Texas Heritage, Summer 2001 Page: 46
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The Stuff of Our Past by Oliver Franklin
Afriend of mine asked me the other day why it was that in
very old houses there are so few closets. For one thing, I
replied, in early America, it was determined that the more
doors a home had, the more rooms it had. The more rooms it
had, the bigger it was. And there was a door tax. Closets were
On the other hand, she continued, when there are closets in
old homes, why are they so small? True enough, I thought. For
instance, my wife and I live in a charming 1936 vintage home
about a mile south of downtown Austin. The diminutive but
rock-solid structure was built for middle-class occupancy. Two
bedrooms, one bath, and...one tiny closet.
The answer? People simply had less stuff. The word "stuff'
itself had other connotations than those we know now. For
instance, one common use of the word concerned one's spiritual
fiber, as in being "made of stronger stuff." A very early use
of the word "stuff" was a specific garment worn by medieval
solders that went under the breastplate and protected the
fighter further from damage.
I recently discovered that the product of one of America's
most popular mainstream clothing manufacturers, a colorful
brand that is familiar to everyone who watches television or
walks in streets (one of the features is its boldly-emblazoned
visibility on its products), is banned from dry-cleaning establishments
all over America. Why? The dyes are so feeble that
they cannot withstand a good washing. Ever. These are garments
that cost a great deal of money and are very popular.
And presumably, they are worn for these reasons.
Yesterday, hard work, good tools, and prayer kept you and
your family alive. Take clothing, for instance. It kept you from
burning in the sun. It kept you from freezing in the dark. It
kept you from being injured by insects or bitten by snakes, and
softened the kick of a calf. It protected your modesty. But it
wasn't plentiful. Hand-me-downs were a means of utilizing a
tool to the point at which that tool was no longer useful. And
maintaining your clothes was an almost Sisyphean task.
Simple laundering was a potentially life-threatening experience
featuring boiling water, fire and heat, and caustic chemicals.
But because clothes were precious, the exhausting litany
had to be repeated week after week. And all that washing was
hard on even the toughest garments. What then?
At the point that a shirt, for example, finally had to be
retired, the portions of the fabric that remained intact would
find further utility stitched into a blanket to keep one's family
warm (saving money for hay or new tires). The aptitudes
brought to bear upon the creation of the quilt often resulted in
attractive, creative items of bed clothing. However, beyond the
acquisition of skills that allowed one's meager resources to last
or that allowed one's tools to be durable, things did not make
the people. People made the things.
In our information-soaked culture, meaning has superceded
utility in ways that we cannot completely comprehend. It's a
safe bet that as fragile as that modern brand-name shirt is, its
owner will have forsaken it for another trendy label long before
its wearable life has run out. Interestingly enough, though, this
ability to load objects with abstraction provides us with a valuable
tool to appreciate times when the opposite was true. We
can turn the binoculars of the trend-hungry backward, seeing
ancient items and appreciating their reality-the information
they carry, the lessons they teach.
Take an antique fire engine for example. Surely, it was
bought with utility in mind. Surely, it witnessed at least its
share of dramatic events. Surely, it served its community with
distinction. Sometimes, its history-its meaning-makes it
valuable enough to someone to render it preservable. Despite
the fact that its monetary value is not great, individuals, clubs,
communities, and museums spend many dollars restoring it to
its cosmetic and often functional best, its glory revived, its stories
vigorously reanimated. Its very condition indicates its heroic
past, or why indeed would someone have taken such great
pains to return it to new-or perhaps old-condition?
And yet, the extraordinariness of this vehicle is a sad
reminder of the meaninglessness of so much stuff. So many
things today that mean so very little. Save a quilt. Save a family
Bible. Save a fire engine. If only to tell of a time when things
meant nothing and people meant everything.
Franklin is the THF executive director.
HERITAGE G SUMMER 2001
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Texas Historical Foundation. Texas Heritage, Summer 2001, periodical, Summer 2001; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45385/m1/46/: accessed April 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.