Ruminations on a Thing

Long grey plastic box with words "Special Spectroscopic Electrodes" on the lid

It was a container for knitting needles to me.

It is a Thing.

It just is.

You might have a Thing at your place. You have grown up with it. It is always there, part of your everyday life. So seen, so used that is has become invisible to you.

It is difficult to find a Thing if you don’t know you have it. A few months ago I discovered that my family had a Thing. It revealed an interesting aspect of family history. I’ll tell you the story of it because it may help you to find out if you have a Thing.

A few months ago I asked my mother about her life before having children for a post I wrote last year: ‘Glimpses of a Young Women in Laboratories 1959-1963‘. She was telling me about her work as a technical assistant in a laboratory working with spectroscopy.

“Do you remember the containers that I kept the knitting needles in,” she asked. I recalled the long pale grey containers with blue writing on them. “That is what the carbon rods we used for spectroscopy came in,” she said.

I was astonished. I had never really looked at the pale grey boxes containing the knitting needles. I was a keen knitter as a teenager and frequently used the knitting needles in these containers, but I had not once read the writing on the containers. I was surprised at this failing, yet I shouldn’t have been. It is well-known that the ordinary, everyday things or activities are so ubiquitous that they go unnoticed and unremarked.

One of my first childhood knitting projects - an unfinished scarf.

One of my first childhood knitting projects – an unfinished scarf. Yes, I have kept it!

There were two of these containers. They were in our household since I was born. I can’t remember seeing the mothers of my friends knitting so I didn’t see the knitting equipment other households used. Even so, the point of interest in knitting is the wool and how the knitter transforms the yarn with needles into a finished garment. I don’t remember the bags that we stored the wool in either.

A Thing is very different to any other household item. It is visible but at the same time we see straight through it. We might instead focus on the function it performs. In this case the function of the Thing was to contain knitting needles. Other Things may remain unnoticed because they meld into the structure of our surrounds like furniture.

The paper lining the vegetable bins in our refrigerator was different. It was not a Thing.

My mother used computer paper in our fridge during the 1980s to the 1990s. This was in the days when printers required paper lined with holes on each side to allow the printer to grip the paper while feeding it through. My mother worked as a programmer during this period. She gave discarded computer paper to our children to draw on when they were little.

This computer paper was not a Thing. I noticed our household use of the computer paper at the time because my mother only started doing this when I was a teenager. Change is noticed. My children noticed the drawing paper that their Grandmother gave them because we didn’t have that paper at home and their other grandparents didn’t give them any. By comparing different household practices they noticed that using computer paper for drawing was not normal.

The computer paper and the container of knitting needles says something about my mother. She didn’t waste things. When plastic zip-up lunch bags were introduced she washed our used ones and hung them to dry on our kitchen taps.

My mother picked up the idea of reusing things from her mother who was a young adult during the Depression. My grandmother kept a basket of used string in her pantry. She carefully snipped it from parcels she received. I noticed it because no-one else had a basket of used string.

Janine Rizzetti recently wrote a post about one of those experts in household cleaning and thriftiness from the past. I could not relate to it at all. Now, writing this, I see that there is a connection. My mother did reuse in innovative ways, but the things she reused were not the kind of things other mothers reused.

Historians have become interested in the everyday lives of people in the past. Another blogger, historian, Marion Diamond, has written about the fact that few people record what they have for breakfast in their diaries. People in the past recorded what they thought would interest people. “The reasons why we keep a diary are very different from the reasons later historians may want to read it”, observes Diamond. She wants to know what people in the past ate for breakfast in the colonies in the nineteenth-century because it would reveal how people adapted to new cultures, how they allowed the new culture to seep into their lives. Few people in the past would think that something as mundane as breakfast would interest anyone in the future.

For many people breakfast is a Thing.

The foundation of our society is the ordinary. This is the base on which the extraordinary is built. If historians are to understand societies in the past, they need to understand how they lived. How can we understand the extraordinary events and movements which occurred without understanding the context from which they emerged?

The critical issue for a family historian is to know what questions to ask older members of the family. We should ask about their everyday lives as well as those things they did which they regarded as important. Identifying and asking questions about a Thing can sometimes reveal a fascinating story as I found out.

Mum thought she had thrown out the container for the knitting needles. I was disappointed. For many years I had not been interested in these containers other than for their utilitarian value. Now they were gone just at the time I found them interesting. However, Mum dug around some more and found one. She gave it to me when we stayed with her for Christmas. It is sitting next to me while I am writing this post.

This container was so normal to me it had become invisible. Now I can see it.

Old knitting needles inside a long grey plastic container

Voila! Some of the knitting needles I used when knitting as a teenager.

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5 thoughts on “Ruminations on a Thing

  1. Fascinating! There is something else that this Thing says about your life – that it was stable. If you had moved around across continents and countries as my family did, some of these unremarkable Things would have been offloaded before you moved house because the cost of moving them was more than the cost of replacing them. And eventually, some of these Things would have been replaced with the ubiquitous objects that have been invented for every conceivable purpose these days.
    (Unlike anyone else in my family) I have now stayed put in the same house for 30 years, but when we renovated the entire house in 2000 I had to have the same kind of purge as one has when moving house. Everything non-essential went into storage for nearly a year and a great many things went to the OpShop or the Bin. We binged on new furniture afterwards and the new kitchen and shelving units acquired all kinds of new storage boxes to fit. So while I still have treasured artefacts of all kinds, the only Thing I can think of is a cylindrical whisky container that we use to store our chopsticks in.
    My mother uses the same cylindrical whisky containers in a much classier way – to hide cockroach spray! She freaked out when she moved to Qld and discovered these horrid creatures but could not bear having the spray on display in every room until they got them under control. So she covered the whisky containers in beautiful floral decoupage, my father glued a fancy knob on the bottom and turned it into the top, and voila! no sign of the Mortein!

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    • I love that story about the whisky containers Lisa! Were members of your family connoisseurs of whiskey?

      While I had a stable family life the longest I have lived in a house in my life is five years. We moved interstate in my childhood as well as living in several houses within Melbourne and Hobart. I now get itchy feet when we have lived in a place around the four year mark. Fortunately employers paid for our big moves so we could move a lot of stuff. For our moves within a city I believe that my father used his hand-made trailer to move the stuff, but I’m not really sure.

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      • Ah, that’s interesting about having the employer paying for the moves – so many factors to consider, eh?
        LOL my parents are almost teetotal. My mother scrounged the containers from us. The Spouse and I went to a Melbourne whisky tasting after we got back from a visit to the Whisky Museum in Edinburgh, and *chuckle* using the expertise we gained in the Museum’s Tasting Room, we lashed out on some splendid single malts. This was many years ago now, and we still have some of them. (Fortunately whisky doesn’t go off).
        Of course if the cockroaches move south with global warming, I shall need to take up decoupage too…

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  2. Now that is a Thing that would not look out of place in Ollivander’s Wand Shop!
    I worked in pathology labs for a close to a decade and regularly repurposed *cough*
    the little specimen bottles for storing sequins and beads.

    I keep my knitting needles in a cylindrical whisky container which somehow managed
    to escape a passing phase I had with fabric decoupage, where nothing was safe from
    the glue pot and Jo Sonya crackling medium.

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    • I love it! I wonder how many unsuspecting members of your family will use those specimen bottles without realising their original purpose? And you have demonstrated that whisky and knitting dogo together. How would have thought?

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