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.
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.