A Box Full of Hair and Other Mysteries (or why Grumblethorpe is just sooo cool)
I was sifting through drawers in boxes in one of the bedrooms at Grumblethorpe. I opened what looked to me like a Jewelry box, but was filled to the brim with blonde hair. Not a small lock of hair, or a locket holding hair, but a gently folded pile of blonde hair. I still haven’t discovered why it was there or who it belonged to, but its been added to my long list of questions about the Wister family. The box of hair was one of many surprises that awaited me as I searched through the rooms and library of Grumblethorpe. Stashed in Owen Wister’s desk were 200 year old checks and packets of unopened 19th century seeds. On a table in the front room sat a log of payments from John Wister, which allows me greater insight into how the Wister’s spent their money and how much they paid their employees. We found cricket bats used by Owen Wister and old keys to the kitchen. The library was filled with early editions of poetry classics, as well as the diaries and memoirs of members of the Wister family. In every room, we found books, documents, and objects that revealed details about the lives of the Wister family. While most of it isn’t directly helpful for my project, as I am working on researching the history of laborers in the house, it has revealed details about the daily lives of the Wister family. We know what plants the Wister’s favored, what sports Charles Wister played, the toys they built and their handwriting. We know what they payed their employees and what they spent their money on. We know what kind of books they preferred (memoir, greek mythology, and anything written by a Wister). The vast array of items, original to the family still in the house, is amazing. Evidence of the Wister’s vocations, hobbies, artistic pursuits, debts, and financial woes are readily available in drawers and corners throughout the house. While much of my research going forward will be archival, these objects and items of daily life offer insights into the daily lives of of the family, especially the women, who would otherwise go unknown.
While my original project was simply to find traces of servants, slaves, and tenant farmers at Grumblethorpe, my project has now expanded. I will be helping to find a home for many of these objects, especially the archival documents and rare books, that will allow them to be preserved and accessible to to researchers. While some of these documents, like financial documents are fairly common, the knowledge available about the Wister’s leisure time and extracurricular pursuits is astounding. As invigorating it has been to search through a house bursting with original artifacts, I am relieved they will be preserved and accessible to scholars.