Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A mystery in a plastic bag

Today was a glorious day of recycling and thrift shopping. I rescued some vintage sewing machine ephemera, a fantastic 1930's cookbook chock full of handwritten notes and insertions, a couple of hats I plan to make into other hats, some antique compacts, a basket of real actual linen linens and ... a mystery.
A mystery package

The mystery is this: a gallon sized ziploc bag containing what purports to be a family heirloom linen towel brought over from Germany to New York in 1849 by a woman named Fredericka Dammann (née Berger).

This treasure was on the "Buy before it gets thrown out" table at the consignment thrift place. It cost me 2 bucks. I was fishing for cheap unwanted vintage linens, because I love them and want to use them and my budget is small. I flipped over an unassuming plastic bag, read the abandoned family history within and was filled with sadness. I wondered how it ended up there.

I felt compelled to buy it and find out more and maybe get it to a descendant, or document it for the local historical society. Or at least make sure it isn't lost to time. This was precious. It should still be precious.

Note pinned to smaller linen item

Inside this ignominious package is the towel with its darkly yellowed note, and a pin that once held the two together, a very, very worn smaller piece, with its own pin and very yellowed note simply reading "More German Linen," and another, longer note, with more history that hints at some other items that are now lost.

Damask stripe pattern
One end of towel

The towel (22.5" x 44")  is exquisite, elaborately handwoven damask in a warp faced stripe, 1" wide alternating with 1" bands of 4-thread warp faced/weft faced pinstripes and a selvedge treatment of a 2" wide band of 8-thread pinstripes.
Selvedge band
The ends of the towel have a similar treatment to the selvedges, producing a checked effect, and are hand hemmed with tiny, perfect hand stitches holding down a 3/16" hem.
Detail of hand stitching at hems

Hem pattern cross striping forming checks
One end of the towel is very worn and has small holes, possibly from being hung on a hook.
There are two handwoven plainweave linen tapes for hanging, one at each end.
One has clearly been used more than the other as it is a bit more worn and shows evidence of repairs, and this corresponds to the wear holes on the end of the towel.
Detail of unused hanging loop
The other end is nearly new, with a tiny fold on the tape.

Faded monogramming
There is a tiny cross-stitched monogram in the bottom left corner that is so faded I almost missed it, but it can be seen if the towel is held up to the light. 

Backlit, the faded and worn monogramming is visible
It matches the monogram on the second piece.

Smaller linen square held up to light, showing handspun threads and transparency
The smaller piece of linen (20.5" by 17") has lost two of its hemmed edges and is finer plain weave linen, transparent enough to read text through, either from use and time or intention.

Monogram as seen when I first removed the second piece from the bag
Its monogram, in the upper left corner, is still clear. Finely cross-stitched in what is now light brown thread, in a delicate script, it reads "FB." 

back of monogram on napkin

The back shows how carefully the stitching was done.

worn and uneven selvedges

A section of the selvedge that is still in good condition

Worn selvedge, looks like there might be some slight mending

The edges are a worn selvedge, two raw edges where hems or more cloth tore away, and the remaining 1/2" hem.
This portion of hem looks original, the tiny whipped hem stitches are so finely done as to be nearly invisible

This area has been mended with a coarser running stitch in a yellower linen thread.

Transition of original hemstitching to mending
The hem is as carefully hand stitched as before, except where it wore open and was mended less gracefully.It may have been a hankie, or a napkin. Possibly it was part of something larger.

I believe this was entirely Fredericka Berger's own work, most likely made under direction of her mother, a tutor or at a young ladies' finishing school for her own trousseau, depending on her social station. The linen thread is hand spun. The weaving, while fine, is clearly student quality, as the remaining selvedge on the second piece is a bit uneven. The hand stitching, however, is exquisite. Young eyes and small hands have an easier time with tiny hand stitches.

Note pinned to towel

The note from the towel reads "This is a German linen towel brought from Germany in 1849 by grandparents Wm and Fredericka (Berger) Dammann" and is pinned on the top left corner where it is folded with the bottom left corner, piercing both layers.

Pencilled note, showing the delicate state of the paper

The third note is falling to pieces and will require conservation. It is in the same delicate handwriting as the other two notes, but in pencil. It reads: 

Pencilled note, reassembled and scanned

"Minette Koch, your grandmother born of Fredericka Berger and Wm Dammann came from Germany in 1849 to New York. Grandmother Minette Koch was born in New York in 1850 and married Wm. Koch in 1870."
"M.R. beaded on one of these pairs of socks stands for Minette Ros- [tear obscures last letter], maiden name of Wm. Dammann's mother who never came over from Germany."

There are no socks in the bag.

So, this is my mystery. Or, really, someone's mystery. I just found it and brought it home.

Added Information:
German Emigration to America 
History of linen weaving


  1. I always get hung up on old photos in junk shops. I have a studio photo I call "Boy in a Greatcoat" that I bought years ago because I couldn't stand him being forgotten in a box of jumbled this and that in the musty lower level of a shop. It's a high quality studio shot and well done. Someone must have paid $$$ to the photographer to photograph their manly but sensitive looking son, and then it ends up in a junk shop? I had it matted and framed, and it hangs on my wall.

  2. A friend once shared a poem with me about the things that daughters (and/or sons) throw away, found again in a thrift store... it was a pretty poignant poem. Your post reminds me of it... sad to think that it seemed to be of no value to the family, or perhaps there was no one to pass it down to. I'm happy that you rescued all this!


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