Wall Pockets of Time

Judith Huntress
Madame Colette, with some of her paperweights, in 1950. (Photo by Robert Doisneau)
[This article ran in the June/July 2008 issue of The SCOOP.]

As the French writer Colette knew, the smallest things can contain magic and can serve as reassurances in our lives. Colette, as she lay dying, had a small bedside table and on it was her collection of 19th-century Baccarat paperweights. One day an aspiring writer came to visit her and as he eyed the tiny glass globes filled with colored glass canes, he noticed images of flowers, swans, butterflies. “So, you’ve discovered my little worlds?” she said to him - thus starting the young writer’s interest in acquiring his own collection of paperweights. During recent March doldrums and the rush to initiate spring projects, we too made little discoveries: We were surprised to find small objects in the wall pockets and in the attic of this old house. Our small surprises have given me a glimpse into the histories of Lennox & Addington County, of Canada, and of the world through the last two centuries, and they have cemented my admiration for builders in the 19th century.

One March day, my husband brought to the table pieces of paper folded like tiny paper boats. These fragments were dated November 1871 and we suspect they came from the Toronto Globe. Using a magnifying glass, we read snippets of information: Mr. Mitchell Hassent sending his schooners to the Atlantic Coast for winter quarters. There was a sentence reading, “...all slaves born on and after September 28, 1871, are subject to service for labour until age 21 years. It will effect the annual emancipation of 5,000 to 10,000 existing slaves...” We read of the Italian fortifications at Alpine passes and the sale of Dutch settlements and the sale of bales of brown beaver mantles. Sir John A. MacDonald was carrying the Washington Treaty somewhere; and the sentence which could be applied to today’s politicians in Ottawa, was, “They wax fewer and fewer, while the Great Conservative Phalanx becomes stronger and stronger.”

In subsequent days, a dilapidated box of Martin’s Royal Black Lead Stove Polish was uncovered from the attic, along with an old empty tin (did it once contain a workman’s lunch?). Both the box and the tin portrayed the British Lion and the box was printed in Montreal, September 1873. The tin was labeled “World’s Fair, 1893” and had been packed in Picton. There was also a stamped envelope from early in the 20th century to Mr. Hopkins of Hopkins’ Hardware in Tamworth, who was a previous owner of this house.

No shoes were discovered, something than many restorers and renovators have found tucked away in old homes. I heard from several people that parents and family members would sometimes throw children’s old shoes into spaces behind the wall lathes believing that children would not stray far from home and get lost. (Perhaps their dogs dropped adult shoes into the pockets!)

It was the uncovering of the hand-split lathing (also called butterfly lathing) on the back stairwell that really captured our admiration for past carpenters in their rush to complete building before winter’s onset. To make split lathing, a large pine plank is nailed on each end of the wall supports. One person holds another board up against the plank, marking off a 1- to 1.5-inch section and then the carpenter takes a sharp chisel and splits the plank along the grain of the wood at that point. The measuring board is then moved down the entire width of the plank and splitting is repeated. The final result is that one broad plank yields many lathes, all related to one another. Plaster gets slathered over the split pieces, and the pockets behind the lathing are filled with various insulators such as grout, gravel, newspaper, or hay! Such fine hand-split lathing is worthy of its own picture frame. We realized that these small things that lay hidden in pockets or in walls for so many years provided assurance and a sense of the continuity of history since 1871 to the present.

I recently heard someone on radio say: “All life becomes easier in the spring.” With April, came robins to make nests and sightings of flocks of geese heading north. Children and adults dusted off their bicycles and headed for long rides, and fiddleheads could be seen growing on the banks of streams. We began to renew contact with friends and acquaintances not seen for months; and the half-completed project of insulating became easier because of the “little world” of objects we uncovered.