Napoleon's Casters, Anybody?

JANE MATHEW WHEFINO lives with her husband and three children in West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in a house built in 1668 by Josiah Standish, a son of Miles.

No one who has not found, in a single closet, twelve hats, four dresses, two tuxedos, seven pairs of shoes, eight petticoats, a trunk of mended underwear, beaded pincushions, blankets, pillows, snowshoes, boxes of letters, picture frames, broken china, baskets, costume jewelry, dance programs, pressed flowers, aged medicines, and a crate of bird pelts can even begin to interpret properly the phrase “Yankee thrift,” much less fully appreciate the extent to which our ancestors practiced it. Theirs was a frugality of such intensity that hardly a fragment was ever discarded as useless, and under it all ran a vein of sentimentality and devotion as rich as the mother lode.

When Great-aunt Adelaide died in 1923, her mortal remains were gently laid to rest in the family plot, and her personal effects as carefully interred in four bureaus, two closets, and a sea chest in the family homestead. Both ceremonies were conducted in the highest sense of New England decorum, and to have tampered with her trinkets and clothes in the years to follow would have been as unthinkable as stirring up Aunt Adelaide herself.

She had officiated personally at the storage of all the belongings of several generations of her family, not to mention the dear little keepsakes bereaved friends and relations had contributed by the drayload from their own loved ones. No scrap escaped her tender rites or suffered the indignity of use once put away, and she had trained her adult survivors well.

The present generation, now faced with the sorting of this accumulation of years, find that, compared with our elders, we are, to a man, as sentimental as mud hens, and our definition of the word “thrift” does not mean “Whatever it is, if you have it, keep it.” While the furniture, the china and glass, the thousand and one significant reminders of our New England heritage give us an almost childlike pleasure, the potpourri which has filled the chinks is difficult to understand.

Take for example the trunks filled with stiff collars and cuffs, saved, we suppose, with the conviction that the Diors of haberdashery would one day denounce the white shirt as we know it. In any case, they kept them in the best “Waste not, want not” tradition, for the ownership of unusable collars and cuffs was far better than owning no collars and cuffs at all.

It is the same with the hats. No one in our family would have been caught at a crow shoot in a last year‘s hat. Instead, as the seasons changed, each outmoded hat was labeled and packed away, pushing previous models further back into the dim recesses of moth heaven. To have thrown them away would have been unseemly, and crassly negligent, to boot. After all, one never knew.

We have mourning bonnets, sunbonnets, babies’ bonnets, and the flowered bonnet “Mother wore to a White House reception”; sun hats, straw hats, picture hats, top hats, plug hats, opera hats, crush hats, and the felt hat “Bethiah was wearing the day Papa died”; skullcaps, golf caps, school caps, overseas caps, shooting caps, fishing caps, nightcaps, mobcaps, and a boudoir cap from “Adelaide’s trousseau”; derbies, sombreros, sou’westers, topees, tams, Panamas, leghorns, beavers, boaters, bearskins, and a few trampled items whose original shape and purpose defy detection. Or rather, we did have them. The wardrobe mistress of the local Little Theater now bolts like a hare at the mere mention of our name.

The highboy is bulging with linens of every size and description, all unused because they had cost a lot of money and were therefore too good to use. Their decaying state, although giving us just about the swankiest cleaning rags in the county, is depressing. On the other side of the ledger are the boxes and boxes stuffed with portiere tassels, beaded epaulets, belt buckles, corset bones, strips of hooks and eyes, suspender fasteners, garter hardware, and furlongs of denatured elastic, which give us not a qualm. The fact that their superstructures have been severed and quite possibly thrown away is a happy miracle of improvidence hitherto unencountered.

The sanctum sanctorum of old New England homes has always been the parlor, and its use, to avoid unnecessary wear and tear, was rigidly restricted. One had to withstand the rigors of baptism, courtship, marriage, or lying in state to be allowed to cross the threshold. Despite these barriers, the family managed to cram the room with an alarming assortment of keepsakes, souvenirs, and objets d‘art of the sort an interior decorator dreams about only after a meal of pickles and ice cream.

Over and above the usual dusty everlasting and pampas grass bouquets. fan coral, scrimshaw, and genteel handicraft considered de rigueur for New England parlors, we find we possess oddments which challenge any attempt to rationalize their existence. We have also found that that great American boor, the souvenir hunter, came into being well before he had the help of the automobile to speed him on his rounds.

On a summer day in 1862, it would seem, a section of the Confederate Army was encamped at Fairfax Courthouse in Virginia, flexing its muscles for the Battle of Bull Run. Within the confines of the camp, one can imagine the bustle and the tizzy of preparing for the signal to march — rifles being shined, boots cobbled, horses shod, ammunition loaded, and provision being made for whatever wounded might return. It should have been a busy and alert scene.

Why, then, did we find on the northeast corner of the second shelf of our parlor whatnot a small box labeled with incredible neatness “Lint taken from the Rebel Camp at Fairfax Courthouse two days before the Battle of Bull Run”? Two days before, mind you. Yankee though I am, I cannot help but feel a twinge of compassion for those boys in gray who went forth to the fray looted, but what in the dickens were they doing to allow their camp to be ransacked practically on the eve of an important battle? Was anyone, friend or foe, permitted to wander at will through a military installation in that day and age, swiping a button here, a ham hock there, or pocketing a fistful of bandaging to take home to show the folks? Our little box of lint must have been taken pretty much on speculation, too. Suppose for some reason the opposing generals had decided to chuck the whole deal, or the battle had turned into nothing more than an insignificant skirmish, unworthy of historical notice. Whoever snitched that lint was just plain lucky.

Besides the lint, and of equal consequence, is an envelope containing scrapings from the boiler of the U. S. Coast & Geodetic Survey steamer, Mississippi. The poor old girl simply could not digest her namesake’s water, and after three or four weeks, the diet would begin to tell. A thick, gray crust would clog her innards, and the black gang would have to abandon their shovels in favor of sledge hammers and chisels. Grandfather was an officer in the Survey on the Mississippi River Commission and had apparently witnessed this operation closely enough to enjoy the spoils. “Crustations” he called them, giving us a momentary impression that we were about to discover some misspelled and horribly deceased shellfish.

Even Napoleon could not escape the long arm of New England, and our memento of the wily Corsican’s exiled days on St. Helena is possibly the most peculiar item we have found to date. We have the casters from his bed, oddly enough, but the fact that there are only three casters sends us off on flights of fancy bordering on the hysterical. Perhaps there was a type of torture, a peglegged bed, so to speak, which doomed its inhabitant to a nightlong series of tooth-jarring thuds at the least stir. Quite probably the explanation is a mediocre one, like the fourth caster’s getting lost or being too rusty to remove, but I like to think that the tricorn had really gone to the little man’s head and that he slept in a three-cornered bed.