Taking Stock of the Past

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 aren’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. I’ve heard a lot of stories about her but never knew she did handiwork. It’s a genealogical artifact that I’ll always treasure! If my aunt hadn’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. It’s a big deal. You’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, it’s time to take stock of what you own and where it came from. It’s an easy thing to do and you might learn something you didn’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, I’ll call it simply “A doily.”

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 I’ll give it a date range.

Measure the piece in inches or centimeters, the preferred measurement of museums.

Describe as best you can what it’s made from–wood, paper, or even a combination of materials. My doily consists of cotton thread.

Construction Technique
You might not have an answer for this detail if it’s a store-bought item. Crochet is what I’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 owner’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 you’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, I’d love to find a copy of the pattern she used. It’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 “crochet doily patterns,” only to find more than 600 patterns. Yikes! That’s too many to sort through. I’ll need to study the design and narrow my search terms later.

I wish I’d known sooner that my grandmother knew crochet. By the time I inherited the piece my older aunts were very ill. I’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 ancestor’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. It’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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19 thoughts on “Taking Stock of the Past

  1. A great way to preserve this type of item for posterity is to have it professionally framed under glass. My granny made many of these over the years. After her death, my dad got a bunch of them out of her cedar chest. We use fabric stiffner on them an laid them out to dry. We then took them to a picture framer, chose a coordinating color of mat board for them to be laid out on and framed. They look great and information about the origins can be typed on a sticker and added to the back of the frame. My dad did these for both of his brothers as well as having ones made for my sister and I. Mine is a 14 or 16 in. doily that makes a beautiful framed piece of art instead of having it tucked away in a drawer or cedar chest. It’s a real conversation piece.

  2. Great article from a genealogical viewpoint but also from an insurance/appraisal standpoint. Heirlooms/antiques should have the monetary value protected in case of loss (sentimental value can never be measured). Should diaster strike, provenance has been established with the picture and the notations. The pictures should be extended to include the piece as a whole, any marks or notations, and current condition. This should be reviewed approximately every three years. With this “proof” the insurance company may not take the computer listed value for replacement cost. Should one inherit many valued family pieces, investing in contracting a certified appraiser would be wise.

  3. I crochet, do not do doilies tho. I am wondering if the pattern of your inherited doily is still in pattern books today. Have you a photo? I have some old pattern books.

  4. My mother who was born in 1904 use to cut the picture of a crocheted doily, that you could order the pattern for, out of the newspaper. She would create it from just the picture. This was in the late 1940’s. We were living in the Springfield, MA area at that time.

  5. Can I see the picture of the doily I may be able to find the pattern I have a few old doily books. thanks

  6. If you know someone who does crochet doilies they should be able to look at the one you have and copy it for you. I have done that with some of the dolies that my mother and grandmother had done before me.

  7. Excellent article. I like the structure that you propose (as a librarian I appreciate structure) and the use of a written or computerized worksheet. I’ve known for a long time that I should do this with my family items, but didn’t know where to start. I think that the piece also should be marked with a small label preferably nothing that is permanent but can be easily removed without damaging the object. Also be sure that any box or paper around the object is acid free. Thanks for a great reminder to get to work preserving and identifying those heirlooms.

  8. Scanners are wonderful gadgets for taking pictures of almost anything small. It would work with a doily if you use a contrasting background. It also works with jewelry and other small items. A tag on a string would be a good way to label a doily. Please show us a picture of your doily and one of us may be able to identify the pattern for you. Thank you for sharing your story and methods with us.

  9. Maureen, Your article has reminded me that “time’s awastin'” and that the genealogical items I have need to be documented. Thanks for the idea of a worksheet, which is the “kick” I needed (now that I can “see” how to do the documenting). A couple of the suggestions in the comments section will be incorporated also.

  10. Maureen, thanks for an interesting article — and a push to get my own inherited articles catalogued. Now that my mother is no longer here, I’m finding that I’m the family member who seems know the most about our inheritances. My mother and I were very close and I’m making stabs at trying to get some of the things she talked about over the years into a “journal” on my computer. I had begun but nowhere near completed a listing of our family articles/heirlooms. I’ve just received that little extra push to get back into that task.

    Also, my mother had two completed quilt blocks (“Mariner’s Compass”) created by one of my great-great-grandmothers which she had framed for my sister and myself — what a wonderful gift. One of my favorite pictures on my wall. I’ve typed a label for the back, listing the name of the quilt block, the maker of the quilt block (along with her birth/death dates), her relationship to my mother, my mother’s information as the “framer”, and the date of the framing. A lot of information but necessary for whoever next inherits this beautiful artwork.

  11. Another great way to display these types of items is in a shadow box. You can add a photo of the maker with the doily and other items, such as jewelry, to make the story more complete. A favorite cousin of mine has a great photo of her brother at a very young age wearing cowboy boots. This is framed in a shadow box with the boots. It adds a whole new element to the photo.

  12. Thanks for the infomation. How timely, I just cleaned out a closet and have a large plastic bag of crochet pieces my Mother did during her lifetime. I was getting ready to give them to my daughters. Your ideas are great, would have never thought of photographing the pieces.

  13. My son spent one afternoon taking digital pictures of family items which he downloaded onto my computer. Using WordPerfect, I wrote what I knew about each one beginning with when I acquired it, who had originally owned it and where they lived when they had it and my or my husband’s relationship to them. Some pieces had been refinished (I know—we don’t do that anymore!) by my dad so I told that, as well. After doing some thirty items, we called it a day. The next time we will do quilts, afghans, dishes, silver, jewelery, etc. My son then sent it to his computer and to another son’s computer so there are multiple records. When this is complete it can be printed out and I will let my six children and ten grandchildren choose what they would like to have when I am through with it. The rest will go to other family members who have an interest.

  14. I’ve been quilting for about 20 years and have learned how important it is to document all of your work. I’m the oldest in the family now and have linens from my mom grandmother and great grandmother as well as one’s from my husbands family. Trying to document all of those be a lifes work and I’m not sure I have that long but I know it would be interesting to my kids grandchildren and great grands. Thanks for the great article.

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  16. The information was very helpful. I too have many crocheted doillies, made by my mother and mother-in-law. They were made in the 1940’s. I am 87 and plan on saving them for my grand dauthter and great-granddaughter.

  17. My sister has a bedspread that my mother crocheted just before WWII. We wanted to preserve it, but it is too large and heavy for ordinary preservation means. We hit upon the idea of taking it to a firm that preserves wedding gowns, and they cleaned it, blocked it, and packaged it with a see-through window. I found a copy of the pattern in some old pattern books that had belonged to mother, and my two sisters and I each wrote a paragraph about mother, and especially about her love of needlework and we attached them to the package, along with photographs of the spread on a bed.

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