Tuesday, 29 December 2015

the 'stuff' that makes up a life.

I have been considering the idea of stuff a lot this Fall.  George Carlin's rant about stuff comes to mind when you have to move all your stuff.  Six years ago we left a 3500 square foot house and moved into a 700 square foot apartment with two storage units.  We gave away a lot of stuff.  The kids got a full living room full of stuff, the lawn mower, the weed wacker.  Other things went to other people, gardening stuff, studio stuff.  A lot of stuff got donated to either the Sally-Ann or the 'free love bin' at NSCAD.  The fashion department also go my large 'scrap' bin and several boxes of fabric bits.
Then, this past summer, we moved again.  To Montreal, and into a 2000 square foot house.  To say that the movers did a shit job of moving our stuff is an understatement.  I may be the next 5 years just finding everything again.
This summer, there has also been a refugee crisis that makes the crisis of WWII look like a drop in the bucket.  People have been leaving the Middle East, specifically Syria, in droves.  Carrying what they can in backpacks and baby strollers.  These are people just like my own family, hard working, middle class, city dwelling in large part.  They have been criticized for what they are taking with them.  They have been criticized for leaving their home country, for wanting better from life, for their children.  They want to be able to sleep at night, safe, secure, without the threat of being shot or bombed.

And I think about our own hobby of re-enacting.  In the 18thC, I have paid a lot of money for stuff that I can use to interpret a person who is homeless, who is a refugee fleeing a war I didn't really want.  I wrote a probe about the cell phone, and it's usefulness to a refugee this past term for Humanities class.  I thought about all the things one could 'pack' on the sim card of a cell phone: family photos, important documents, contact information for loved ones and friends, not to mention being able to contact country's refugee camps and being notified of the possibility of getting to go further, to countries like Canada to restart a life.  And I wonder what it must have been like for the refugees of the American War of Independence...

An inventory of Myrtleville farm in Ontario from August 1849, by Eliza Good lists:

Parlour furniture, including 12+ chairs, sofa with hair mattress, tables, book shelves, carpets, fireplace furniture.
Drawing room furniture including more chairs, another sofa, more tables, more bookcases, curio cases, embroideries, colour prints, more carpets, more fireplace furniture.
Bedrooms include bedsteads, cots, chests of drawers, washstands, chamber ware, more chairs, trunks, more carpets.
The Kitchen includes two more bedsteads, tables, wash tubs, stove and furniture, pails, tins.
Bedding and bedclothes include, pillowcases, featherbeds, hair mattresses, bolsters, pillows, blankets, chaff beds for servants, quilts, sheets, tablecloths, towels, baby and children's clothes for 3 boys and 6 girls.
In the closet there were milk pans, china, including a tea set, glasses and decanters, ivory handled knives and forks, a spinning wheel and reel, sheet music, a good quantity of cloth, flannel, calicoes and muslin.  And a good amount of jewellery and eye glasses.

A hundred years earlier, in the Scottish Highlands, a farmer's small house would contain things like a dish dresser, box beds, bedding, a sofa (a bit different than the mid Victorian one, for sure), chairs, tables, fire implements, cooking implements, kitchen ware, pails, pans, possibly a spinning wheel and maybe even a loom.

Another short inventory of a Black Loyalist in Nova Scotia preparing to leave for Sierra Leone in 1791 requested that he and his wife, farmers, be permitted "to take with them a musket, an axe, two hoes, a saw, and a chest of tools, in addition to two chests of clothes, two barrels of other items, and a bedstead.  They were certified as people 'of good character" (Whitehead: 2013, 51).

These lists give us a bit of an understanding of what farming families would expect to own.  What though, would they take with them if they had to leave in a hurry, and were unsure of where they were headed, or how they would get there.  Ruth Whitehead describes white Planters from the Carolinas being "crammed into fifteen vessels with the slaves that remained with them" (Whitehead: 2013, 74).  What household goods would have been 'crammed' in alongside the human freight?  In the New Brunswick museum, there is an extant waistcoat from the revolutionary period.  When studying the waistcoat, I learned that there was a portrait of the owner to be hung in the portrait gallery that same Spring (1995 or '96).  This portrait featured the very same waistcoat, and the person depicted in the painting was a Loyalist who fled in the middle of the night.  The story goes that he had returned home from a dinner party to find a sword through the forehead of his portrait, the hole is still visible in the painting.  Why this man would think to bring his portrait as he fled for his life boggles the mind.

I like to imagine that, in period, I would have been a middle class farmer's wife.  Though with Pierre's love for sailor's clothing and the sea, I was far more likely a sailor's wife even then.  I would have lived in a coastal town.  I would have owned things, things to make a home.  I might have even owned nice things...though maybe not many.  So with every item that we add to our re-enacting kit, I stop and think about how valuable it would be to our daily lives.  What would I need in a new place, what can I carry, how would we have gotten there?  How would our stuff have gotten there.  Most likely, we would have travelled by sea, so packing things for that voyage would be important.  And so, as I begin my list of projects for this upcoming year, I will keep clothing to a minimum, so that we 'live' in our clothing more.  I will be thinking about the types of 'furniture' I will want, things that can serve multiple purposes, like trunks instead of chairs. 
And as in other years, I will most likely have my valuable items, like my pewter dishes and my china tea set, but will keep them packed away when not in use, so that they stay 'good' and in my own possession...Living amoungst crowds of people you may not know well, or trust, things could 'go missing' you know.


Grant, I. F. Highland Folk Ways. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.
Pain, Howard. The Heritage of Upper Canadian Furniture: A study in the survival of formal and vernacular styles from Britain, America and Europe, 1780-1900. Etobicoke, Ontario: Prospero Books, 1984.
Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. Black Loyalists: Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia's First Free Black Communities. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Nimbus, 2013.

1 comment:

  1. Watching the news the other night, we noticed Syrian refugees leaving a city that has been under siege for the last 5-6 months. They were carrying large, heavy bags with seemingly all their important possessions. I wonder how much of that 'stuff' will be left by the roadside, as they move on to perhaps a better life, but more likely, several months of walking.