Friday, February 6, 2009

Why I Love Ebay, Part 4

Sometimes it's not entirely mercantile. Sometimes I love eBay because it's the best visual resource going for mysterious bits of fashion history.

Example: My mom recently dug out this sepia portrait of my grandmother Else, which I'd never seen before. It was taken in Germany in 1908. She (left) and her sister Flora (right) are dressed in exquisite Edwardian style (had they been American they would have been Gibson girls). All the hallmarks of the period are here: the beautiful pintucked, high-collared, lace-embellished "lingerie" blouse on Elsa. The pigeon-breasted, tightly sashed silhouette of her sister, curved into an "S". The lofty, broadbrimmed hats on both.

But one thing I didn't recognize. What was that small rectangular object dangling from my grandmother's waist? I knew eBay could help. At first I thought it might be a "reticule", the precursor to women's handbags, a little kit to hold sewing tools and whatnot. Keywording this turned up little of direct use, but one of the lots for sale mentioned the word "chatelaine". That rang a bell. I vaguely knew that a chatelaine was the name of the chain women could hang useful objects off of--things like needle cases and perfume bottles and even little silver pencils. So in the keyword "chatelaine" went, and I found it. A near-exact replica of the object my grandmother wears.

It's called an aide-memoire--an "aid to memory", or a little notebook, with clasps on the side for a pencil. In the days pre-Blackberry, ladies could carry one of these to keep their thoughts handy, in a safe place.

I'm so glad I have this photograph of my grandmother. I long to know what was written in that little box, but her aide-memoire is no longer in the family. I hope whoever has it now treasures it like I would.

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