A Jeweled Past
Feb 24, 2016 | by Ellen Dial
A Vintage Jewelry Tale, in Three Parts
If you’re a frequent reader, you’re familiar with the shenanigans of my wild and crazy family – including my great-Aunt Carrie Vonderheide. She of the mostly legendary chair and great Uncle John fame.
Carrie was a woman before her time – unmarried, career focused and lovely. I think of her and my ancestors from this time period with regularity… While in truth, they were just ordinary people, their lives are interesting to this mostly modern girl. Oh, how I would love to jump in the way back machine and meet them in their prime. The devilishly handsome Cassidy brothers and the lovely Vonderheide sisters.
What would they think of their 21st century family and society as a whole? I believe they would be interested, amused and shocked all at the same time.
As we are today, let’s be honest!
My fantastic friend and colleague, Becky, gave me a wonderful Christmas gift this year, a sweet art nouveau brooch, from one of my very favorite vintage shops, the Salvato Collection. She knows I love this period of history and is spot on taste-wise. In fact, she’s created some interesting articles around the topic of vintage jewelry – a couple of her wonderful stories are found here and here.
This little brooch sparked my mother’s memory and started us reminiscing, of course, wine was involved, but I digress. Momma trotted out a Baggie filled with some wonderful jewelry from great Aunt Carrie. As we looked into her jeweled past, I remember her wearing most of the pieces and how wonderfully she styled them, momma has great style, BTW! She gave me great advice on how I could use them as well. We had a splendid time!
Though nothing grand, or overly valuable, the pieces painted an interesting portrait of Carrie and I gained some more insight on her history.
Let’s look at the day to day jewelry women often wore during the mid-teens through the early 1930’s, shall we?
Vintage Adornment | A Religious Bent
OK. Apparently my great Aunt Carrie was a Godly woman, unlike her scandalous great niece.
She had a sweet gold tone cross and a couple Catholic medals she wore frequently. Proudly proclaiming her beliefs and love of St Benedict and her membership in the NAHNS. Now, these pieces are simple – the St Benedict medal is tiny and was probably worn with other charms and medals on a chain, bracelet or perhaps added to a bar pin. There’s no mark or stamp. It may have been given as a favor at a religious event and probably goes back to the time of the Great War. The NAHNS pin dates back from the early 1930’s and is minuscule as well; I’m sure it graced her Sunday best dress or suit. Looking at the time period of both these deeply religious, Catholic pieces – one wonders if they were procured and worn in response to the scary times (the Great War and Great Depression) in which they were acquired.
Three odd pins are also part of this group – a tiny tie-tack with a dove protecting a representation of the Earth and two very interesting pins that have the initials “BL of E” ( at least I think that’s the combination of letters) as their focal point. I spent a good hour or so on the Internet trying to find the meaning of these three mysteries – momma seems to think the monogram pin could be representational of a local religious guild. I was able to track down the manufacturer, a firm in Baltimore that made primarily Union pins, badges and banners – given this, I’m guessing they hail from the mid teens. So, was Carrie a union member and/or sympathizer as well? Census records from the 1910’s and 1920’s indicate she was a seamstress and worked in a notions shop. Family lore and her obituary indicate that she went on to a responsible office job a bit later in life, so who’s to say.
We see her now as a religious woman who perhaps also supported socio-political causes.
Side Note: I learned Carrie was going through nurse’s training at the time of the Great War. Given her obviously German last name, she was advised to either change it or quit nursing school – as she would have been looked upon with suspicion. In fact, the entire family was, it’s pitiful, really. She opted to quit – how sad for her!
Vintage Adornment | A Token of My Affection and a Dashing Gentleman
Apparently, she also had a number of close friends. Back in the day, people were more social, had more friends and exchanged tokens of affection amongst themselves – monogram pins/charms, lockets with photos or a little something to remember a special day or event that they shared. She had some lovely bar pins and a couple monogram discs, portrait lockets and a gold heart. The lockets are empty, but one monogram charm stood out – a pretty roundel with intricate engraving on the front and the initials MD and the date 1896 on the back, Carrie would have been a young girl at this point, was this her first BFF? What did she give this person in exchange ? Did they remain friends, or grow apart? Inquiring minds and all…
The stand-out, and item sparking the greatest controversy, is a photograph brooch. A handsome, dashing gentleman – resplendent in turn of the century garb, oiled hair and fantastical mustaches gazes proudly at the viewer.. Now, family gossip says this is Anthony Cahill – she supposedly had a crush on him for ages, but my research blows this away. Anthony Cahill was born in 1907, so unless he grew a mustache in utero and came out fully grown, this isn’t Mr Cahill. One could argue the whole Benjamin Button disease thing. Again, doubtful. If this IS, through some wrinkle in the time/space continuum, Mr Cahill, Carrie was a total cougar, oh snap!
So what gives? This most likely a mourning brooch. This handsome gentleman passed away, and his family gave this brooch out to close friends and family at his funeral. Mourning portraits, jewelry and photographs of the deceased were not uncommon or looked at askance. It was a way to show respect and affection for the departed. Was he a friend or lover? Were they sweethearts? Did he die in the Great War? Or in the ensuing Flu Pandemic? Was she heart broken?
So, though unmarried, did Carrie have a romantic past?
Vintage Adornment | Sticks With Stones and Hair Bling
Carrie loved stick pins! They were a fashion staple throughout the early twentieth century and beyond. They graced lapels and hats. Help keep jackets closed or anchor your beautiful shawl. A forward thinking career girl, like Carrie, could even use them as a tie tack.
Again, there were three stand outs. Two of them are accented with semi-precious stones – lapis lazuli and polished jasper . The lapis pin is the most precious, it’s made in a much more thoughtful manner, with an open back allowing the light through, highlighting the stone. Neither are marked – so I’m assuming they’re gold filled at best and pot metal at worst. The jasper pin is more worn and the gold plate/paint is flaking off. The third is a lovely, fairly intricate gold number – complete with engraved guard. No marks.
Four little barrettes round out this group – these ARE marked, but the marks are so small it’s extremely difficult to ascertain what they are. Carrie, like many women of her time, had tons of hair. They wore it up and needed pretty bits and pieces to help it stay in place. These were obviously dear to her. They are in wonderful shape and both pairs are intact. Were they a gift? Perhaps from the mourning brooch gentleman? Did he admire her hair and want to honor her crowning glory with some charming, gold barrettes? Or did she, as a woman of her own means, buy them as a treat for herself? Or were they from great Uncle John, he of the drink, bowler hat and walking stick?
So many questions and mysteries!
What I found almost sad in the writing of this piece – Carrie lived in a nice house. With nice things, we still use her beautiful Havilland china to this day. She had her own money and was, by all accounts, a very pretty woman. There are no truly valuable pieces amongst her jewelry. No 14k gold, no gems, no sterling silver. No string of pearls. Charming and lovely things, to be sure, but nothing important or significant quality-wise.
Why not? Does it harken to her religious convictions – not wanting not to appear vain? Did her money go to help the family and she didn’t have a lot to spend on herself? Though unmarried because no gentleman was good enough for her, was she holding out for someone who was good enough- affluent enough- to give her more ornate pieces and time just slipped away, as it tends to do?
We’ll never know.
To our dear readers: Are there pieces of jewelry, clothing or other items that have sparked your interest in a family member?
The writer would like to thank: her vivid imagination, Alice Dial, Wikipedia.com, Pine Ridge vineyards, Becky O., rocktumbler.com, NAHNS.com, The AmericanFederationist.
And those who post their images freely on the Internet.