This week I’ll be taking a chair caning class at the Campbell Folk School. I called to cancel the course because I felt uncomfortable pursuing my own interests in light of the stress my husband is going through. I didn’t feel it was fair to expect him to have to arrange his day around school pick-up and plan dinner etc… But when I called, I was told I would lose my deposit, so I decided to make a compromise so it wouldn’t be a total loss. I’ll go, but leave early each day so my participation doesn’t interfere with my husband’s schedule. It’s also my birthday week, so this gives me something to do, which alleviates my family having to plan something to entertain me for the day.
So – the class is on. And that means I need to ready my chairs. Each student is supposed to bring several projects, refinished, repaired and ready to cane. Because I knew I would be painting layers of gloss on my chairs, I had to get cracking. I bought my two chairs for 10.00 each at a flea market. I had to cut off all the old dry, racked caning and unscrew the seat top. I then had to spray-painting the base coat with an off white. My husband insisted I do this away from the house and it was nighttime before I was free to work on it, so I trudged down the mountain to spray in the dark. Needless to say, in the morning, I had to laugh at the splotchy chairs, with a bug or two painted on. Ah well, it lends character and the surface of the chairs will all be covered up anyway.
Next, I had to go to storage to get my Penny Romance Papers published in 1873. Our storage unit is like hell – if hell is a two-foot space where you are locked in by everything you ever owned. Like Ebenezer Scrooge who collected chains throughout life, everything we’ve collected in our vast eclectic living is piled in this unit until our home is built. (And frankly, the fact that we are living without all this stuff for a year does make you question if you really need it – but that is fodder for another blog). Our furniture, books, clothes, kitchen wares, Flex paraphernalia, tools, hobbies, toys, bikes and you name it are all stacked twelve feet high in this 30-foot unit. I begin rooting through, but there is only so much I can find within reach, and eventually, I have to admit I’m never going to find these papers. At least, not until summer when we move.
That means I have to come up with another idea for my chair. I stood there among the tangible evidence of my life and began considering just what other theme would be meaningful to me and a good contribution to my writing room. A chair decoupaged with hundreds of dance pictures? Family pictures? The articles I’ve had published in magazines? Pages from the classics I’m reading for school? Do I really want a Faulkner chair? I had wanted the chairs to be indicative of my love for history and writing, so in the end, I decide to try to stick with that. I went shopping. Back to the antique stores I go in search of more penny romance papers. But they are no longer available. It was a rare find.
So I begin looking for vintage newspapers. I find lots of Civil War period New York Times, but little else. Finally, I stumble on two wonderful papers, Gleason’s Pictorials, published on January 28th, 1854 and Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization, November 22, 1862. I also couldn’t resist a two-page newspaper flyer called the Daily Courier, April 3rd, 1853, which are all classified ads. I’m thrilled with these finds, but evidently aware that these papers, at around $50 each, mean I am making a rather expensive chair. But I justify that, because these chairs will be with me a long time, I can afford to spend a bit. I want everything in my first and only private space to have meaning, and frankly, if I bought an antique, I would spend a great deal more.
Now, I must begin adhering the papers to my chairs, which are just standard rung chairs with a slatted back. First, I read the papers, dwelling in the amazing history of the time. I should read more of these things. It really takes you to a different time, place and cultural thought. Makes me want to write. I read about the death sentence of a woman who murdered her husband, written with such melodrama and sensationalism, it made me laugh. We don’t slant news like that today. The papers include poetry and stories, because people didn’t have TV or radio and reading (for those that could read) was their primary entertainment. But what fascinated me most, was the advertisements.
I glued the front-page title and headlines of the paper to the top rung of my chair so the date showed, and wrapped pages around the legs and body of the chair. Then, I cut out specific ads and placed them in strategic places. I was most interested in all these ads of “Negros for sale”.
I need to explain that my current historical novel (which is on hold until I finish my literary dance book at school – on hold because academia doesn’t focus on commercial fiction, which my historical love stories are) is about a lawyer who is on a quest to free slaves. He works with the Underground Railroad. He’s discovered, and as result, he, my heroine, and two slaves are on the run. They go to Florida and interact with the Seminole Indians (who consisted of many runaway black slaves) and eventually make their way to a boat that takes them to California. The slave characters in my book include a woman 23 years old, and the book takes place in 1853 – the very year of this paper. Let me point out that this book is all about freedom and equality and I’m told my best characters in the book happen the black characters. In other words, this is not a racist book. The book is about justice really and a sensitivity to the plight of black Americans. The hero and heroine fall in love because they recognize their joint moral convictions.
As you can imagine, I look at these papers, and realize I’m reading ads that could be the real life evidence of my story – one ad is an offer for an award for a young 23 year old black woman runaway (50$ reward – what a sad price on a life, huh?) and other ads are solicitation for selling negros. Because I want this chair in my writing room, and because I am thinking of my book, I cut out these ads and place them in a prominent place on this piece of art people can sit on. This chair is like research now, a part of my book for the room where I will finish writing it.
I am thrilled with the look of the chair, so I begin the many layers of glue and water to seal it. But as the first coat dries, I’m looking with pride at the chair, and I start to think about how others will see it. And it occurs to me, I have a chair that has “Negro’s for sale” plastered on it. Holly crap! Now, I understand why I’ve created this, but will other people? For all I know, others will look at it and think I support the notion of selling Negros, or at the very least, it makes me look insensitive regarding this sad period of history. Now, I’m feeling really, really self-conscious about my beloved chair. I can’t undo my choice without wrecking it. I spend an hour totally uncomfortable and feeling inappropriate, until I break down and cover one of the ads up with an ad for Ladies selling skin products. (Ha- a funny add that says if you want to be beautiful, you must use their cream because it will remove freckles. Guess you can’t be beautiful and have freckles.)
Now, I still have a chair with a few questionable ads, but none are actually front and center. By the time I put 5 layers of glue and water on the chair and three layers of honey colored polyurethane to give it a glossed, sepia look, the print is subtle anyway. But I know my husband is going to kid me about this chair big time.
Now, I stand back and admire my chair again. I love it . . . but . . . . Suddenly I start to question the integrity of my work. Perhaps it is wrong to have cut up these wonderful historical artifacts. Now, you can’t read most of the print. I’m starting to consider the journey of these papers and how they survived. I suppose they were in a file of a publishing office somewhere as originals for years and years. Then, when the paper collapsed, they were sold or given away. Or maybe this particular paper was saved because the person who ran an ad wanted a copy for prosperity. Or it could have just been used to line a trunk filled with a wedding dress or something. And it laid in someone’s attic for years. Then, 75 to a hundred years later, someone realizes old papers are worth something, so they take them out and keep them awhile to show friends or family members. But they never really display the papers, so eventually, they’re sold. And the papers fall into an antique dealer’s hands where they sit in a stack of old papers and magazines for a long time. People come along and view them, marveling at the contents, but really, what can you do with an old newspaper? You can frame the first page, but you can’t very well frame all 8 pages – it would take up a room. So the best you can do is keep it folded up in the protective sleeve.
But I come along and buy it to put it on a chair.
Now, a part of me thinks this is a good end for a paper that survived so long. For one thing, the paper was disintegrating (which made it really hard to brush on glue without destroying it altogether. Who knows how much longer it would have held out? Soon, you wouldn’t be able to remove it to turn the pages to read it anyway. ) Now, it’s been cut and arranged, but still, it’s preserved forever. And another thing, the paper isn’t hidden away for the rare occurrence when someone looks at it – now people will enjoy it all the time. It will be a conversation piece – and something I will cherish and appreciate. So, I justify my act by thinking the ultimate fate of this paper, the reason it was saved all this time, was simply for me. For this specific project. And I start thinking, “Wouldn’t the person who originally read this daily paper be amazed to think that over 150 years later a woman will use it to decorate her home.” Life is remarkable, ya know.
I collect old books and I have my penny romance newspapers. I’m thinking I might start collecting some of these papers too and I’ll preserve those particular items for all time. This will prove I don’t think historical artifacts are disposable items for my own end. I need to make a table to go with these chairs – I’m imagining a small bistro set for my room, and I’m thinking I’ll refinish the table in another way. I will look for the kind with a glass top over a hollow center that allows you to put items inside to view. I can start collecting money from the 1850’s and other artifacts and make it a mini museum.
So, my “Negro’s for sale” chairs are on the porch drying with their last coat of polyurethane.(wince) I will meet my instructors tonight at the welcome dinner, and tomorrow I’ll begin learning to cane the seats. I don’t know what to chose for this last portion of the remodeling– there are so many kinds of textiles and patterns employed in the craft of caning. I’ll wait and see what is recommended. I also bought an old child’s rocking chair without a seat at an antique shop for $8.00. I can start with that to practice. I know my kids have outgrown a tiny seat, but I’ll have grandkids someday and it is a great accent piece if nothing else.
I will put a picture of my finished chair on this blog at the end of the week. You won’t be able to read the fine print, so no cracks from the peanut gallery. But trust me; my husband is having a field day with this one.