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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.