What is sentimental provenance?
It’s a term I coined to describe a historical record of an item’s origin and ownership for sentimental reasons, not monetary reasons.
How many times have you bought something at a thrift store and wished you knew where that item had come from, in other words, its provenance?
For me, it’s every single time! I wish I knew that table, painting, or bowl’s back story. Where did it come from and how did it end up on this dusty thrift store shelf? If that item could talk, what stories would it tell? What historical events did it witness? How much did it originally cost?
I don’t want to know an item’s history because I’m hoping to hit the antique jackpot. The romantic in me just thinks it is interesting to know how an item went from where it was created decades earlier to my house in rural New Jersey.
Sentimental provenance becomes even more important when describing family heirlooms. Your grandma’s rocking chair or your grandpa’s pocket watch might not be worth much monetarily, but they are special for sentimental reasons. And haven’t you always wondered how they came to have those items in their possession? If it isn’t written down or otherwise recorded, that information will eventually be lost.
My great-grandma had a solution for establishing sentimental provenance. I don’t know what gave her the foresight to do this, but I’ll forever be grateful that she did. We can all take her example and implement it in our own lives.
To tell you what she did, I have to set it up with a story…
Growing up we had a treadle sewing machine. I’m still scarred for life because it was my childhood chore to dust the intricate metal cutouts on that sewing machine’s pedal and legs. If you had or have a treadle sewing machine, you know what I’m talking about.
I never thought much about where that sewing machine came from because it was always in my parents’ house.
In 2017, I learned that my great-grandmother had tucked a handwritten notecard in the back of one of the sewing machine’s drawers detailing how the machine came to be in her possession.
Let’s ignore the fact that that drawer had never been cleaned out in all of my childhood years and focus on the fact that my great grandma’s notecard helped establish sentimental provenance.
Now that we knew this sewing machine had a backstory, there was no way we could just get rid of it. Depending on how you feel about family heirlooms like treadle sewing machines, this could be a good or bad thing.
We put out a family-wide call for someone to step up and take the machine. Thankfully, my cousin did and I have full faith that this treadle sewing machine will stay in the family for generations. Hopefully, the names of its new owners will be added to that notecard.
What I especially liked was how much information my great-grandma packed onto one notecard. She detailed how old the machine was, who it came from, details about the town where it came from, how much she paid for it, how it got to her, and why she needed it.
After reading this notecard I had to pause and ask, “Why couldn’t she get a sewing machine during WWII?” The answer is that the U.S. government put limits on the production of certain items so that raw materials could be diverted to producing items for the war.
Clothing styles even changed during WWII because manufacturers were limited on the amount of extra fabric a garment could have. Wide lapels? Nope. That was excessive. Long dresses? Negative. Also a waste of fabric.
Mending and patching clothing became a sign of one’s patriotism and support for the troops fighting in WWII.
I thought some of the supply constraints during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic were burdensome. As it turns out, I have not lived through shortages like the people in the 1940s did.
The next time you plan on donating something to your local thrift store, consider tucking a note somewhere on the item letting its future owner know what kind of life that item has lived. You don’t have to get too specific with personally identifying information if you don’t want to. Just give them a little backstory.
I would think I’d hit the motherlode if I found a note establishing sentimental provenance in the back of a dresser or taped underneath a table.
And for all of those items that you’d like to keep in the family, consider establishing sentimental provenance for those items too with some sort of historical record such as written notes, photos, receipts, recordings, etc.
Someday, your great-grandchildren will be happy you did.
P.S. For establishing provenance for high-value items I found this blog post by RR Auction in Boston to be helpful. I don’t have any association with RR Auction, they just came up in my research. I thought their methods could apply to the sentimental items in our lives too.
P.P.S. The Oregon Secretary of State’s website has a very interesting article in their archives about shortages and conservation during WWII. Since my great-grandma mentioned Portland, Oregon, on her notecard, I was looking for historical information specific to that area.
Thanks for being here today! I hope you gained an idea or two. Here are some other posts you might enjoy.