by Maureen Taylor
A few years ago, one of my maternal aunts gave me a doily. Made from cotton thread, these beautiful handmade creations once adorned bureaus and tables, but they arenâ€™t as popular as in previous generations. Turns out the table scarf from my aunt once belonged to my maternal grandmother who died when I was one. Iâ€™ve heard a lot of stories about her but never knew she did handiwork. Itâ€™s a genealogical artifact that Iâ€™ll always treasure! If my aunt hadnâ€™t told me who made it, the history of the piece would be lost.
In museum terms, the history of ownership is known as provenance. Itâ€™s a big deal. Youâ€™ve probably read about efforts to establish the record of ownership of pieces in museums around the world especially those items thought to be looted from museums during World War II. You can read more about these issues on the website of the Museum of Modern Art.
Regardless of whether or not the family artifacts in your hands are museum quality pieces, itâ€™s time to take stock of what you own and where it came from. Itâ€™s an easy thing to do and you might learn something you didnâ€™t already know about your family. Create a worksheet to record data and include the following…
What Is It?
Start with the item and name it. In the case of my artifact, Iâ€™ll call it simply â€œA doily.â€
Date of Creation
Next you should assign a date to the piece if possible. All I know is that my grandmother made it after she was married so Iâ€™ll give it a date range.
Measure the piece in inches or centimeters, the preferred measurement of museums.
Describe as best you can what itâ€™s made from–wood, paper, or even a combination of materials. My doily consists of cotton thread.
You might not have an answer for this detail if itâ€™s a store-bought item. Crochet is what Iâ€™ll put on my worksheet.
This might be the same as the owner.
My little doily has had three owners in the last hundred years–my grandmother Alice, her daughter Rita, and myself. Record the date range of ownership followed by the ownerâ€™s full name and where they lived. For example, 2000-present: Maureen Taylor, Massachusetts. Start with the most recent and work backwards.
Use the information youâ€™ve accumulated to find out more about the item. I turned to the dictionary to find out the history of the word doily and discovered that it descends from a late-seventeenth century draper (someone who sold cloth) named either Doiley or Doyley. The term used to refer to woolen fabric used for summer clothes. Current usage of the word has roots in the early-eighteenth century. Who knew the doily had such a rich past?
Since my grandmother made the piece, Iâ€™d love to find a copy of the pattern she used. Itâ€™s possible she made it using techniques passed from her mother, but also likely she used some sort of printed instructions. Using Google, I typed in â€œcrochet doily patterns,â€ only to find more than 600 patterns. Yikes! Thatâ€™s too many to sort through. Iâ€™ll need to study the design and narrow my search terms later.
I wish Iâ€™d known sooner that my grandmother knew crochet. By the time I inherited the piece my older aunts were very ill. Iâ€™ve feel like I missed part of the story.
If you have an object that comes from a family member, interview them about the piece gathering as much information on its past as possible. Imagine placing your ancestorâ€™s doily pattern in a family history to be given to grandchildren. Instead of just passing on an artifact whole generations could be inspired to recreate pieces of their family history.
One Last Tip
Take a photo of each inherited item in your collection. Photo documentation is the technical term. A single snapshot allows you to share the piece with other family members. They might know more about it. You can include the picture in your genealogical software attached to the first owner/creator.
Provenance is a lot more than a record of ownership for genealogists. Itâ€™s a real connection to the people on our family tree. So what do you have in your attic?
Maureen Taylor loves writing about photography and family history. You can reach her through her website www.photodetective.com.
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