In some ways, our old houses are like unintentional time capsules. The guys who built them long ago — and who have patched them together over the years — were resourceful, using materials at hand to get the job done. When we opened up a bathroom wall recently, we found handfuls of heavy wrapping paper used to prop up an electrical junction box (gulp). Packing materials from the original porcelain fixtures were used for shims or to frame out the medicine cabinet. Old newspapers were used all the time for insulation. These little treasures give us a moment’s glimpse into the past: people here in this room were trying to solve a problem and they used what they could get their hands on.
Our builder, William B. Donahue (or his mason), used some unusual brick patterns on his chimney exteriors (I’ve found four other Donahue houses in the neighborhood…more on that in a future post). On the outside face of the firebox he used brick to create crosses, patterns and other symbols. When we were replacing some cracked siding a few years back, I found a series of sketches on the sheathing right next to the chimney that showed he was thinking about a cross.
Strangely, he didn’t put a pattern in our brick, but the sketches show he was thinking about it. Elsewhere — pretty much everywhere when we take something apart — are quickly scrawled measurements in pencil, signs of a carpenter at work almost 100 years ago.
Over the years, past homeowners and their families have surrendered all kinds of items, lost to the crack at the edge of the floor, the space behind the plate rail trim, or that hole where the radiator pipe goes downstairs. We’ve found an ivory diaper pin, a buffalo-head nickel and a lovely heart-shaped locket that escaped from a necklace. On the back is the inscription “From grandpa.” How long did someone look for that? Did grandpa replace it with another keepsake when no one could find the precious lost locket?
Who knows what else is here in the walls, under the floors, lost in the garden bed, or scribbled in some long covered-up corner. Whenever we’re working on the house, I’m always on the lookout.
What have you found?