Rewriting the reason behind the Civil War
  • Vintage sewing machines at auction
  • Mystery needle case with a family history
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    Auction Finds

    Sewing case stitched during infancy of the Civil War

    The male auction-goer placed his numbered sticker right dab in the center of the fabric case. The sticker’s bright yellow color was a brilliant contrast to the faded and tattered gray lining of what looked to be a sewing case.

    I had seen the handmade case during my walk-through at the auction house, but it had not stirred me. Neither had it presumably called out to others; I saw very few people pick it up. This auction-goer, a dealer who was a regular, was the only one to stake claim to it.

    No wonder. It was not in the best shape. The cushioned lining was a dull gray, and a strip of brown trim had come unattached in spots along its top edge. The brown flowered fabric wrapped around its side was not a pleasant color that drew you to the case, but a somber one that pushed you away. The fabric covering the bottom of the box also had become dislodged and exposed the cardboard frame.

    Civil War sewing box

    The sewing case bears the stitched name of the maker.

    The case did have one thing going for it. It told us its age, and it had existed for a long, long time. Inside, the owner had stitched her name – I assumed it was a woman – and a date, both of which looked authentic. I was not certain about the name because she had written it in fancy lettering.

    L. W. Winter or L.H. Hunter
    maker
    Jan. 26h 1861

    She had stitched it on a Saturday, in the early days of the Civil War. On that day, Louisiana voted to join five other southern states to secede from the Union. Mississippi, which had left the Union in 1860, created its own state flag. A few weeks later, on Feb. 9, 1861, the Confederacy was formed. After the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, SC, the Civil War officially began in April.

    Civil War sewing box

    An up-close view of the stitched inscription inside the sewing case.

    Who was she? Where did she live? Was she marking this day as a pivotal period in her life and that of the country? Or was she innocuously finding a quiet time to sew on her new Singer? Her marking the date seemed more purposeful than cavalier, though.

    She was living in a time of turmoil, angst and rebellious rhetoric. Abraham Lincoln had been elected president the past November, and tension between the North and South over the issue of slavery had risen dramatically. Southern states that had established a thriving economy supported by the brutal system of slavery were intent on keeping life the way it was.

    Ten days before the sewing case was stitched, a battery on Morris Island in South Carolina had fired on a U.S. ship headed to Fort Sumter.

    Civil War sewing box

    The side of the sewing case shows the brown-flowered fabric covering.

    The inscription in the sewing case was not the first I’d found among auction items. I always search items to see if folks have left behind little notes on the provenance – the background and history – of items for their own descendants and strangers like me. I’ve found a soldier’s letter tucked inside a camera lens case, a note about the owner and contents of a sewing stand, the birthdates of family members on a needle case and buttons engraved by a husband for his wife.

    The maker of this sewing case may remain a mystery. I wonder how she and her family fared during the war, wherever they lived in the North or South. Did her family have enslaved Africans? Did she agree with slavery?

    Little did she know, I suspect, that the descendant of one of those enslaved Africans would one day be walking unfettered through an auction house touching and examining what she had left behind.

    Civil War sewing case

    The bottom of the sewing case shows its cardboard frame.

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