Taking Note: Hidden stories

For me, there’s no shortage of things to love about secondhand items. There’s the mysteries, the stories, the joyful coincidence of the perfect object somehow finding its way to you, the chance to give something another use, a new life. And whether an item comes from a thrift store, a yard sale, an estate sale, a friend, a relative, or another type of secondhand conduit, there’s likely more to it than meets the eye.

Depending on the situation, you may or may not know an item’s story, but it can be fascinating to try to learn more about its history; or at least, imagine the series of events that led up to it coming into your possession. But if an item comes from a family member or friend, there’s a chance you could learn its story if you ask. And you might be surprised by what you find out.

For example, I recently took two matching, long-unused wooden frames from my parents’ house in the hopes that they would fit a few pieces of art I had that were in need of frames.

I discovered a few things in this process. For one, these frames — which are more than several decades old — were put together in a way that made taking them apart quite painstaking without the right tools. And the frames were not quite the right size for the pieces I planned to put in them. But once the frames were apart, I discovered each contained a hidden work of art carefully placed under the backing.

The frames each housed a long-concealed vintage print of a floral arrangement against a cream-colored background. The prints, both signed RF Harnett, seem intended to be displayed as a pair with their similar compositions and styles, differing only in the particular flowers depicted and color schemes used.

While this situation could have presented a mystery under different circumstances, I was lucky enough to learn a bit of the story behind the hidden prints. It turns out my dad’s great aunt owned these and had them placed in their current frames during the mid-20th century.

My dad tells me he was often tasked with moving and rehanging these framed floral prints for his great aunt when she rearranged her home, so he became quite familiar with them over the years. After she passed, these framed prints came into my dad’s possession and they eventually made the long journey to the Upper Peninsula to grace his walls for some time.

However, with numerous home renovations and rearrangements over the decades, these prints ended up getting stowed away for years. They wouldn’t be seen again until I went looking for unused frames at my parents’ house just a week or two ago.

However, these prints are now enjoying yet another life, as they’re back on display in their original frames. The duo is now hung up in my house, where they seem quite at home with the color scheme and the other art that adorns my walls, which is also largely secondhand.

This isn’t the most unusual or shocking story about a secondhand item, but to me, finding these prints and learning their story felt truly serendipitous. I would have liked them regardless of the circumstances because I generally enjoy vintage floral prints, but knowing their history gave them additional meaning. Although my life didn’t overlap with the life of the great-great-aunt who owned these prints, I feel a connection to her knowing that they now hang on my walls, just as they hung on her walls decades ago. And maybe, in an example of history repeating itself, my dad might come over and help me rearrange them someday, just like he did for her, 40-odd years ago.

But no matter how a secondhand item reaches you or who it’s from, it can gain special meaning if you take the time to ask about its story, research it, or even just imagine what led to it coming into your possession.

So next time you encounter a secondhand item, consider trying to learn its untold story or uncover its hidden history. You just might find there’s a fascinating tale behind the item and how it came into your possession.


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