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    Auction Finds

    Treasures in a little girl’s keepsake chest

    The mahogany box with the little treasure chest on top was closed, so naturally I had to see what was inside. That’s what you do at auctions, because you never know what’s hiding inside shuttered boxes.

    As I raised the lid, I saw a slatted wrought iron bench fit for a doll and some knitted caps – girl-size, not doll size – in the bottom of the box. As I opened the lid fully, I saw a montage of old photos and other items.

    This was no ordinary wooden box. This was a girl’s keepsake chest. Smack in the middle of the lid was a black and white photo of twin girls, both with giant white bows planted on the top of their heads, and both dressed picture-perfect in white dresses. To the top right was a photo of an older girl, perhaps one of the twins at a later age or a sister.

    keepsake chest

    An up-close view of a little girl’s keepsake chest with items dear to her.

    The chest was a wonderful catchall for what one of the girls considered dear: the personal photographs, playing cards from a child’s game, checkers pieces, small blocks, a photograph of a man walking along a street in front of a white iron fence and gate with short fat pillars, a photograph of the view of a lake (with the inscription “View of Porch from Rainbow Pavilion”).

    The chest also held an empty box with a metal medallion on top, an image of a vase of flowers. And on top, the small treasure chest that undoubtedly represented the significance of what was inside.

    Based on the little girls’ clothing, the photo looked as if it were taken in the early years of the 20th century. That was a time when girls knitted and sewed, learned domestics, and some kept keepsake boxes and wrote diaries to themselves.

    keepsake chest

    A full view of the inside lid of the girl’s keepsake chest. At top right is a wooden box with a metal medallion that was also inside.

    The chest held so much mystery and wonder about which of the two girls actually owned it and what all of the items meant to her. A look at the contents offered some indication of the life of the children:

    Children’s fashions (bows and white starched dresses), economic status (far from poor; they were clean and well-nourished in both photos); their surroundings (the two landscape photos indicate a place of prosperity), the games they played (Crown checkers, Flinch card game, invented 1901 and still around with a different design).

    These types of boxes were also called memory boxes, and were often used to mark special events in a person’s life, according to one site. They were believed to first have been given to families mourning the death of a loved one, especially an infant, as a way to remember. The box contained a birth certificate, toys or a lock of hair. The use of the boxes evolved to include weddings and happier occasions. They are said to be collectible.

    keepsake chest

    The keepsake chest held a doll’s bench and some knitted hats and other items.

    Small memory boxes are still being used in all kinds of ways – to grieving parents by the Friends Memory Box Program and children with family members suffering from HIV/AIDS in Africa, and as a stimulus for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.

    This was the first large keepsake box I’d seen at auction, but I come across the Lane mini chests pretty often. Those were the ones that local furniture stores gave out to female high school graduates with the hope that the chests would induce the young women to buy the larger chests as they contemplated marriage.

    When I see such intimate items as the child’s keepsake chest, I always wonder why the families gave them away. This one was chock full of memories, and several people at the auction understood its value – either for keeping or for sale. I waited around for the sale of the chest and watched as the bidding was fierce. It went for more than $100, as I recall.

    With its contents, I’m sure this sweet little chest will find its way back into someone’s home as the treasure it was meant to be.

    keepsake chest

    A front view of the girl’s keepsake chest, with the valentine-shaped lock.

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