It Was Ugly!

Week 20: #52 Ancestors – Textile

By Eilene Lyon

I did a bad thing. I’m still ashamed.

My grandmother, Clare (Davis) Smith, said she had an heirloom to pass on to me, if I would promise to keep and preserve it. I broke that promise.

Partly because of a misunderstanding about the nature of this heirloom. Partly because it had no story (an heirloom without a story is just an artifact). Mostly because, well, it was ugly.

Poor excuse, I know.

My grandmother, Clare Ransom Davis, c. 1934. (B/W photo colorized online.)

Grandma Smith told me she had a lap robe, made of beaver fur, that had been used on family sleigh rides. No other details, such as who used it for sleigh rides, where or when. I have lately come to realize that this item likely belonged to my great-grandmother, Clara (Ransom) Davis. It could even have come from a generation earlier.

This quote comes from a letter written by Abigail (Bedford) Jenkins, Clara’s grandmother. It mentions Emma Jenkins, Clara’s mother, who was 18 in 1853, when Abby wrote this to her husband, Henry, in California. (I’ve added punctuation for clarity.)

P[hiladelphia], with her usual wildness, snatched up a piece of paper with ‘I’ll write to pap’ and Emma coming said ‘so will I.’ They wrote a few lines which I enclose. They have been sleighing a great [d]eal and are full of life. There is now a heavy fall of snow and will soon be ‘girls will you take a ride?’”1

If this was Emma’s lap robe, I am truly heartsick for banishing it from my home. The sentimental value would have trumped the idea of an ugly, musty textile lurking in my closet.

My mother told me this blanket rode in the back window shelf of the family car while she was growing up. That would explain why the solid-brown back side had been badly faded. Beaver fur. Oooo, I thought, recalling my mother’s mink stole. (Ahem, yes, I got rid of that, too.)

If that lap robe originated from the backside of a large, aquatic rodent, you would never know it. It did have some heft, and the nap on the front had a velvety texture. The design, however, was most unfortunate. Humongous flowers in bright colors – red, yellow, green, of dubious species – covered the entire front side. Hideous, it was.

Because I did not have a hankering for family history in those days, it never occurred to me to photograph the thing before forever removing it from my still-recovering sight. (I can’t unsee the damn thing.) I tried, without success, to find something similar online to link to. It appears that people who preserve old sleigh blankets generally have better taste than my ancestors.

This is the best (worst?) I could find. Stunning, indeed.

My confession at this late date is in vain. Grandma (R.I.P.) will never forgive my dereliction of family duty when I took that “priceless heirloom” rag to the thrift store.

Feature image: Two Sleighs on a Country Road, Canada, c. 1835-1848. Image includes a variety of fur throws and clothing, including hides of animals not native to Canada. (Wikimedia Commons)


  1. “Henry Zane Jenkins Correspondence 1851-1853” (San Marino, California, n.d.), mssHM 16791-16808, Huntington Library. Letter fom Abigail Jenkins (Knox Twp, Jay County, IN), to Henry Z. Jenkins, February 6, 1853. 

75 thoughts on “It Was Ugly!

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  1. Thank for this laugh! I suppose we could use you as a cautionary tale. Lol.

    Honestly, I wish I could let go of some things and am quite pleased for you that you’re not stuck with something you hated. Everyone gives me their family heirlooms because they know I’ll care for them. Unfortunately with no heirs to pass them on to and a life not so interesting it will someday warrant a museum, the future for these items is uncertain at best.

    At the end of the day, if you lack emotional attachment or a story to cherish, it’s all just stuff.

    Again, thanks for the giggle today!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you found this amusing. It’s funny the things people decide should be “saved” for some sort of eternity. I know some people cherish having a home where they are surrounded by the stuff of their ancestor’s lives. I don’t mind a few small items and lots of photographs. Ugly, bulky, useless things – not so much!

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      1. I have some things that I truly treasure like a mantle clock that was passed down through my Grandma’s family, some quilts and the school bell that was used by my great aunt when she taught in a one room school house. The teacher had a tremendous collection of postcards from friends that I need to sit down and study. That’s a rainy day project that I look forward to!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Letters and post cards, diaries and memoirs – these are the finest treasures of all. Even if they are to her, they will reflect her personality and what she meant to the card senders. Sounds like a fun project!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As the only girl in a small family, I inherited everything my ancestors decided to save and pass along, so I can totally sympathize with you! I would have gotten rid of the ugly rug too! I have some very cool jewelry and many wonderful photos, but as for the most of the textiles, china and large silver platters, I got rid of all of it! However I do still have a large hank of my grandmother’s hair. It must have been the result of getting her hair “bobbed” in the 1920s!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Shayne, I’m thankful I’m not the only one to have a hank of my grandmother’s hair! But I DO have the amusing story behind it (she talked her husband into doing the haircut himself!) and a photo afterwards (from the back).

      Liked by 2 people

    2. It’s good to be able to discern what can be of use and what serves as a vital reminder of those who went before. I know that there are ways that hair was used to make things to be worn or carried. What to do with just a hunk of it baffles me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It is so hard to know what to keep and what to toss when it comes to so-called heirlooms. I face that now as we are about to downsize. And I know my kids have neither the room or the interest. Do I box things up and toss them in a storage space only for my kids to dump them eventually anyway? I think you did the right thing–especially if it was ugly!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is a mystery what will happen if we have a generation of people who want nothing to do with all the collected bric-a-brac. The thrift stores and antique shops will be overflowing!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I admire your ability to distinguish between heirloom and artifact. Then make a decision. I waffle too much at things I would have bugged Larry to get rid of, but he’d always have a sentimental reason to keep, and now I find myself hanging onto things because I can hear him saying…”you can’t get rid of that…” lol

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been divesting my home of ‘heirlooms’ that don’t mean anything to me but were passed on by my dad who didn’t want to keep them anymore but thought I should look after them. I’ve offered them to my children, who don’t want them either so I send them off to the thrift shop. Judging by what I’ve seen people buy at thrift shops, there is a loving home for just about everything!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Margy, I found that WP has been diverting some comments directly to Trash, so I just found this.

      I agree that things should find a home where they’ll be appreciated. Can’t blame you for disposing of things that had no real meaning for you or your children.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You mustn’t chastise yourself too much. You did what made sense to you at the time you did it. Today you might make a different decision about the lap robe… but for what it’s worth, I support you getting rid of it. You have to keep things that are right for you, in your life, now.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s a burden to carry on the stuff of our ancestors, especially when you don’t even like it. I enjoyed this story, Eilene–all that you know and shared about lap robes and that you let it go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Jet. In the future, now that I know many more cousins than I did then, I would check around for someone in the family to take such a thing. I know at least one person who preserves many, many things.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. My in-laws will be downsizing home this year … I do not mean to be ungrateful, but I am not looking forward to receiving some heirlooms that have been “offered” to me (aka, “of course you will take them”). I am already feeling guilty, hehe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the guilt will come and it will pass (right along to the thrift store). Things should go where they’ll be best appreciated, which may not be with family. Especially those that have no story or sentimental value.

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  9. You grandmother’s dress is stunning – such a classy looking style! I would vote for getting rid of beaver blanket. I didn’t realize from the link that there was a market for such things. My dad had an old sleigh from his ancestors which used to sit up on the rafters of the implement shed on the farm – it was mice eaten even when we were kids, the leather seat torn apart. I have a photo of my parents in it in the 1940’s when they first started dating and my dad still had the big Clydesdale horses. It’s still in one of the outbuildings, but in even worse shape now. Funny thing is, I saw one restored at a Christmas display in a store a few years ago and it looked very nice full of presents like a Santa sleigh. My mother still has the (now rusty) irons they used to heat up in the fire to keep your feet toasty during the sleigh rides. My dad’s parents used to take the sleigh/cutter to church on Sundays when the roads were impassable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And you’re telling me you’re all rarin’ to go restore that old family sleigh now, right? I’m sure that would be a nasty job – just getting it clean could net a case of hantavirus – at least where I live!

      Grandma was always a sharp dresser. She did the sewing. For many years she sent me sweaters at Christmas and they were always very stylish and always fit right, too!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I think it’s beyond repair….but I never thought about hantavirus – good point! The one on display was painted red like Santa’s sled, but in much better condition.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. It was okay to offload that beaver lap robe Eilene, because by the time you saw it, it was not in the same condition as it would have looked in the Currier & Ives-type photos of the sleigh on a wintry day. Your grandmother was a beautiful woman – did you colorize that photo online yourself?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for ignoring this – found it in the Trash folder! I used this photo to test a free colorization program, but wasn’t particularly pleased with the results (note that one of her hands is green and the dress very inconsistent).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No problem Eilene – I’ve had the same thing happen to me the last few days, so hopefully it’s not a WP bug. I didn’t notice that discoloration, so I went back and took another look.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sigh. I was trying to catch up in Reader on Friday and none of the pictures were showing up, just the narrative. I always used Chrome, but after their last breach, I switched entirely to Firefox. I had to go to the bloggers’ actual sites to view the pictures.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m not a keeper, but I have some special heirlooms that I note the source on the bottom before repainting or redoing to help it match current living. You are also not alone in donating something and then regretting it, but we can’t keep everything, right. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Oh I’m sorry you regret your heirloom trashing but, it’s a museum piece not something you’d keep out in your home. I remember my dad telling me of a bear skin they used in the sleigh.
    I was fortunate enough to have a neighbor that had horses and when we got a big snow we’d do a sleigh ride. We had wool blankets over our lap and a sheep skin under our bottms.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only sort of regret it. I’ll never really know the story behind it. My husband and I did a sleigh ride once for my winter birthday, up near Telluride. A sheepskin for the bottoms sounds quite nice!

      Like

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