Howard Carlton is a doctoral researcher in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham. This is one of a series of blogs on Display Cabinets and Hidden Histories. For more see contributions by Matt Houlbrook, Chloe Ward, Kate Smith, Donna Taylor and Shahmima Akhtar.
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.
I find myself in some difficulty when approaching the task of writing about display cabinets as we don’t have one. Neither did my parents or my wife’s parents. The meaning of this absence of exhibition is something I shall return to. In the meantime, however, I should point out that our house nonetheless contains a variety of objets d’art and bric-à-brac. Or, in other words, an accumulation of objects which their original owners might have thought to be valuable antiques, but are in fact generally not.
Perhaps the closest thing to a display cabinet is the triangular corner cupboard which is indeed an antique but which had first to be carefully restored by my Devonian father in law Jack. This is where he kept, amongst other things, the glass and bottle of whisky which formed the basis of his “nightcap”; a substantial draught which took the place of a forbidden (in his own mind) trip to the local pub. It is one of a number of specimens of his handiwork which can be found around the house, including wood carvings and a long-case clock built to accommodate an old movement originally manufactured in Dudley, which he felt appropriate to our midland location.
Jack’s parents were an agricultural labourer and a domestic servant. They lived in a ‘picture postcard’ thatched cottage which, whilst it has to us resonances of summer holidays and clotted cream, was in fact a combination of hand-built cob walls and high maintenance thatched roofs which often housed rats and other fellow travellers of the human race. The occupants of this basic accommodation also ‘enjoyed’ a fairly low standard of living. An Edwardian farm worker’s lunch consisted mainly of bread, cheese and very occasional (and very fatty) bacon. Jack’s dad would return four days out of five with the cheese uneaten, claiming that he hadn’t been hungry; his contribution to the modest household economy.
Jack was fortunate in a number of ways. He was born in 1915 and thus lived through most of a century during which, in his words, “saw amazing advances in science and technology”. The first instance he would cite was the motor car; a sight so rare in rural 1920s Devon that children would run across the fields to see one at first hand. He was also fortunate, compared with generations of his forefathers, in the availability of an education which included subjects like the sciences and woodwork in addition to the traditional three ‘Rs’. As an only child and therefore having no siblings, his mother was able to devote sufficient of the family’s resources to keep him at school until he matriculated at the age of 16. His third piece of luck was the outbreak of World War 2 which saw him initially doing his part to defeat Hitler by dint of his clerical efforts at the Army Pay Corps in Exeter. There his potential was spotted by his officer and he was sent for training and redeployment to a then very secretive manor house called Bletchley Park. There his nascent academic abilities were combined with wood-working and craft skills which enabled him to manufacture sophisticated radio sets disguised as everyday objects (such as sewing machines or briefcases) which accompanied Special Operations Executive agents on their missions into occupied France.
The war was also a period of social dislocation and mobility; in Jack’s case the outcome of this dynamic period was courtship and marriage to a girl called Pearl. She, despite also having roots in the west country, had been raised as a middle class Anglo-Indian; her childhood alternated between a large house with servants located on the hot dusty plain and term-time spent at a boarding school in the mountain station of Simla. In the vernacular of the period it was clear that Jack had married above himself. He thus took (we assume unconscious) advantage of both of the available routes out of the labouring class which were not generally available to his predecessors in their picturesque but primitive cottages.
Jack in due course became the manager at the local feed mill where he had worked before the war. Whilst he had achieved a desirable, to him, state of middle-classness, there is little doubt that Pearl in due course chafed somewhat at the constraints of a petit-bourgeois life in a small rural community where she lacked social peers. As the boss’s wife she was expected (particularly by him) not to work so, like many of her contemporaries, she sublimated some of her energies into the self-improvement and social intercourse offered by the Women’s Institute. Jack also felt it incumbent on him to mark a social distance between himself and his workforce; hence the avoidance of the local pub and his perceived stand-offishness when dealing with other village residents. He devoted his spare time instead to the exercise of his practical abilities. Hence the wood-carving and antique restoration projects which he carried out in his work-shop; a safe haven from the difficulties of dealing with other people including, at times, his own family.
Objects which he created and restored or possessions bought, such as Pearl’s small collection of Mason’s Ironstone with its distinctive hard red and blue glazes, were not, however, to be installed in a display cabinet. That would presumably have been an example of ostentatiousness; a trait to be avoided as he distanced himself from his humble origins and marked his climb to relative success. Paintings on the other hand, were valid collectibles for the upwardly mobile and considered desirable both for their aesthetic qualities and their value as tangible assets. They were purchased with care, due to their relatively high cost, and then openly displayed and discussed with visitors. Art is ostentation in acceptable form for the bourgeoisie. Paintings were also objects, like ceramics, carvings, fresh flowers and de-personalised craft items, which could be carefully arranged in relation to the containing space in such a way as to create a pleasing whole; another symptom of aspiration constrained by ‘taste’.
We don’t have a display cabinet. Neither did my parents. Time and space do not permit an examination of the somewhat parallel class transition made by own family from being the offspring of Irish immigrants and girls in service to the world of academia; education being a key theme in both narrative arcs. Another meme common to both families was the erasure of almost all traces of regional dialect and an assumption that Received Pronunciation was a desirable marker which would allow them to claim a position further up the social scale. And of course one wouldn’t keep sentimental (also read as cheap) memorabilia in a display cabinet like one’s parents. Especially if, like my father, you had been inducted into a fairly ascetic form of Protestantism which saw little or no value in the display of non-functional artefacts. As a consequence of this religious fundamentalism and social distancing we have probably lost, or never possessed, items which would be of genuine interest to future generations; souvenirs of great events perhaps or the military memorabilia which would have enabled family stories to be relayed to succeeding generations.