Friday, August 29, 2008

Historical Sleuthing

I'm so impressed with the amazing and curious items other housebloggers find in walls or tucked under floors of their old houses as they do demolition.

Me, I've had to settle for various indistinguishable pieces of rusty iron dug up in the back garden, the random buried roofing slate, and once, a very sharp slate nail I discovered when it pierced my finger, making me very glad I recently got a tetanus shot.

But late this evening I found something very curious indeed. I'd finished prying off the last long piece of baseboard trim in the dining room and was kneeling down with the pliers to pull out the nails from the back side. And I noticed a piece of paper sitting against the plaster at the foot of the wall, where the baseboard had been.

This is what I found:

A Christmas postcard, with most of the message erased by the elements and Time . . .

And on the other side . . . Well, this is odd. Not what I would have expected.

It's signed "Kathryn," which is the name of one of two women, mother and daughter, who lived, together and in succession, in the Sow's Ear from 1920 to 1981. Whichever Kathryn signed this, I'd say she did it closer to 1920, considering the style of the card.

But wouldn't you expect it to be to the lady of the house, and not from her? But it's addressed to a Mrs. M. M. Moore, who lived on a street four blocks over and five blocks up from here. And it's got a stamp on it. Why was this Christmas card never sent? How did it end up between the baseboard and the dining room wall?

Maybe the McLaughlins were doing renovations back then and the baseboard was loose? I've found evidence that sometime in the past some of the dining room trim has been removed and replaced. The casing around the double windows for instance. I can tell because the wallpaper just under the current layer goes down behind it. But that wallpaper also appears on the "new" drywall that was put up by the POs-1 sometime in the 1980s or early '90s. And there was only one set of nails in the baseboard I pried off this evening. I seriously doubt it was loosened in the 1920s, so soon after the house was built in 1916 or before.

So again I ask, How'd the card get there?

Here's my theory: Back when the house was new and there weren't four or five layers of wallpaper on the walls, there must have been a crack, a gap between the plaster wall and the baseboard there under the dining room windows. I visualize some piece of furniture set under that window, a side table, maybe, or even a buffet. Mrs. (or Miss) Kathryn McLaughlin sits at the dining room table, doing her Christmas cards. As she signs, addresses, and stamps each one, she sets it on the pile on the table under the window. But the pile is unsteady. It slides. It tips. And unbeknownst to her, the card to her dear friend Mrs. Moore goes hurtling down behind the-- hey, I think I'll argue for a buffet or some other solid-backed piece of furniture--behind the buffet and slots itself into the gap between the baseboard and the wall. Maybe it went only partway in at first, and Kathryn might have noticed it if the buffet (or whatever) hadn't been in the way.

But it was and she did not, and dear Mrs. Moore did not get her Christmas card in 1924 (or whenever), leading to who knows what rift in their friendship. And over the years, as the house settled, that card settled, too, working its way down and down until it could no longer be seen at all, concealed there as layer upon layer of wallpaper closed the gap, waiting (and being eaten by bugs) until some house renovation fanatic like me would come along and decide that the only way properly to strip that baseboard was to pry it off the wall entirely.

I also found back there a few fragments of a previous wallpaper. Maybe the original? Allowing for yellowing over the years, it's not far off what I hope to put up myself, if the dollar-British pound exchange rate just would go back in my favor. Though in my opinion, my chosen William Morris leaf design is nicer than the geometric trellis style this paper seems to be.

Nice to think I'm keeping with the spirit of the place. And I hope Mrs. Moore wasn't too put out with not receiving her Christmas card from Kathryn McLaughlin that year.

(They probably blamed the long-suffering Post Office. When all that time--!)


Anonymous said...

FYI, your blog is both hilarious and informative - as well as motivational! Husband and I just moved across the state and bought a house in New Castle PA. It's nowhere near a fixer-upper, but we're finding lots of little projects; taking down wall-paper, painting, etc. I randomly found your blog, and will definitely be watching your progress when I need some motivation here!

Sandy said...

What a neat find. I do think that the card fell behind a large piece of furniture and couldn't be seen.

Kate H. said...

YAC-- Praise God you don't have to mess with a fixer-upper and a new parish at the same time! Mine wasn't structurally in trouble, either, it just had painted woodwork that pleaded to be stripped the moment I walked in with the real estate agent. And beige wallpaper almost everywhere. And all the rest of the little projects you refer to.

(Sorry, Sandy. I know you like the paper in the dining room!)

Sandy said...