P1070981A closet left untouched for over a decade, but probably filled long before that, is a kind of time capsule, full of clues about life in France years–sometimes many years–ago.

First, the closets themselves. They (both, I think) started as water closets–toilets. Folks used to have chamber pots, which they would empty out the window to the street below, passersby beware.

According to the genealogy blog Histoires d’Antan et d’à Présent, there were some public toilets, which were little stalls with holes in the floor, set above a pit. How difficult that must have been when women had to wear long dresses with big skirts!

People started to want more privacy and would put in a water closet as high as possible in the building–as far as possible from the main living quarters. The excrement would flow down a pipe into the street, while the odors would escape above. By 1553, the parliament of Paris required each house to have a septic pit.remise 2By the 18th century, most buildings had two WCs, one near the ground floor or near the stairs, and the other on the top floor. And indeed, in our apartments’ building, there are two closets on the landings between the floors.

When I first moved to Europe in the 1990s and looked for an apartment in Brussels, I was shown one with the toilet and bathroom (separate) on the landing; the facilities were shared with the other two apartments in the building! I passed on that one. Also, on a trip to Paris around the same time, I had chosen an “authentic” hotel from the Lonely Planet; it praised a “charming Turkish toilet.” If you don’t know what that means, see the photo below. And steer clear of “authentic” and “charming”!

Anyway, these water closets had been converted into just closets (the toilet was filled with concrete). And they were full.  One had nothing interesting, but the other one, which had no traces of its former use, was full of stuff.

loot shot
Some of the finds, after being relieved of a thick layer of dust. Four irons!

The lock box in the top photo, was an exciting find, but sadly it was empty. (Imagine the typical French gesture of swiping your forefinger under your nose–meaning out of luck.)

A plastic tote bag held architectural documents for city halls/schools from the late 1800s; I want to go around to the villages and get photos of the buildings today. With them was this document, which seems to be a handwriting/copying exercise: “Hommage to Our Lady of Angels. Extract of a letter from my Lord the Count of Massaïra (today brother Mary Joseph of Angels) to his sister, Madame the Countess of Weisemberg.”P1070984P1080013Look at how it was bound by sewing the three sheets together. Even a tear on the fold was repaired by sewing. P1070988The handwriting is beautiful. Not a single bit scratched out.

The content is odd; the writer says he was born in Naples and recounts his life, mentioning that he married off his sister to the count of Weisemberg. Wouldn’t his sister be on top of this info already?P1080011There were several pots à graisse (grease pots), used for making confit de canard (duck) or pork.

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Missing the lid. There was still sugar inside!

A few stray pieces of a set of Limoges china. I plan to use the surprisingly large sugar pot, above, as a vase.

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I’m trying to trace the Saunier-Limoges link.
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Sweet hand-painted plates and an ivory mustard spoon.
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A magnifying glass in a silver frame.
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A bed-warming brick. It was set on the hot coals, then wrapped in a blanket and set at the foot of the bed.
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Bandages still inside.
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Silver holder for a cièrge, or church candle. Supposedly, the bigger the candle, the better the chance of the prayer being granted.
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A mirror for a tabletop, with decorative beveled edges.

In the lower closet–the one with the Turkish loo–we mostly encountered rubble and coal! The upstairs closet did harbor a charbonnière, or a kind of scoop/bucket for gathering coal from the heap to put into the furnace. Happily we don’t heat with that anymore.P1070995

What’s the best thing you’ve ever uncovered in cleaning out a closet?

 

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36 thoughts on “Cleaning the Closet

  1. Treasure indeed. When I was a small child, my grandmother still used to put a warming brick in our beds when we stayed with her. I am fascinated by your history of the WC. Have you ever come across Lucinda Lambton? Her book ‘On the Throne – a history of the lavatory’ is a must read on the subject. You are extremely well-informed and informative … are you a historian by training or is it a learned skill. If the latter, I am even more impressed!

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      1. Your love of what you are researching shines through. History is the one subject that should really be taught in a captivating way …. all the lessons we need to learn are contained in it.

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  2. Well, it wasn’t a closet but it was a clean out. My husbands relatives have been in our town (Rehoboth, Ma) since the mid 1600’s. I found several documents, legal papers, wills etc. some signed by John Adams. There were legal documents that had a line, drawn with pen and ink, through the sentence “Under consent of his royal majesty, King George III…” etc. etc. Which I thought was odd until I saw the date…1776! With a start it occurred to me, the U.S. was no longer ruled by England!

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  3. I found plenty of letters from my mother to my aunt when my aunt started her apprenticeship (they must have been 14 and 16 respectively) and it was full of infatuations and questions about borrowing money for going to fairs and several about a shared pair of pistacchio-coloured shoes… Hilarious to me and they remember non of it!

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  4. How interesting, and what cool artifacts! I love the brick since those are my initials. All we discovered after moving into our 1924 house was an old issue of Playboy in the bathroom, and some old holy cards and b &w photographs of chubby ladies in swimsuits and rubber bathing caps. Definitely not as amazing as your finds! Great post as always…

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    1. Actually, now you’ve reminded me of the movie “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain,” aka just “Amelie.” Events are set in motion when she drops the cap of a cologne bottle and it hits a bathroom tile and knocks it loose. Behind the tile, she finds treasures hidden by a previous occupant. The treasures are fairly simple–a toy car….but they set her on a search for the boy who hid them.

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      1. “Amelie” is one of my all time favorite films, and the Yann Tiersen music is incredible. Guess I’ll have to pull out that CD!

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    1. Was she out in the country? My grandparents had a “cabin” that had an outhouse. When I lived in Africa, I had a VIP: ventilated improved pit. There was a pipe to the outside, with a screen on the top. After using the pit, you covered it, and the flies would head to the light. They couldn’t get out and would die. It was to reduce the spread of disease.

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  5. Can’t say I ever encountered much more than dust when cleaning out a closet, but you seemed to have unearthed a treasure trove of articles. I love to learn about old implements and how they were used. Our caretaker in Italy tells us he found an old Roman coin in our yard as well as fragments of a tombstone. Much better than dust….

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  6. What a find…..the only thing of value that I’ve discovered when cleaning out my mother’s closet was a beautiful silver bracelet. She – hid – her jewelry for safekeeping in the pockets of her clothes in her closet. In the crawl space beneath the house pushed way to the back was an old wash stand and blanket box from the 1800’s. These things have since been cleaned up an have traveled across the country with me.

    I also love all the research that you do. You do have a knack for making history come alive.

    Ali

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  7. I have never found a treasure trove in any house I lived in. I love your finds and concur about the Turkish toilets. They are a little scary.

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    1. Au contraire! When in a dicey place, I’d much rather have a no-touch Turkish toilet than have to sit on heaven knows what. But you need good knees and quadriceps. Not a place to do a crossword.

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  8. After my mom died, I found dozens of letters between her & my dad before they were married during WWII, when he was abroad in the Navy. I haven’t brought myself to read them yet. Part of me wants to document these letters as a tribute to their love story but a part of me says I should not read them. Both my mom & dad are gone now. What’s your opinion? Any replies from other readers of your blog with advice would be appreciated.

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    1. That’s interesting. I found the same. I wanted to read them–my parents seemed so mismatched and frankly unhappy and I wanted to find their love confirmed. My brothers were aghast and said I shouldn’t open them.

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    1. Thank you for your advice. The letters were in my mom’s closet, and not even really hidden. In a shoebox, visible on a shelf. I think I will read them.

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