When I first had my own home, nearly every piece came from my family’s attic or basement. Most were pieces they used in previous homes that had no place in their current residences, while others were victims of redecorating by the now empty-nesters. Some, like the kitchen table constructed for a previous home, continued to serve the same purpose, while others, like the sliding door child’s dresser, took on new uses. (The dresser became my TV stand and VHS storage). I used to jokingly describe my furniture style as “early attic.”
At the Ohio History Connection, we have a large collection of items from a family farmhouse near East Liberty, Logan County, Ohio. The items were used by generations of the Green family who had been living at the farm since 1829. The items were donated by Mary Eloise Green, who was born at the farm on June 10, 1903 to parents Milton and Sylvia (Creviston) Green.
Mary Eloise was, in some ways, like many people of her generation from rural areas. She grew up in the house her great-grandparents moved into shortly after their marriage. It was also the house where she, her father, and her grandmother were raised. Four generations of Mary Eloise’s family lived in that house as ownership descended from parents to children.
This photo shows Mary Eloise Green and her brother, Earle. Mary Eloise and Earle were the fourth generation to live on the Green family farm outside of East Liberty in Logan County, Ohio. Photo courtesy of the Logan County History Center.
Drop-front desk from the Green family farm. From the Ohio History Connection Collections, H 94839.
Much of the furniture Mary Eloise donated to us came from her family’s farm house and had been used by at least several generations of her family. One piece is a drop-front desk purchased sometime after 1840 by Mary Eloise’s great-grandparents, Carlisle and Rebecca (Rea) Austin. It was common in rural areas in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries to pass homes and furniture from one generation to the next with the expectation that they would continue to be used by subsequent generations. Furniture of solid construction could outlast even the roughest children, and finances did not always allow for a complete refurnishing. the desk, and many other pieces, stayed in the family home in East Logan, Ohio.
Despite staying in the same house, sometimes pieces were used in new ways. Mary Eloise remembers her parents using the upper cabinet on the desk as a medicine cabinet. The bottle of iodine her father kept there to treat his livestock left a brown ring on the bottom shelf, and his iodine-coated fingers stained the door.
Even “new” pieces added to the Green household had a family history. Mary Eloise’s parents purchased an 1890s chest of drawers from her mother’s brother-in-law around 1913. But instead of using the piece to store clothing, they re-purposed it for Mary Eloise who, at ten years of age, had outgrown her dolls and was starting to receive plates as gifts instead. Farm hand Otis converted the twenty-year-old chest of drawers into a short cabinet to hold Mary Eloise’s growing collection.
Eloise moved with her mother to Columbus, Ohio, in 1939 to teach at State University. In the 1960s, she moved the family drop-front desk from the farmhouse in East Liberty to her Columbus home where it sat in the living room at the front of the house. At some point the cabinet also made its way to Columbus, and pictures show both still in use in Eloise’s home in 2002.
Photograph of Mary Eloise's chest of drawers that was repurposed to store and display her china collection. From the Ohio History Connection Collections, H 94836.
Page from the 1919 Sears-Roebuck Catalog. In the public domain.
The rise of manufactured goods in the U.S. in the last quarter of the nineteenth century significantly impacted the furniture industry. Manufactured furniture could be produced at a lower cost and was therefore affordable to more people. This trend continued in the twentieth century, and people have opted to acquire new furniture that exactly fits their needs, their space, and their style from local stores, mail order catalogs, and now online.
But a culture of re-use has emerged in the last decade. Re-use is promoted as a way to help halt climate change, human trafficking, and other issues that plague the world. If people purchase fewer new goods, then less carbon emissions will be produced by manufacturers, less non-renewable resources will be consumed, less people will be exploited for their labor—the list goes on and on. In-person and virtual thrifting and swapping have expanded re-use by making it easier to buy, sell, and swap previously-owned furniture with people in your area.
What items have you re-purposed, and what stories of people and places past do they tell?