Soldiers and their keepsakes from war
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    Auction Finds

    What soldiers send back home

    Sometimes the smallest things can say so much. A nod, a note, a gift. They can also contain a mystery, taunting us to solve them.

    One such mystery captivated me at auction this week. I had missed the two items on the auction table on my first walk-through, both lying almost hidden beneath glassware, Hummel-type figurines and a cane. 

    One was a dainty pink hankie of sheer fabric with embroidered flowers, and American and French flags. The other was also sheer fabric with a flower; embroidered across the top were the words “To My Dear Sister,” with a note card inside. When I turned that one over, I saw that it was a postcard, but with no stamp. It did have a handwritten note and address:

    Dear Sis:
    Accept this Souvenir Card
    from your brother
    as a token of

    Your brother,

    The sister lived in Greensboro, Md. The note card simply read: “To Josephine from Philip F. Vonville.” Commercially printed on the card were the words “Souvenir from France.”

    I can only assume that Philip was a soldier (the items had a patriotic feel to them), and possibly was serving in France during one of the world wars. I could find nothing else at the auction bearing his name or showing any connection to either of them – although I’m sure there must have been other items there from either his life or hers.

    But there together, these gifts were a sweet reminder of a strong bond between brother and sister. They were very sentimental. I wasn’t around when the items were auctioned, so I’m not sure what they went for. Likely, they were sold as part of a lot with the other items near them on the auction table.  

    For me, one of the allures of auctions are mysteries like these. Who were these people? What kind of life did they lead? Was pink Josephine’s favorite color?

    So I plugged Philip’s name in Google, and a Philip F. Vonville did come up. He was listed in the honor roll of men and women from Caroline County, Md., who were killed during World War I. I found another Philip Vonville from World War II, who apparently fought bravely in the battle for Okinawa. He, though, was from Columbus, OH.

    Which are you, Philip? I’d love to know.

    By sending this memento to his sister, Vonville was doing what countless other soldiers have done through many wars, along with sending home letters. (I wrote a post a couple months ago about a doctor’s letters to his family, the most wrenching of which were the conditions he saw at one of Hitler’s concentration camps.) It’s their reciprocal version of families sending care packages and letters to loved ones fighting away from home.

    During the Civil War, families and soldiers exchanged carte de visites, portraits of themselves on small cards measuring 2¼” by 3¾”. (An aside: Practically everyone had these portraits made, including Sojourner Truth, who sold hers to raise money to support her abolition work. On the front of her carte de visite: “I sell the shadow to support the substance.”

    During World War I, soldiers sent home what became known as “sweetheart jewelry,” pieces that they either bought or made while in the trenches (called “trench art“). The jewelry was a necklace, bracelet or pin made of such materials as silver, wood or pearl, and representing a branch of the military. It was given as a sign of love and remembrance. Most – like the hankie and post card – had a patriotic theme.

    I had never heard of sweetheart jewely. Here are some examples on this website, which has pieces for sale.

    In my Google research, I came across one WWII veteran who told of the items he sent home to his younger brothers: British binoculars, a German helmet and bayonet, and a swastika arm band from Normandy. I also found a story about a sister who sold medals and other items her brother had left to her after he, a British soldier, was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. She used the money to pay for a Mediterranean cruise, according to several newspaper accounts.

    That’s a far cry from Philip and Josephine. What mementoes have your soldiers sent to you? I’d love to hear about them.

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