Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Suitcase #13

Posted in Willard Suitcases by joncrispin on 03/03/2012

I have been spending a lot of time in Albany photographing the cases.  I have been a bit overwhelmed lately and have had a hard time deciding what to post as an update.  There is so much material and most of it is fascinating.  I have been averaging at least one shoot a week, and it still feels that I have a long way to go.

Just as a case this one is nice.  Very well made and quite stylish.

It belonged to Steffan K. (although his first name was spelled differently on some items.  On one envelope from a druggest it was written as Steve.)

I especially appreciated the way that the staff wrapped and preserved the items.

My interest in the wrappings and the bows has actually increased.  The three women that did most of the work each had a different style.  Sarah Jastremsky, Christine Allen, and Karen Chambers worked for months going through the cases cataloguing and then stabilizing each item.  At some point I’ll get try to get together with them and find out who did what.

These items seem so personal to me.  The calendar was from 1929.

I never intend to fetishize the items in the cases, but this clock just blew me away.

It is a very early example of a Westclox Big Ben.  Steffan clearly brought it with him when he arrived at Willard, and my guess is that it never left the box.  Both the box and the clock are in perfect condition.  It just made me sad to think that it was packed to go to along with him and he might have never used it there.

As I spend more time with the suitcases and talk to people who worked at Willard, I am becoming quite convinced that the reason the cases were never thrown away is due to the fact that the employees developed close and lasting relationships to the patients.  When they were discharged or died, the personal connection was so strong that it made it impossible to just toss them out.  Anyway, that’s just my theory, and I know the whole issue of how the state chose to treat the mentally ill is a complicated one.

Thanks as usual to The New York State Museum, and especially Craig Williams for allowing me access to the cases and facilitating this project.  And to Peggy Ross for her great help with the process of shooting and re-wrapping each case.

30 Responses

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  1. ncdavid33 said, on 03/03/2012 at 5:22 pm

    Amazing, as per always. Interesting theory as to why the suitcases and their contents were not thrown away or otherwise disposed of when the owner died. After looking at the other items in the photos, I can see that.

  2. Zoe C. said, on 03/03/2012 at 5:23 pm

    Beautiful – it’s amazing how the colors alone evoke an era – the pale blues and orange-brown tones really seem to have a 1920s/30s feel to them.

  3. Kt said, on 03/03/2012 at 5:35 pm

    I am glad you have mentioned the women who originally worked with these suitcases and their contents. For me there is a great sense of caring and respect that I feel when I see how the items are were wrapped. Sarah, Christine and Karen have really honored the owners of the suitcases and the objects they contain.

  4. Bonnie Southcott said, on 03/03/2012 at 5:41 pm

    This is my favorite suitcase to date. That clock? Remarkable. I almost feel like I am peeking through someone’s living room window with these cases.

  5. Christy Womack said, on 03/03/2012 at 5:49 pm

    Your project has made me look at things differently…as if I’m searching for clues as to the personality of the owners. Thank you Jon!

  6. Christy Womack said, on 03/03/2012 at 6:37 pm

    Your project has made me look at things differently….as if I’m searching for clues as to the personality of the owners. Thank you Jon!

  7. Nikki Soppelsa said, on 03/03/2012 at 7:44 pm

    A BIG BEN in the box! These are treasured time capsules!

  8. David said, on 03/03/2012 at 8:26 pm

    The clock gave me a shock – I have one of those Big Ben alarms – my father bought it new and carried through the second world war – the plate has gone tough in a few places but still ticked happily when wound. Amazing stuff and suddenly very personal for me.

  9. Holly Sanderson said, on 03/03/2012 at 8:52 pm

    I grew up in Peru, IL where an old Westclox factory still stands. It’s been closed for some time, but it’s an amazing building. The area is full of old clocks and other time pieces from the factory, but I’ve never seen one so pristine as the one you pictured. Just fantastic. I hope to find one like it someday.

  10. leamuse said, on 04/03/2012 at 1:36 am

    Ah, those suitcases and the storied they hold! My mind races. Thank you so much for sharing them.

  11. Sarah said, on 04/03/2012 at 6:42 am

    That clock is really amazing, it looks like it has just stepped out of the shop.

  12. Bonnie said, on 04/03/2012 at 6:50 am

    I’m very drawn to the wrapped and partially opened soap.

  13. Nicolette Boaz said, on 04/03/2012 at 7:47 am

    Nah …..they just got forgotten…Nice idea though.
    But we remember them-

  14. teddy said, on 04/03/2012 at 8:38 am

    Once again Jon, beautiful photographs. Your words echo my feelings as per the contents of the suitcase, the way the staff handled them. “The employees developed close and lasting relationships to the patients” ~ priceless.

  15. Mrs. Lewis said, on 04/03/2012 at 1:00 pm

    WOW. The clock and its box are unreal, so is the little footed mirror.

  16. Sarah said, on 05/03/2012 at 8:51 am

    Jon,
    Anytime you want to talk, I am just a few floors up. I am so happy to see so many people appriciating you work and by association mine as well. Just one thing, you spelled my last name wrong. It is spelled Jastremski.
    Keep up the good work!

  17. Dan said, on 05/03/2012 at 5:34 pm

    I thought this type of clear “ziploc” plastic was not even available till the 60s…

  18. merrycricket said, on 07/03/2012 at 10:47 pm

    I really like this particular suitcase. The shot of the combination of leather straps with buckles and the metal clasps has a rather classy style to it. Very masculine and stylish.

    I wish I could see all the contents of all the cases. As a former mental health, social services worker, I am curious about why they went into the facility and what happened to each of them.

  19. KSee said, on 09/03/2012 at 6:34 pm

    Thank you Jon for sharing your projects with us. I look forward to them regardless of the subject/project.

  20. Els said, on 12/03/2012 at 10:29 pm

    My father, born in 1909, used a shaving brush like the one pictured, all the years I knew him. Perhaps my most vivid childhood memory is of watching dad lather his face and shave. Morning after morning I stood in the bathroom and watched that brush swirl around the cake of soap in the round dish, gathering a lovely soft layer of suds. Dad always laughed at my rapt attention, and eventually daubed my nose with the brush, making me giggle. When dad died at age 97, I carefully wrapped his shaving and military brushes and put them in a box. Your photograph makes me smile and brings tears to my eyes simultaneously, for all those precious moments with my father are suddenly fresh again. Thank you.

    • joncrispin said, on 13/03/2012 at 9:01 pm

      What a wonderful remembrance of your father. I am so grateful to you for commenting. All the best and thanks for connecting. Jon

  21. slushfundbaby (@slushfundbaby) said, on 17/03/2012 at 11:16 pm

    I’m still enthralled by these photos. The composition is always beautiful and there is something poetic about these artifacts of other lives.

    While I understand that you don’t want to fetishize the contents I am sometimes drawn to particular items. This time it was the Hinkle Tablets that caught my eye. According to internet sources, Hinkle Tablets (for constipation – as were the Rexall Orderlies) contained strychnine and were associated with at least one accidental death, when in 1925 a small child in Indiana consumed a number of the tablets. It made me wonder what affect the Hinkle Tablets’ toxicity had on the owner of the case. Just musing…

    • joncrispin said, on 18/03/2012 at 4:33 am

      sfb, I totally understand. I think it is fine to be captivated by individual items. In the case of the clock, I think I was worried because as soon as I saw it, I wanted one just like it. Maybe someday; there are similar ones on ebay on occasion. I do think it it great that certain items draw interest. In the case of the tablets I just love it that you were interested enough to follow through and learn something and then share it. With this project I am relearning that just like other media, the internet has good and bad points. The bad is obvious to us all, but the good is represented in how people are connecting with these photographs, and sharing their knowledge and interest. Thanks, jon

  22. Henry Mullan said, on 22/03/2012 at 2:14 pm

    Again, a beautiful photo essay Jon. I love the respect that you and the three women you mentioned, paid to the treatment of these articles. It makes them almost a sacred thing.
    Were these cases taken from the patients when they arrived at the hospital or did they use these items during their stay and the cases were repacked after their demise? It seems as if they never saw the contents again one they arrived. It also makes me think how many people requested their things but never got them. Like you said, items like the clock look as if they were never used.
    Thanks to all involved on this project both past and present for allowing us to look respectfully into these peoples lives.

    • joncrispin said, on 22/03/2012 at 2:20 pm

      Henry, I am certain that in most cases the patients did have access to the contents of their cases, and that they were repacked after they died. The clock is a mystery to me though, but I think it might not have been so useful in a clinical environment where the day was more or less regimented. Thanks for your interest in the project. Best wishes, jon

  23. L.S. Stuhler said, on 30/03/2012 at 2:19 pm

    Hi Jon, I thought you might be interested in this new bill introduced in the NYS Senate at: http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/S6805-2011. I hope it gets the sponsors that it needs to become a law.

  24. notsofancynancy said, on 12/09/2012 at 9:58 pm

    I can’t stop reading and wondering about these suitcases! What an interesting project. Awesome really!

  25. [...] Willard Suitcase #9, Willard Suitcase #10, Willard Suitcase #11, Willard Suitcase #12, Willard Suitcase #13, Willard Suitcase #14, Willard Suitcase #15, Willard Suitcase #16, Willard Suitcase #17, [...]


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