to build a house on stilts by a lake in the Irish midlands, after his brother had returned from gaucho-ing in Argentina;

    my maternal uncle’s All-Australia hurling medal;

    my own medal from the University of Dublin;

    my own `medal’ from the Elefant Rally in 2008.

    The first is a brief history of Britain’s colonial and post-colonial wars in the third quarter of the twentieth century. My grandfather was involved in Ireland’s war of independence (wrong side, he was in the police). The first three contain a history of Irish emigration on three continents. The fourth is something Lynsey Hanley would recognize.

  2. This is a lovely and thought-provoking blog Matt, thank you. It underscores for me how lucky modern/C20th folks are to be able to access this sort of material culture, which for the sixteenth century has largely been lost through the great editing process of the passage of time: I don’t how know many porcelain beagles and pot donkeys there will be in the V&A (or its equivalent) in 400 years time, but I suspect the answer may be ‘not many’. Often we have to rely on archaeological finds – such as the Mary Rose, or the Thames foreshore – to try to fill in the gaps when it comes to this kind of ubiquitous ephemera, but then the personal stories and connections are almost always lost. The same is true for the material culture of churches: I’ve recently been writing about a genre of object of which only c.30 examples out of an original c.9,000 (0.3%) still survive. Perhaps one way to help future generations of historians could be, on this day of Mass Observation, to pay particular attention to describing the objects we encounter, and the meaning(s) they have for us.

  3. I recently went to an archive of such display cases; it’s called Oxfam. I often wonder what the stories of similar objects which make their way into this country’s charity shops and in this way become tied to a larger story of philanthropy.

  4. I have a small collection of such things rescued from our nan’s china cabinet and, like you, there are so many memories attached to them. There’s a whimsy elephant that I won in a colouring competition. Can still remember sitting on the living room floor doing the colouring with my best friend; first prize was a Chopper bike. If I’d won that doubt it would have lasted as long as the elephant! But the best thing is a little ceramic tea set. Nan had long admired it in the bric a brac shop up Alum Rock and was over the moon when Aunty Elsie bought it for her and grandad’s wedding anniversary. I was always desperate to play with it, but wasn’t allowed because it was fragile. It’s in a shoebox now and, I have to be honest, doesn’t look anywhere near as grand as i remember it looked in my childhood. The bottoms of the saucers are stamped simply ‘foreign’.
    Nice post. Great project.

  5. I grew up in 1970s-1980s Northern Ireland in a home dominated by cabinets full of my mother’s china ‘things’ (or as my dad likes to call them, ‘wee dirt’). No bookshelves, as my mum thought they were unslightly and collected dust: glass cabinets, however, were the way ahead. They contained the usual one-off random souvenirs from holidays and bits of no doubt tasteless things I had bought for her with my pocket money for Christmas and birthdays; there was also some prized Royal Albert which I think had belonged to my mother’s mother. However, there were also several pieces which celebrated various events in the royal family’s life: a china mug to mark (or maybe a better word is ‘commemorate’) the marriage of Charles and Di in 1981; another one to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee from 1977; and a china plate for Prince Andrew’s wedding in 1986. We could be profound here and see this as a sign of determined ‘Britishness’ pervading even a china cabinet in a province of viciously contested identities; or, maybe it was just a way of joining a celebration in a place that didn’t always have much to celebrate. Who knows? But I still collect the same sort of stuff (Queen’s Golden Jubilee mug; Will and Kate’s wedding), a little bit ironically, but a big bit nostalgically and because it reminds me of home and my mum.

  6. I have a very old ‘safe’ that belonged to my grandmother. It is really a cupboard with perforations that was used to store perishable food from before the age of refrigeration. My grandmother lived in the Vale of Evesham and I loved to leave Selly Oak, to stay with her in her rural idyll.

    My grandfather was a market gardener and he died when I was very young. She was a great cook and the cupboard was her spice, flour and beverage store. To a young boy it was quite exotic (camp coffee – a liquid essence of coffee), different types to tea, tins adorned with various imperial warriors and bags of flour. The great thing about the cupboard was the aroma when you opened the door. It blew me away.

    The cupboard now stores crockery and has retained that aroma deep in the wood, and if ever I get close to it, one whiff… and I am right back there at my grandmother’s cottage playing while she baked a cake. It has an extraordinary power over me. Smells and their associations, in this case attached to my gran’s cupboard, are an important part of memory.

  7. Lovely stuff, Matt. Thoughtful as ever. Lots of the interesting questions you are asking above have been asked in ways you might find fascinating or helpful by archaeologists and anthropologists like Pierre Lemonnier ‘Mundane Objects’; Rathje & Murphy ‘Rubbish! The Archaeology of Rubbish’; Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall ‘The Cultural Biography of Objects’ (indeed anything on object biography) and Gabe Moshenska ‘The archaeology of (flash) memory’. I also thought of Daniel Miller’s ‘The Comfort of Things’.

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