Antiques Depot 2013 Writing Contest Winner (Age 6 to 12)

The second annual “Antiques Depot Writing Contest… with an Antiques Twist” was a great success. We are amazed at the many terrific stories that were submitted by our young authors. Here is this year’s winning story in the Under Twelve age group, submitted by Sophie Manning, age eleven, who was inspired by a very unusual Victorian whimsey: A Pair of Lady’s Gloves Compressed inside a Walnut Shell. Incidentally, Sophie wasn’t tempted by modern electronic gadgetry (an ereader), and instead chose the Walnut Shell and gloves for her prize.

The Manning sisters searching the Antiques Depot for their inspiration.

The Manning sisters searching the Antiques Depot for their inspiration.

In a Nutshell

By Sophie Manning

Mrs. Diana Coe

    I shiver as I stand on the deck of the RMS Queen Mary, leaning over the rail. It’s especially cold for March, but the sea spray feels good on my face. Suddenly, I’m aware that I’m completely alone on the rocking deck; no one else had dared to venture outside on such a cold day as this. I wonder where my son is. He’s supposed to be my escort, but so far, I’ve only glimpsed him once or twice, much less actually had him escort me anywhere! It’s not considered proper for a lady to be venturing outside her quarters alone on a ship of this size, but what choice do I have when my husband is home in London, and Thomas is nowhere in  sight. Besides, I get terribly seasick in my room with no cool air circulating. My cousin Victoria had been the one to suggest travelling to France to attend a piano recital performed by Franz Liszt, a popular composer in Europe. She said that I simply must see him in Paris (even though he is coming to perform in England in a short while), because it is supposed to be his best recital yet. So, after much coaxing, I had to agree.

    Originally, it was supposed to be my husband and I voyaging to France together, but, two days before the time of departure, a very important business opportunity came up that he couldn’t ignore. All of my close relatives live nearby each other in London, save my sister, her daughter and her late husband, who died recently of a terrible sickness. They now live on a faraway island called Nantucket to  which they have just moved barely a year before now.   It  would be impossible for me to cancel my voyage without causing uproar among my family, who are all incredibly excited to hear about the performance.

    Sighing, I head back inside, knowing that I have to get ready for the luncheon with the family with the cabin next to ours. We are to meet them in the Grand Dining room in an hours time.  As I walked back to my room, I wonder if the recital will be worth all this.

    It is just after we finish eating when we hear the foghorn signifying that we have arrived at last. Bidding goodbye to the kind family, Thomas brings me back to our cabin to change into my traveling clothes and to pack my trunks. I’m more than anxious to get off the ship, (even though it’s one of the finest in the world), so I hurry  onto the deck to watch it pull in with the others. An automobile is waiting for us just outside the harbor gates, and we soon find our luggage. Before long, we’re driving to our hotel.

    As much as Thomas is trying to make today as enjoyable as possible, so far the word I would use to describe it is: Hectic.  It’s taking us longer than seems necessary to find our seats because the hall is so crowded and noisy, but when Liszt sits down at the elegant, black piano, the silence is complete. Sound seems to almost flow from his fingers as he performs his compositions one after another. He easily keeps the attention on him as he plays with such movement and feeling that clearly nobody could tear their eyes away from. He plays a series of songs that I later find out are called: “Robert le Diable.”

    “Oh cousin Victoria, you were right to make me come,” I silently think. My only worry is that I won’t ever be able to describe it accurately  to my family back home.

    After an hour, the performance ends and the audience rises for a standing ovation, Thomas and I included. But before long the crowd begins to get rowdy, pushing their way up closer towards the stage, and almost trying to pull Liszt off it! And that’s when Thomas decides it’s a good time to leave.

    Back on the streets, it’s only mildly busy, which I’m sure is normal for Paris. I decide that it’s the perfect time to purchase souvenirs for some of my closest relatives. Thomas leads me to a small, and frankly very dusty souvenir shop that he had spotted on the way to the hotel. Almost as soon as we enter the store, Thomas disappears into the back in search of some cigars, while I browse around the entrance.

    It doesn’t take long for me to find a gift for cousin Victoria. She absolutely adores the opera, and really any other recital or show there is, so I buy her a beautiful pair of mother of pearl opera glasses.  For my girls, I get two matching blue silk hair ribbons that are the exact color of their eyes. As for my husband, I’d put Thomas in charge of finding that gift.

    I’m intrigued by all the other merchandise as well, so I decide to just look around before we leave. I walk along rows and rows of brown shelves, my eyes skimming all the objects there. Books, hair bonnets, jewelry boxes, paintings of Paris, walnut shells… Walnut shells? I look closer, my curiosity piqued Something was folded and stuffed into them! I practically jog to the man standing behind his desk, and hold them out in front in front of me. “What are they, sir?” I ask, pushing them towards him. “Ah, yes.” He says, taking off his spectacles. He takes  one from me gently. “They’re white leather lady’s gloves, folded so tiny that they may be stuffed into a walnut shell,” he answers, examining them carefully. “I could’ve taken them out for display, but they were so I interesting that I couldn’t resist keeping them like this.” He looked up at me. “Would you like to buy them?” he asks. Suddenly I remember my poor niece. Living on a remote island with nobody but her mother to keep her company, her father (and my brother in law) dead and the rest of her family in London. I imagine how much joy she would find in taking out the little gloves and marveling over who could possibly fold them so tiny. And I hear myself reply: “Yes, I’ll take them.” I would send them to my tragic little niece.

A Whimsical Victorian Souvenier: A Pair of Lady's Gloves Compressed into a Beribboned Walnut Shell case.

A Whimsical Victorian Souvenier: A Pair of Lady’s Gloves Compressed into a Beribboned Walnut Shell case.

Elizabeth Coe

    I’m in the middle of chopping up a bluefish when my mother steps into in fish shop, holding a letter in her hand. Without speaking, she hands it to me. I haven’t seen a letter so fine since we’d moved to Nantucket. It is on thick, beige paper with elegant cursive writing addressed to me. I stare at the D  engraved on the crimson seal; it is  big with lots of curlicues, Aunt Diana’s seal. “Oh, yes,” my mother says quietly, “this came with the letter.” She hands me a small package. I place it on the clean part of the counter and slide open the envelope with a butter knife. But then I notice my hands. They’re covered in fish blood and scales; my fingernails are caked with dirt. Feeling  ashamed, I move to the sink and rinse my hands. After drying them with a loose dishtowel, I go back to the letter:

My Darling Niece, Elizabeth,

I have recently visited Paris to attend a wonderful performance by Franz Liszt.

In my travels, I couldn’t help but think of you. Nearly all alone in a strange island, your father deceased and your mother devastated. And when I saw these nutshells containing tiny lady’s gloves, I knew how much it would mean to you to have a new pair of leather gloves all the way from France. To remind you that you’ll always be a British young lady at heart.

Your loving Aunt,

Diana Coe

Reading the letter, I feel a sudden pang of sadness deep in my chest, in one way, I don’t  want to open the package, for fear that it would hurt me too much to remember how things used to be. But in another, I am incredibly curious. My curiosity  wins over and I rip off the packaging eagerly, looking up every so often to make sure that the owner of the shop isn’t paying attention. Inside, as promised on the letter, are two  hard halves of a walnut shell tied together with  a piece  of blue ribbon. Each one is stuffed with some kind of white cloth (according to the letter, the gloves) with a piece of tissue paper covering each one. Eagerly, I pry one glove out of a shell and hold it up to the light to examine it. It looks so much like those  I used to wear in London: Same clean white leather, same slight, slim finger slots and even the same seam running from the heel of the hand to the palm. I used to wear gloves to parties and teas, and  I never dreamed that I would be wearing one  like it on in a dirty fish shop in downtown Nantucket.

Everything had seemed to be getting better here, I made a few friends, attended ladies’ meetings, and went shopping  for gowns.  It  was almost like home, and then my father died. It all happened so fast that for a while I thought I had dreamed it all. He went to work in his bank one morning, kissing me on the forehead and promising to be home for luncheon. He never did come back. I remember the butler opening the door for  one of father’s co-workers and frantically  calling mother to greet him. I later found out that the man had been calling about my father.  Father had keeled over dead of a heart attack after he  received the news of an enormous financial crash that had just occurred almost everywhere, including Nantucket.  The possibility of a financial ruin had been a shock to all of the bankers,  but Father  had probably been  the first on the island to hear of  the crash, so therefore it was all the more severe. Mother had always said that he was too worried about his money, and that one day it would be the death of him.  I can hardly bear to think of how right she had been.They brought his body in later that day, the financial forecast for the island still in his grasp.

As soon as she received the tragic news,  Mother had crumpled to a heap at his feet, screaming and sobbing and beating the floor with her fists until she was too exhausted to move any longer. Nobody knew what to do, all the staff just stood there, frozen with the shock of the news until I finally  pulled my mother into a standing position and gently guided her into her bedchamber. Then, unable to hold my grief in any longer,I  ran sobbing into my own room to mourn in peace. My sadness was somehow more reserved and ladylike than my mother’s, although she had always been the lady of the family. I simply had cried until I had no more tears to shed, and then put away every object that was my father’s, every memory that could trigger that pain again.  

     Unlike my mother, I  wanted to continue living, to  at least try to make somethings like they were before. But since then, mother has been living in a trance, flitting from room to room without any real purpose,  seldom talking and softly when she does. I once walked into her room at night to check on her, and she was curled up on the bed, clutching one of my father’s old dress shirts and mumbling “why, why, why” over and over again until morning. It seemed as if our places in the family were reversed. I cared for her and gently prompted her just as she had done when I was younger. And she just lay there and let me feed and cleanse her as if she was a still a small  baby. Life was terrible as it was, and then the money ran out.

    I suppose I should have known even before mother told me. A  window broke and was never fixed.  The  maids left.  But  I’d honestly never thought about it before. After all, I had more things on my mind. One night during  the meager dinner I had managed to prepare, she told me that all the money in our savings had run out and that we were moving into a smaller and cheaper house that we could afford. And even worse, I,  once  a British lady, was going to work in a fish shop.

    I never needed to ask her why we couldn’t just write to our wealthy family and borrow some money or move back to England until we could get back on our feet. I guess that I already knew the answer. In lots of ways, foolish, impractical ways actually, I am much like my mother:  we’re  both very proud. We would rather work for every scrap of food we get and live in a very non-sanitary home than beg off money from our relative We would hate if people thought that now the man of the family is gone, we are unable to support and take care of ourselves.

Putting my gloved hand on the counter to admire it, I marvel at how someone could have fit a glove this size into a shell as small as this. It seems impossible! And then all of a sudden I remember that I need to sell this for the family. It would be far too cruel to allow my mother to work herself ragged to keep the house for us while I had something in the pocket of my apron that would pay for at least several month’s rent. At once, I hurriedly stuff the glove back into it’s shell. And grabbing my worn shawl off the hook, I run out into the street in search of the curiosity shop where I could pawn it.

When I arrive, it’s hard to fight back the memories that spring up. My father and I used to come here, merely for pleasure. To investigate the new treasures that had arrived. But I try to put on a neutral face, and stride purposefully toward the front desk. Then, my heart sinking, I place my gift on the counter, and except the money that is handed to me.

Mrs. Dorothea Coe

I know that Elizabeth doesn’t like me to hover over her, but when I heard my daughter gasp with amazement, I just had to see what had been in that package. I suppose that I should have known Diana would give her something like that. So lavish and impractical. It’s just like her to have expensive taste. Deep down I knew that Elizabeth would never dare keep such a gift in secret. But  I admit that for a moment I almost expected her to slip the package into her pocket and continue with her work as  if nothing had happened. When she left the shop, clearly in search of somewhere to pawn it by the expression on her face, I felt a sense of pride that she was so mature. It is something she’d never have done before my beloved husband died. She was too spoiled then, too silly and frivolous. And then I did something I’d never done  before: I followed her.

    Peering through the window of the curiosity shop, I could see the regret she was feeling at having to give up her gift,  I felt a certain regret myself. Regret that I wasn’t there for her all those months I was depressed. Regret that I hadn’t been there for her grief, but that she had been there for mine. Regret that I had been no more useful than a lifeless corpse after my husband’s heart attack. Guilt floods through me. So as my daughter  leaves the shop, I hide in a nearby alley, I knew one way that  I could make it up to her.

    I wait until she is out of sight to sneak into the curiosity store. Heart thumping, I walk swiftly to the counter. “The shelled gloves, please, the ones the girl just brought in,” I say, laying my month’s wages on the desk before the shop keeper. “Of course, here they are,” he agrees and sweeps the money off the counter, while I reach for the walnut shells. I know that we will suffer for the loss of that money, but we’ll survive, I had to make this right.

    Back in the fish shop, I hurry behind the counter where my daughter stands wiping up the mess on the floor, her face filled with disappointment. I don’t waste any time. Kneeling next to her on the floor, I pull her face up to mine. “I brought you something,” I say softly. She stares at me “What?” she asks eagerly. I pull out the walnut halves. Her face lights up. “But I pawned them!” she says, confused. “We need the money.”  “Not as much as I need you,” I answer. “You took care of me all those weeks,  it’s my turn now.” And for the first time in three months, I pull her to me for a hug.


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Antiques Depot 2013 Writing Contest Winner (Age 13 to 18).

The second annual “Antiques Depot Writing Contest… with an Antiques Twist” was a great success. We are amazed at the many terrific stories that were submitted by our young authors. Here is this year’s winning story in the Over Twelve age group, submitted by Grace Manning who is “almost 14 years old”. She wrote a fictional biography of a Victorian girl named Kathleen Jenkins, inspired by a Victorian Shell-Covered Box in the form of a Miniature Armoire.

The Manning sisters searching the Antiques Depot for their inspiration.

The Manning sisters searching the Antiques Depot for their inspiration.

The Hope Chest
By Grace Manning

I stand at the edge of the pier in the pouring rain. My two sisters and my mother stand next to me, squinting into the downpour, hoping to catch a last glimpse of the whaleboat Kathleen as she leaves Nantucket harbor. All I can see of the ship are its great, white sails, like outstretched wings, eager to meet the wind. I can imagine my papa, though, standing at the prow of the boat and tipping his navy blue hat to the nearly invisible onlookers. We stay on the pier until The Kathleen is long out of sight. My mother grabs Olive and Ann by the arms and steers them away from the water. “Come along, now,” she says, in a harsh manner. I smile to myself. This is Mother’s way of hiding her fear and sadness. “Come along, Kathleen!” mother orders. I take one last look at the churning, gray sea and grudgingly follow them.

Papa grew up farming, deep in the countryside of Vermont, so he was no stranger to hardship and physical work. He loved nature and the outdoors but, he was restless on his family’s farm and he longed for adventure. When news of the whaling industry passed through, Papa seized his chance and he left Vermont for Nantucket. He has been a whaler ever since. He used to tell me how much he loved the sea. The rolling motion of the waves, the salty, stale smell that hangs on your clothes. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be,” he would say, his bright blue eyes misty in thought. When I was young I used to sit on his wide lap and pretend his knees were the wooden planks of some huge ship. He would bounce me up and down until I begged for him to stop. When he left on his whaling trips, I would watch the sea for hours, hoping that his boat would reappear.

Mother, on the other hand, has been a lady all her life. She was born to a very wealthy family and grew up in the center of Boston. She’s always been firm about manners and attending her society meetings. She occupies herself with charity work, as ladies of her station must do.

Once we reach our tall, red brick house, Mother shakes the water from her parasol and hands it to Gretchen, our housemaid. Olive and Ann peel off their mackintoshes and simply leave them on the floor, but I hang mine up silently and climb the stairs to my room. Mother always says how important it is for one to have one’s private space, so she insists that each of us have our own room. Olive’s is closest to the staircase, Ann’s is right next to Mother and Papa’s and mine is down the hall a little ways. My room looks out over the bay which is no place I’d like to be today. The whitecaps on top of the waves are enormous and growing every second. A storm is on the way. I can smell dinner wafting up through the floorboards, but my stomach just lurches and I know I couldn’t possibly eat. Instead, I stare out the window and daydream about what Papa will bring back for me. Each trip he takes, Papa brings a souvenir back for each of his daughters and for his wife. Mine sit lined up on the mantel over the fireplace in my room. A piece of whalebone covered with the intricate drawing of a boat: a scrimshaw. A pair of shell earrings woven together with wire. I look sadly at all the treasures my papa has brought back for me over the years.
Every night after dinner, my sisters and I sit in the parlor to study or sew. But tonight, I can’t concentrate on bible verses and when I try to sew a button on my blouse, I prick my finger. Tears well up in my eyes, but I fight them down and hurry up to my room. I dig around in the wooden chest where I keep most of my belongings until I find a small, half-finished jewelry box. I had started making the jewelry box last year, when Mother showed Ann, Olive and I how it was done. My sisters finished theirs but mine never really amounted to anything. I take out the box and turn it over in my hands. I think of my papa, out in the middle of the ocean, maybe in the midst of a whale hunt, or deciding what presents he will bring back for each of us. I carry the jewelry box and a pile of supplies downstairs.
“You’re starting that again?” Olive asks, unable to keep the jeering laugh out of her voice, “You didn’t get very far last time!” I choose to ignore her and instead, I sit at our round dining table and begin to glue a few pieces of wood together. It won’t be a very sturdy box, but it will be a pretty one. Ann’s shadow falls across my face and I look up. In her outstretched hands are a few weather-beaten shells. “Here,” she says softly, “You can glue these around the edges. Papa would like that.” I smile and take them from her. I work on the jewelry box every night for a week. Between going to school and helping mother at home, I write letters to Papa and mail them to whichever place The Kathleen stops at next to get provisions. First the barque stopped at the Western Islands, then at the Peak of Tennereif and then at the coast of Africa. I write to tell him about the goings-on around town and whatever else might be worth talking about. It cheers me up as well as I hope it does him.

Dearest Papa,

I miss you so much already. It’s only been a few weeks, but life just isn’t the same without you. I hope you’ve been busy and that you’ve caught a few whales because the more whales you catch, the sooner you’ll be home. Mother misses you dreadfully, although she never shows it. Olive and Ann do too, but they’re busy with school and friends.I run down to the dock every morning before sunup to see if I can spot any ships on the horizon. I’ve seen quite a few ships, Papa, but none of them were yours.

With love, Kathleen

Months pass and finally, a whole year has gone by since papa left. I’m glad this is Papa’s last journey, for although he loves the adventure of it all, I’d sooner have him safe at home. Besides, Mother thinks Papa is getting too old to be doing such demanding work. Mother keeps all of us busy. I suppose it’s to keep our minds off Papa. I finish the jewelry box and place it in the center of the mantel in my bedroom beside all the other treasures from Papa. It really has turned out quite beautiful. Ann and Olive were clearly jealous when I showed it to them. The box is coated on all sides in yellow paper mâché and mirrors cover the two tiny doors in the front. The bottom drawer is lined with soft, red velvet and shells border the edges. It stands on thick legs so that it doesn’t fall over and the top ends in a glorious arc. Whenever I look at it, I am reminded of Papa.

Victorian Shell Decorated Box in the form of a Miniature Mirrored Armoire.

Victorian Shell Decorated Box in the form of a Miniature Mirrored Armoire.

Dear Papa,

It’s been two years, now, and there’s no sign of you or The Kathleen. The weather here is awful and Mother says there will be a storm for sure. I pray you’re far enough away that the storm won’t reach you. Ann and Olive hardly ever talk about you anymore. I don’t try to bring you up because that just makes Mother leave the table and Olive shoots me dirty looks. Don’t worry; I’m sure they miss you terribly in their own ways. I’ve been busy making a jewelry box, Papa. You know, the kind all the girls in town like to make for fun. It really is nice looking actually. I finished it last week and it sits patiently, waiting for your return. I still miss you and am thinking of you everyday.

Your daughter, Kathleen

We’re all named after boats. Papa thought of the idea when Olive was born. He wanted to name her after the barque, The Olive Frances, and after that, he decided to name all of his daughters after famous vessels. Ann is named after The Ann Alexander and I’m named after Papa’s last ship, The Kathleen. Mother went along with the plan quite happily, especially since most boats have beautiful names. Papa wasn’t captain of either The Ann Alexander or The Olive Frances for those boats sailed many years before he was born. Today Mother, Olive and Ann went to pick up a new dress for Olive that mother had ordered. I went down to the bay to pick up a few more shells for my jewelry box. A few of the shells that I glued on had fallen off and I needed to replace them. The days are getting shorter and much colder. It has been two years since Papa sailed out of Nantucket harbor and I am becoming steadily more anxious for his return. I can hardly wait to see his weathered, tanned face and his eyes twinkling as he spots us standing on the docks.

Dear Papa,

I am so, so ready for you to be here again. Mother will make your favorite pumpkin pie and maybe roast turkey, since you’ve missed three thanksgivings. I can’t help hoping that you’ll make it home for Christmas. I don’t know if you’ve been getting my letters, but if you have, please write back. I would so love to hear from you, as would Ann, Olive and Mother. Have you seen any other boats while you’ve been out there on the sea? You’ll be back within the year, won’t you, Papa? We’ll all be terribly worried if you aren’t.

Love, Kathleen

One of our fishing boats sailed into port today. The Edith Rose. I run down to the dock in case the fishermen have news of the whale ship The Kathleen. Olive and Ann come right behind me with Mother close at our heels. At the dock, the fishermen are unloading the fish, but without their usual laughter and rude jokes. Mother warns me not to get too close to the clumsy fishermen, for they could easily drop a box of fish or an anchor. I run right into the scuffle anyway, and call for a man who would tell me of news. The men stop working and look at me with pity. Only one man steps forward. It is Charles Baker who lives on Nantucket when he isn’t out at sea. “Kathleen,” he says gravely, “I don’t know where your father is, but one of the fishermen found this floating off the coast of Barbados.” Charles rummages around in one of the crates for a moment, before producing a piece of splintered wood. He hands it to me and I run my fingers over the faded letters on it. Kathlee. It’s missing the n but there’s no doubt about it. This piece of wood was once part of my father’s ship. I can’t feel anything but the wood under my hand. I stare unseeing up at Charles and then hand the wood back to him. He pushes it gently back at me. “Keep it,” he says and tries to smile. The men begin to work again. Unloading The Edith Rose. I stand in the middle of it all, trapped by thoughts. Ann shakes me out of my stupor. “What are you doing?” she hisses, looking anxiously at the rough men around us. I let her pull me through the crowd to reach mother and Olive standing near the post office. Olive is crying softly into mother’s sleeve. Ann slumps dejectedly against the brick wall and lets her chin fall onto her chest. Mother and I stare at each other for what seems like forever, before she breaks away and we walk slowly home.

Dear Papa,

Where are you? The Edith Rose came into port today and Charles Baker had a piece of The Kathleen to show me. Are you really shipwrecked? I don’t believe it. You’re a survivor, Papa. And if there’s anyone who deserves to live, it’s you. I’ll never lose hope even if everyone else does. I’m still waiting for you, Papa. We all are.

Love, Kathleen

Instead of mailing this letter, I roll it up neatly and slide it into an empty medicine bottle that I rescued from the trash barrel behind the apothecary’s shop. From the dock, I throw the bottle as far out into the water as I can. I watch it bob away. A tiny speck of brown in an ocean of green and blue. I then stoop down to the dock and pick up the shard of wood that Charles gave to me. I look at it one last time, and then hurl it into the sea.

Dear Papa,

There was a funeral for you today. Not just for you, of course, but for all the men that were on The Kathleen. Mother, Ann and Olive cried during the ceremony, but I saved my tears for afterwards, when I was alone in my room. What’s funny is that everybody in town believes you’re dead. Not one person hopes that you’re still alive and waiting to be rescued. I don’t show my hope outwardly, but inside I’m hoping, Papa. You have to come back.

Love, Kathleen

I wear a beautiful dress to the funeral although nobody is paying attention to my clothes. Olive and Ann have new dresses, too, but Mother has had hers for a while. I’ve seen it before, hanging in her closet. I know she hoped she would never have the need to wear it. We sit upright in pews that are full to bursting. Even people who didn’t know anyone on The Kathleen are there. A lost whaleboat on Nantucket is no small thing. When the priest begins to speak, men take off their hats and ladies bow their heads in prayer. I dip my head, but I peer out from under my curtain of hair and I watch. I watch tears falling and mouths turning down in agonized and silent screams as the priest begins to talk about each of the men. I listen when Papa’s name is announced. He’s last, because he was the captain.

“We remember Thomas H. Jenkins as one thing in particular. A leader. Many times he has lead men through huge storms and dangerous circumstances. He was a well respected man throughout our community and he will be greatly missed by all.”
Outside the chapel, mother talks quietly with the other women in mourning while Ann, Olive and I stand off to the side. I watch the seagulls circling overhead and take deep breaths of the salty air. Calming myself.

Dear Papa,

Another boat came in today, but this time, a foreign one. It was called The Borderer. Do you remember this boat, Papa? Because it rescued nearly all of your crew. Not everyone was dead, after all. You weren’t on this boat, Papa. Will you be on the next one? Will there even be a next one? I felt a pang inside when I saw so many wives seeing their husbands and so many children hugging their fathers. There were tears again, but these were happy tears. Mother doesn’t smile anymore, Papa. She has already given up hope. Our house is so quiet, now. Come home, Papa.

Love, Kathleen

My heart leaps when I hear the news that a foreign boat is in the harbor. Perhaps they have news of Papa! We hurry down to the docks to find men from The Kathleen leaping down from the steamer to embrace their family members. Mother’s hand flies up to her mouth and she trembles. I craned my neck as more and more men file off the ship to meet their loved ones. Twenty-eight of my papa’s crewmembers are on the ship and not one of them is Papa. I think we all lost a little hope after that. Mother won’t even look at us anymore. I can’t feel anything. Just a steady numbness that makes me feel quiet inside. I keep writing letters to Papa and throwing them into the sea. That’s how I remind myself of Papa. Right after The Borderer leaves, I carry my jewelry box into the attic and lock it in a chest along with everything else that reminds me of what might have been, should Papa have returned. All the treasures he brought back for me from foreign places, locked in the attic.

Dear Papa,

Should I give in to everyone who says you’re dead? Should I stop trusting my instincts and just let you go? I tell myself to hold on and to wait. I tell myself that you’ll be home soon. But I’m getting tired of waiting, Papa. I’m not sure that I can convince myself much longer. Half a year has passed since The Borderer brought some of your men home. Are you coming home at all?

Love, Kathleen

Mother sends us back to school. She says we can’t stay home all day and do nothing. I would feel angry if she had said that two years ago, but now I feel nothing but emptiness. So we walk to school and walk home. Hardly talking. I look at my sisters and I remember what they used to look like. So vibrant and alive. Now they just look tired. Like they can’t wait until the end of the day. I suppose I must look like that too. Charles Baker used to stop by almost every day after school with cookies from his wife and cards from his small children, but now my papa is a person from the past. Nothing more than a memory.

Dear Papa,

I have to think about you hard now, just to remember what you look like. I think I’m forgetting you, Papa. I don’t want to, but it’s hard to remember someone who nobody even mentions anymore. Mother is worried about the money running out. There are no more new dresses or fancy dinners at restaurants. I don’t miss that so much. People look at us differently now. With a sad, soft look in their eyes. They grasp my hands and tell me how truly, truly sorry they are.

Love, Kathleen

I’m down on the beach, looking out into the waves, when something catches my eye. It’s no bigger than my fingertip, but I can tell that it’s headed for Nantucket. The tentative hopefulness that bubbles up in me is warm and unexpected, like an old friend. I wade out into the water until my clothes are soaked through. I can see now that the small speck is a ship. I can see it’s tall masts and it’s white sails like the wings of some great bird. When I can stay no longer on the beach, I rush to the docks. They are desolate, not a single fisherman or whaler is to be seen. When the men come back from voyages, they tend to want to be as far from the water as possible. They prefer to be at home, spending time with their families and getting used to the solidity of land. I can see the ship clearly now and a great weight of disappointment falls into my stomach, replacing the hopefulness. It is not Papa’s ship. It is not The Kathleen. I sink down into a crouch and look at my reflection in the water. A small face stares back at me, whose eyes quickly fill with tears. It hurts to see Papa’s face in my own. I angrily splash my reflection out of the water and get up to leave. The boat is in the harbor. I see the men jumping and hugging each other, so happy to be home again. None of them were really sure that they’d survive the trip at all. Their voices become sharper. “Hey, Jenkins,” a fisherman yells, “ Isn’t that your lass on the docks there?” I lift my face towards the salty spray that the nearing boat flings onto me and I catch the first glimpse of Papa that I have seen in over six years. What comes next is all a blur. Papa crosses the gangplank in three long strides and lifts me in his arms. He hugs me and spins me around and when he finally puts me down, I can see tears in his blue eyes.

“This was your great, great grandmother’s house,” my Mom explains in the car on the way into to town, “She lived here with her Mom and Dad and her two sisters. What were they named, Jack? Something long and fancy.” She pauses for a moment and looks out the window into the pouring rain. “Her Dad was a whaler. Remember? Like from the whaling museum?” My sister Sarah nods furiously, mouth agape. “Anyway,” Mom continues, “They were pretty wealthy and well-known around here. I’ll bet if you mentioned her name to a couple of islanders, they’d recognize her as a friend of their grandparents!”

“What was great, great grandma’s name, Mommy?” Sarah asks.

“Kathleen, honey, her name was Kathleen,”my Mom replies.

The house is damp and a cold when my Dad finally gets the front door open and we pile inside. It’s mostly empty which disappoints Sarah a little. I think she was hoping there would be some paintings or old dolls that the girls used to play with. A grand staircase spirals up to the second floor and I leave my parents and Sarah downstairs, so I can investigate. Mom was right. There were three girls. Each one must’ve had their own bedroom. Lucky. I have to share a bedroom with Sarah back home in New York. The first three rooms are all empty but the fourth has the skeleton of a four-poster bed in it. The view from the fourth bedroom is amazing. My breath catches in my throat when I see it. It’s almost as if I’m flying above the bay. The house is set high on the cliffs so when I look out the window, all I can see is the water below. I rest my elbows on the dusty windowsill and gaze out at the sea. I try to imagine my great, great grandmother looking out this same window, wondering when her Dad will be home. I shake my head and smile at my own craziness.
Mom is buried in boxes and cobwebs when I finally find her up in the attic. It’s more of a crawl-space than an attic, really. “Can you believe this?” she asks, gesturing to the piles of junk around her, “ Kathleen must’ve never thrown anything out!” I nod in wonder and sneeze. “Bless you,” Mom mutters, sticking her entire head in an old box, “You can look around if you want.” I wade over to a corner and spot a big trunk that is half-buried under all the empty boxes and old clothes. It takes awhile for me to pry it open but when I do, I can hardly bear to look in. My eyes water uncontrollably at the dust and scraps of old paper that flutter out. Blindly, I stick my hand into the trunk and grope around until I hit something solid. A box. I pull it out and wipe it off with a corner of my shirt. It’s a small box that looks like it was meant for jewelry but when I pull open one of the tiny drawers, all that’s inside are a few holes and tattered red velvet. The two mirrors on the front are cloudy and battered shells line the edges. The sides are made of some kind of ripped paper and it seems fragile. I gently turn it over. On the bottom, some words are written in a spidery script. Kathleen Jenkins. I can hardly believe my eyes. This box had belonged to my great, great grandmother! I start to yell for my mom, but stop. Somehow, I want to keep this a secret. A secret between me and a young girl named Kathleen Jenkins.


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Second Annual Young People’s Writing Contest with an Antiques Twist!

The Antiques Depot is thrilled to be a part of this year’s Nantucket Book Festival. We are encouraging young people and teens to explore the world of rare and special antique objects by enter the Depot’s second annual “Antique Short Story Contest” by writing a fictional biography of an object they find in the shop (no purchase necessary).

Contestants are invited to come in and explore the wide variety of treasures from our past on display and find that one piece that sparks their imagination! They may be amazed to learn that antiques aren’t just that fragile china dog on their granny’s mantle… they may find harpoons and relics from old ships, tribal pieces made by American Indians or Pacific Islanders, mysterious objects from the Orient or ancient Egypt, or rare artifacts from age of the Pilgrims or the Revolutionary War!Child Writing

After asking whatever questions they wish about the object’s identity and history to get started, they can have fun researching and exploring their chosen piece at the library and the many island museums, and then put their new found knowledge and imagination to work by writing a story about their object. The young author can write a fictional “biography” that follows their object through the various imagined hands that have owned it over the years since it was made; perhaps exploring some of the ways it had been used. The author may choose to write an exciting story that takes place sometime in the past, where the chosen object plays an important role.

            All of the authors are encouraged to think of their object as a real character in their story and address when it was made, where it was from, what was its purpose, what was its life like, what did it witness? The contest is an opportunity to learn about our culture and get a better feel for Nantucket’s past, all while having fun with a creative project. The Antiques Depot is hoping the young authors will discover that exploring antiques will inspire a lasting appreciation of history and heritage.

       The story writing contest will launch during the Nantucket Book Festival… stop by and visit our table at the author’s tent in the Atheneum garden on Saturday, June 21st from 10:00 to 4:00. The contest is open to all young people, and the authors will be divided into a group aged 12 and under, and a group aged 13 to 18. The stories will be judged on the accuracy of information related, creativity and of course writing skill. The stories may be hand-written or printed, may be delivered either in person, by post, or by email, and must be submitted by July 23rd.

The winners may pick their choice of grand prize:

* Their very own Kobo ereader (generously donated by the Nantucket Bookworks)

* A vintage hand-crafted Ship-in-a-Bottle

* A selection of vintage Nantucket books

* A gift certificate to the Antiques Depot

The winning stories will be published in the Antiques Depot Blog, and (with their parent’s permission) will also be submitted to the Chamber of Commerce website, the Inquirer & Mirror, Yesterday’s Island, the Nantucket Chronicle, and the Nantucket Arts Council website. The winning author(s) will also be considered for an interview on ACK-FM.

Best of luck and we look forward to reading your entries!

The Antiques Depot is located at 14 Easy Street and is open 7 days a week from 10 am to 4 pm. Inquiries are welcome at 508-228-1287, and at Follow us on facebook and twitter by going to our website at


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The Day I met Jonathan Winters…and even made him laugh.

I’ve been in the antiques business for about 30 years on Nantucket, and I’ve met a lot of celebrities coming through the shop. Some are interesting, some are a bit surreal, but most are just folk who look a little familiar. Half the time someone else has to tell me who they are, and then explain WHO they are… I guess I’m just not in the loop. But there was that one time, the exception, the time I was thrilled and blown away… the time I met Jonathan Winters.

I was the manager of an auction gallery for many years, where every Thursday and Friday of the summer I would meet the auction previewers, dashing about the room answering questions, explaining the process, taking paintings off the wall, turning furniture over, and politely smiling at how many grandmothers used to own one just like it. It was educational and sometimes stimulating, but always exhausting. One particularly hectic Friday afternoon I had been on the run for hours, barraged by people demanding quick attention, my brain just about at the point of curdling into cotton candy, when a tall man appeared at my elbow, politely cleared his throat to get my attention and softly said “Excuse me?” I turned… and met Jonathan Winters.Jonathan Winters

I couldn’t believe it. Jonathan Winters. JONATHAN WINTERS! I was of course a fan. A huge fan. Ever since I first saw him on my parent’s old black and white Hallicrafters TV, oh it was probably on Ed Sullivan or the Dean Martin Show, I was hooked! What little kid could resist this guy? Sure there were other funny people, but here finally was an adult that was zany and animated and loony and spoke to me! He saw things just the way I did, the way any six year old did. He was the coolest adult, the only adult since the Three Stooges, that was obviously on our team! He was a giant, an icon, a superhero…

He was standing right there beside me. Oddly enough, he looked exactly like Jonathan Winters. He was a tall solidly built man wearing a slightly old-fashioned checked sports jacket (like my Dad would wear at a country club). He had those chubby cheeks, receding hair, and a ferocious twinkle in his eyes. He was shy and soft-spoken. He asked with that voice in a very serious demeanor if I could tell him anything about this certain ship model that was in the auction. How old was it? What price would it likely bring?

So, in a very serious demeanor and steady voice, I answered his questions. Inside of course I’m whooping and hollering, doing backflips and bouncing off the walls, struggling to keep it together. The rest of the auction preview confusion faded away, and Mr. Winters and I had a great conversation alone in our own little world. I wish I could remember that conversation word for word. I told him about the model: what type of ship she was (a clipper), and her age (probably made in the 1950s or 60s). It was not a very good model. In fact it was a terrible model. I told him he shouldn’t buy it. He could easily find a better one. And we chatted. And I made him laugh. A couple of times. I made Jonathan Winters laugh!

A lady started hovering around us, a little impatient but not rude. She had her catalogue and was doing her “I’m next” dance. She obviously wanted to ask me a question. She looked a little familiar; she had probably been to the auction before but wasn’t really a regular. I was always good about fielding several questions at once so people wouldn’t have to wait… but I was talking to Jonathan Winters here! She left and came back, and again, and then interrupted us. She looked right at me and said “Excuse me, could I just ask a quick question about something back here?”

Jonathan Winters immediately responded with a deep frown and a very somber voice “I’ll be with you in just one minute madam. I’m answering this young man’s question right now. When I’m done with him, I’ll answer yours. I can only help one person at a time.”

She looked from me to him, and back at me. She started to get a very confused look on her face.

“You’ll just have to be patient Madam. I’ll answer your questions as soon as I’m done here.”

She’s fully confused now. Her expression said that she thought she knew who I was, that I worked there, and I was the one she should ask. Who’s this other guy?

He assured her that he would find her in the room after he finished with me. She wandered off slowly, more than a little confused. He turned to me and broke into a very naughty grin and winked. I told him he did a much better job than me, and begged him to take over for the rest of the summer. I said something else, can’t remember what, and he really laughed. A good old throw-the-head-back guffaw.

He thanked me and went on his way. I had goose-bumps. I can’t believe I met Jonathan Winters… and made him laugh!

 The next day he bought the model with an absentee bid (I think it was a present for a little kid).

Ah, Jonathan Winters…we’ll miss you.

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You’ve got to love getting a “Get Out of Stalag Luft Free” Card! Oh the games that spies do play…

The study of history often seems to be a continuous review of one long war after another. Indeed the story of national endeavor and expansion is enwrapped in struggle and conflict. It is no wonder that the relics of these conflicts carry drama and intrigue like little else in the world of antiques. The articles have value far beyond their age and rarity, intimately tied to patriotism, sense of self, and often the gravitas of personal or family sacrifice.

Military artifacts and memorabilia comprise a varied and fascinating part of the antiques marketplace. Interest ranges from the uniforms and gear found in Army-Navy Surplus stores (and what little boy doesn’t flip over That Aladdin’s Cave?), to the munitions, insignia, medals, and rarities that feature in specialist auctions. Prisoner-of-war hand crafted folk art is particularly fascinating and poignant.

18th Century Prisoner of War Carved Bone Game Box and Snuff Box

18th Century Prisoner of War Carved Bone Game Box and Snuff Box

And then there’s vintage spy paraphernalia! Yes, James Bond’s Q Division existed… or rather the more prosaic Office of Research and Development of the OSS. They, and all their counterparts around the world, produced a wealth of sometimes clever sometimes crazy inventions in the name of intelligence. The majority of these comprise various surveillance devices such as miniature or hidden cameras, or electronic bugs. But actual historic spy gear (or tradecraft in CIA lingo) includes disguised encoding and decoding instruments, esoteric weapons (such as a lipstick gun and a pipe pistol), covert exploding devices, camouflaged poison capsules, hidden compartments (yes Maxwell, even in shoes), and even spy drones (including a robotic dragonfly and a remote controlled fish)! And you thought your tax dollars were being wasted.

"On ALL Fronts: World War II on Film" from the Harvard Film Archive.

“On ALL Fronts: World War II on Film” from the Harvard Film Archive.

A great collection of these devices and documents, focusing especially on the cold war period, can be found in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. An even better collection no doubt is held in the CIA Museum; unfortunately the latter is not open to the public, but believe it or not Langley has actually launched a You Tube channel and a website featuring a Flickr stream showing some of its museum artifacts. For those who prefer a more personal, hands-on experience, spy gear actually comes up for auction. In fact while I was in London this winter, Bonhams Auction offered a collection of vintage spy technology.

My favorite relic of espionage, the coolest undercover device ever, has got to be the World War II Monopoly game. Yes, that Monopoly game.

As the war progressed more and more allied airmen were being held prisoner in the Stalag camps throughout Europe (German prisoner-of-war camps run by the Luftwaffe air force). In spite of never- ending escape attempts, the soldiers were usually recaptured wandering lost around the countryside before local resistance fighters could come to their aid. The war office saw that maps were desperately needed to aid escape. But how to get them into the hands of the prisoners? And how could they make them durable enough to not tear from repeated folding? Or fall apart when wet? And not compromise the escapees with loud paper rustling noise as they consulted their maps? Someone thought “Why not silk?”

As luck would have it, the English firm of John Waddington Ltd. had just perfected the process of quality printing on silk. The firm was happy to aid the war effort and began printing silk maps detailing escape routes through every part of Germany and Italy where prisoners were held. The maps could be scrunched into a very tiny parcel, and were intended to be hidden in the heels of aviator’s boots.

Pair of World War I Leather Aviator Boots.

Pair of World War I Leather Aviator Boots.

But Waddington also held the UK licensee from Parker Brothers to manufacture Monopoly. Clever minds went to work and soon there was a highly top secret program making Monopoly sets with an escape map hidden inside one of the playing tokens! Other tokens held a miniature magnetic compass and a two piece metal cutting file. The stacks of fake money actually held quantities of large denomination German, Italian and French currency money. The games were distributed under the Geneva Convention to prisoners of war by fictitious aid organizations. Sounds like an escape plan to me. It is estimated that approximately 35 thousand allied soldiers successfully escaped from Luftwaffe prison camps during the war, and it has been suggested that up to a third of them were aided by their Monopoly games. Proceed Directly to Go indeed.

Actual World War II Vintage Monopoly Game!

Actual World War II Vintage Monopoly Game!

The security was amazing. A small number of Waddington craftsmen assembled these sets in a clandestine chamber, sworn to a secrecy they kept forever… or until the gambit was declassified in 2007. The soldiers themselves knew to look for an innocent red dot in the Free Parking space on the gameboard which signified a special set, and then to destroy the game after removing the secreted bits in order to prevent the Germans from discovering the ploy. At the end of the war all of the remaining sets were also destroyed, and all involved were sworn to remain mumm to safeguard the Monopoly trick so it could be used again in future conflicts.

While there’s little or no chance of finding one of the actual spy games today, it would still be a fascinating reminder of the intrigue by playing the iconic game on a period World War II Monopoly set. You will never look at a Monopoly set the same way again.


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Antiques on Film: A Visit to Downton Abbey.

A period drama is a right proper feast of antiques. The proper choice, use and display of period antiques are as important to the production as the dialogue, costuming and historical accuracy. When the research is done right, the period set of a film is a work of art in its own right. The set can also be quite educational, showing antiquated objects as they were used or appreciated during their original period.

The famously successful Downton Abbey provides a beautiful illustration of using antiques correctly… of getting it spot on. Sure the choices are correct, the assemblages make sense, and every room we see has been furnished entirely appropriate to the time period. But decorating the set is the easy part.

More subtle and more important is how the antiques are used, how they feature in the daily life of the characters. Close attention eventually shows how the antiques actually go a long way to molding the characters themselves. They are part and parcel to the fundamental lifestyle we are observing, including their manners and morals, their work and leisure, the very fabric of their daily lives. The plot itself, upon reflection, could not develop independent of the antiques. In other words, there’s no mistaking which character belongs where: Lord Grantham lives in the Gothic Revival manor house, Mr Taylor resides in the room over the carriage house, and someone squatting in an East End dosshouse just wouldn’t be allowed on the property at all.

Look at life below stairs: how most of the long day’s hours are spent in the use and maintenance of the antiques. Never an idle moment for Daisy Mason, the house maids and footmen! There is at hand an implement or device for nearly every activity or want in the period life, and nearly each piece calls for an endless cycle of cleaning and oiling, buffing and polishing, waxing and mending… you can understand vividly now the sweat and tears that went into that deep patina so prized today!

Life above stairs is likewise intimately tied to a never-ending series of actions, almost rituals, which form the daily routine, all dependent upon the physical culture (in other words the antiques). Just the basic maintenance of life, the needs of room and board and attire, is so time-consuming and one expects exhausting for the toffs, let alone the poor valet and lady’s maid. One wonders whose time is more consumed by all this: the master’s or the servants. It’s a wonder anything ever got done in business or empire, aside from dressing and eating!

19th C. Rosewood Gentleman's Traveling Toiletry Case, with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay and fitted interior.

19th C. Rosewood Gentleman’s Traveling Toiletry Case, with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay and fitted interior.

Think back on all those scenes with the family arising and preparing for their day: all the fuss and bother with an elaborate morning toilet and attire. Remember the bachelor chests and linen presses? The layers upon layers of clothing whose names we can’t even remember? The detachable cuffs and collars, and the special fitted boxes to hold them? The sad irons and goffering irons, skirt lifters (we actually have one at the shop patented by the Duchess of Windsor!), pins and brushes beyond description, and all those other clever little gadgets and devices we no longer recognize… the fundamentals of daily life just a few generations past.  Never mind  all the bits and bobs a lady uses for her cosmetic needs, think about just how many different sized and styled brushes a gentleman required to become presentable!

The same bustle of activity (pardon the pun) is repeated for the afternoon, evening, every special engagement, and of course retiring. The sheer volume and variety of clothing, dressing implements and accessories is boggling, let alone the specialized furniture to enclose them all, the caddies and etui to organize them, the tools and devices to care for them, mend them and keep them serviceable and pristine. The very lifestyle not only utilizes, but is in fact dependent upon and in many cases the result of the antique accoutrements.  It would be hard for us today to even imagine such a routine of daily life, were it not for the surviving antiques which quite literally provide a first-hand glimpse into our history.  It’s hard enough for us today to just learn the vocabulary that was required… one would never make it to the ball on time if you kept stumbling along with “I say Jeeves, have you seen that thing-a-ma-jig for straightening the whats-it on my do-hickey?”

And then there’s the dining! No wonder such a large staff was needed to prepare, serve and clean-up after the daily series of breakfast, tea, dinner, tea, supper, brandy and port, tea, and whiskey (the nightcap of course).  Remember that even a humble lower middle class or artisan’s home would keep at least a cook, a maid and perhaps a manservant.  I’ll leave this discussion of dining for another blog (or series of blogs), and just mention one example here: something simple and self-contained, a matter of just one course and minimal cooking… how about tea for instance.

Gorgeous George III Sterling Teapot by Peter & William Bateman, London, 1813.

Gorgeous George III Sterling Teapot by Peter & William Bateman, London, 1813.

Right then: the cook has to boil up the kettle and the second kettle; the butler has to unlock the tea caddy or poi, select and blend the tea leaves requested or appropriate for the time of day and the nature of the guests; the cook or trusted assistant (no doubt having served at least ten years in intense understudy of the tea process) now must spoon precisely the correct amount of loose leaves into the tea pot and fill with water near but not quite boiling; the butler or senior maid gathers the tea pot, hot water kettle on hinged stand, covered sugar bowl (filled with the precious sugar just nipped off the sugar cone kept in its locked caddy), milk pitcher (most likely warmed to just above body temperature), and slop bowl (to receive the spills of cold tea prior to refilling a cup), plus various utensils including a tea strainer and under-plate, sugar tongs, and stirring spoon, arrange neatly on a matching tray and deliver to the morning room (or dining room or study or library or madam’s sitting room or master’s sitting room or the conservatory or the solarium or… you get the idea); since we all realize it would be simply barbaric to take tea without at least a digestive, there must also be a second tray with biscuits, scones, cakes or sandwiches (depending upon the time of day and the inclination of the host) arranged on appropriate plates, with the necessary serving slice, knife, fork and tongs; meanwhile a junior maid has laid the tea table with the necessary tea cups and saucers, cup plates, tea cake dishes, dessert knives and  forks, demi-tasse or tea spoons, serviettes… have I forgotten anything? No doubt. The actual pouring and serving, refilling of the pot, spilling and refilling of cups, will be done by a junior maid, senior maid, valet, housekeeper, butler, or even the hostess herself, depending upon the social status of any guests; then the whole caboodle need be taken away to the kitchen, cleaned, dried and polished bright in ready for the next call for tea. This might be in just five minutes time. No wonder the Japanese evolved their ever so simple tea ceremony.

As we examine and appreciate period antiques, and contemplate their place in period lives, it becomes clear that such a standard of living could not be kept up. In fact at Downton Abbey we are witnessing the last gasp of this Victorian excess, as the Edwardian period fades and the world hurtles into the modern era. The new demands of modern life require efficiency and speed. Convenience and haste come to rule over style and elegance.  Some would call it progress…

Antiques on Film

We all see the world in our own way. Our senses and perceptions are unique, our thought processes idiosyncratic. In the end our differing tastes, interests and personalities are what makes life so beguiling.

My father-in-law was the Head of Mechanical Trades Department at the Cork Institute of Technology.   He lives, eats and breathes metals, fluxes, solder and welding arcs. When he watches a film or television program his attention without fail is caught by the metal object in the corner (“Stainless would’ve been much better for that!”), or grabbed when a character refers to a metal prop (“They could never use tin for that! They would have to use galvanized for it to stand a chance!”)

And woe the poor cinematographer who dared shoot a welding scene… “That’s rubbish! It’s the wrong flame altogether! They could never weld that iron at that temperature! Are you joking me?”  We all have memories from our youth of our parents and their favourite sayings: my wife and her siblings can’t glimpse a welder or cutter at work in a film without warning “Don’t look at the flame!!!”

As for me it’s antiques. My long suffering wife has sat at my side in theatres and sitting rooms for nearly two decades and listened to me admire that chair the murderer is sitting on, or gripe about the villain smoking a cigar near the old master oil painting, or tense over the callous nephew tossing the gravelly object onto the Pembroke table (“Watch the finish!”)

Sherlock Holmes Room II

Period bliss: Authenticity on display at The Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street.

When the research is done right, the set design of a film is a work of art in its own right. The set can also be quite educational, showing antiquated objects as they were used or appreciated during their original period. For example in most any Dickens or Holmes it is an eye-opener to see how a miscellany of Victorian clutter can suddenly make sense, and a visually striking design, when seen in the hesitant glow of oil lamps or gas sconces. It is inspirational to see Art Deco furniture and accessories set in their period architecture (a la Poirot). It is just as exciting to visit an Arts and Crafts suite as intended in a Craftsman’s house, or to nestle in a period Adirondack lodge.

On the other hand, when they get it wrong it is worth ringing down the curtain. Once you start to pay attention you may be shocked at the mistakes that are often made. The worst is when they can’t get the style right for the time period.  How can they possibly expect us to watch George Washington and General Knox discuss Dorchester Heights while seated on Regency chairs at an Eclectic Movement desk? I mean, what did we fight a revolution for anyway?

Films cast during the Middle Ages seem to  be especially bad … all those fantasy films with dungeons and dragons and knights in shining armour, set in these wonderfully atmospheric crofter’s cottages and stone towers. Ever notice how even peasants are typically shown in quarters crowded with furnishings? The reality was an oak table. Period.  Maybe a couple of joint stools. That’s the inventory. The whole medieval enchilada.  The wealthiest folk might, after many generations, have been able to save up for a press or dresser. But all these fully furnished rooms with richly carved cabinets, upholstered chairs, sumptuous bedsteads, heroic banquet tables and tapestries… only in King Arthur’s dreams!

Let’s jump ahead and follow Daniel Day Lewis or Mel Gibson into the Colonial Period. Now we’re talking.  Remember all those films where the redcoats couldn’t find the secret document hidden in the pewter smith’s carved mahogany library cabinets, or the frontier belle flirted in her father’s well-appointed ballroom, or in a dawn raid all this furniture would get pulled out of the pioneer’s cabin to be piled on a bonfire?  In reality these folk lived pretty as humbly as their ancestors did in the Middle Ages, although dressers, settles and a few other pieces were often on the scene by now. As for the rest I fear suspension of disbelief can only go so far, no matter how clever the plot!

Now you might think I’m taking this all a mite too seriously.  But consider:  Washington Irving borrowed and stole some folk lore here and there, moved it upstate of the Catskills and gave us the forever wonderful Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Then along comes Johnny Depp, the fog and mystery rolls into the 17th Century Hudson Valley, the suspense mounts, the Headless Horseman rises in his stirrups to dash his jack-o’lantern… and then our hero sits in a circa 1820 Windsor fan-back chair and gazes adoringly at his beloved nestled beneath her 1880s patchwork quilt. Now what can Christopher Walken possibly do to terrify us more than that?

Hollywood has got a lot to answer for, but in fairness they do occasionally get it right. When they do it is not only a sensuous pleasure, it can also be a stimulating lesson in history and the decorative arts. Come back next time and join me in a visit to Downton Abbey.