Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Suitcase #9

Posted in Willard Suitcases, Work by joncrispin on 05/12/2011

I had my most productive day ever this past Thursday.  This case belonged to Eleanor G.  I was expecting a regular suitcase from the way it was wrapped, but it was something altogether different.

The museum has a total of five cases from Eleanor, and I photographed all of them but the large steamer trunk.  I’ll get to that on my next visit.

This is a very interesting cardboard storage container, and you can see above how I found it as I opened the drawers.

Eleanor must have sewn a lot.  One of her other cases held two beautiful light cotton dresses that were clearly made by hand.

This drawer holds just a small selection of her sewing kit, and a couple of garters for her stockings.

Here is her little needle case.

The handles of these curling irons are the most beautiful shade of green.

For me, the most beautiful and evocative item was this perfume bottle.  I googled Isabey and this is what I found.  The link is a little funky, but at the top is a picture of the reissued bottle and case.

This could not have been an inexpensive bottle of perfume at the time she got it.  Hand blown glass, and a beautiful velvet lined case.

Peggy helped out big time on Thursday.  Both with rewrapping and seeing things that I might have missed.  It made the day doubly productive.

50 Responses

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  1. Maya said, on 05/12/2011 at 11:53 am

    I am curious about the image that may be on the cover of the needle case. Many had pictures, often similar to the sorts of prints one might have had in the parlour – hunt scenes, patriotic images – or floral and domestic type scenes. Some of them are quite beautiful.

    • joncrispin said, on 05/12/2011 at 12:02 pm

      Maya, thanks for your comment. There was no image on the needle case. Just the word “needles” in a gold lettering. Jon

  2. Nikki Soppelsa said, on 05/12/2011 at 12:04 pm

    my goodness! Finger wave irons, celluloid buttons, perfume, garters…speaks so 1920s/30s and oh
    so feminine and … of Eleanor G.
    Is there more information available about her?

    Of all the blogs I ‘follow’ … this is the only one I actually DO follow! I am enthralled.

    • joncrispin said, on 05/12/2011 at 12:52 pm

      My friend Dr Karen Miller is looking at the cases for her project that involves writing poems about the Willard community. I know she looked Eleanor’s things. At some point, I hope to be able to provide some biographical information about her. Thanks so much for your interest and support of my blog. It means so much to me. Jon

      • Nikki Soppelsa said, on 05/12/2011 at 1:15 pm

        Jon…this appeals to me on so many levels…I can barely stand it!;-) I can’t and can imagine the anticipation of opening these suitcases. As a collector of too much stuff, the photos give the ‘stuff’ a time and a purpose…the celluloid buttons, for example. Those buttons had a life somewhere in Eleanor’s even if they were her found treasures. I do hope there is a photo of her …
        Thank you … (and do turn this into a book!)

    • joncrispin said, on 05/12/2011 at 12:56 pm

      And Nikki, I love the Maxfield Parrish/dino collage. Did you see this earlier post of mine? (Not sure the link will work. If not, check out March 2010 in the archives section. Scroll down to T_Rex)

      • Nikki Soppelsa said, on 05/12/2011 at 1:04 pm

        Thank you, Jon! and how about that! They’re out there…only a few of us can see them;-))

    • meetzorp said, on 06/12/2011 at 12:14 am

      The dress pattern appears to be from the mid-1930s.

      • Barbara said, on 12/12/2011 at 4:26 am

        Yes…I noticed it was a “McCall” pattern. Is there a number/size on the pattern? I am fascinated by this suitcase. I too would like to be able to know more of the history of Eleanor. I wonder what she did all day at the institution…I wonder if she continued to sew….?? Thank you for sharing. How would a person go about researching the patients in the institution…is there a list of names somewhere on the web?

      • L.S. Stuhler said, on 13/12/2011 at 9:58 am

        Hi Barbara, I have transcribed the 1920 U.S. Federal Census from Willard State Hospital on my blog but if you are a member at, you can check out the 1930 census for yourself. Patient medical records are not available to the public, not even descendants, but certain people are approved by the NYS Office of Mental Health Institutional Review Board to view a few individual records for research (you usually need a PhD. after your name to view them). This particular woman has probably been dead for 80 years. It is a sad situation where the state controlled them in life and are continuing to do so in death. (

  3. nancy udell said, on 05/12/2011 at 12:32 pm

    Heartbreaking! And beautiful clarity in the photos. Love the perfume.

  4. lonna said, on 05/12/2011 at 12:48 pm

    exquisite photos – so delicate and sensitive. eleanor g. would approve i’m sure.

  5. Marie EvB Gibbons said, on 05/12/2011 at 1:28 pm

    so very cool, I love this project and how you are handling it!

  6. Miche said, on 05/12/2011 at 2:42 pm

    What is so gut wrenching to me is that so many of the owners of these cases were living such regular lives, going about the business of life the best they could, never expecting it to be so harshly interrupted by a form of mental illness that they had no control over. Each item in the cases represents huge volumes of stories and untold events that were washed away and replaced with something completely horrifying.

  7. Peach Farm Studio said, on 05/12/2011 at 2:54 pm

    Hi Jon. Haunting! Thank you for continuing with this project and with your journal entries…

  8. Gill Scott said, on 05/12/2011 at 5:09 pm

    Absolutely wonderful photographs of these lost treasures, thank you Jon!

  9. Gill Scott said, on 05/12/2011 at 5:13 pm

    Wonderful “lost and found” suitcases of treasures…………

  10. teddy said, on 05/12/2011 at 5:44 pm

    the container ~ the contents ~ the bottle of perfume ~ so very intimate and your words say it all regarding this ‘suitcase’: “something altogether different” ~ each suitcase thus far demonstrates the uniqueness of each individual…your photos are once again so mesmerizing ~ thank you Jon

    • joncrispin said, on 05/12/2011 at 7:27 pm

      Teddy, so great to hear from you. Thanks for following the project. Jon

  11. JohnL said, on 05/12/2011 at 5:59 pm

    Here is a question for all to ponder and maybe you Jon can answer. Has NYS looked in to any surviving living relatives that may be legal owners of these suitcases? The perfume bottle sounds like it could be of value.

    • Nikki Soppelsa said, on 05/12/2011 at 6:20 pm

      There is more than the bottle … the celluloid buttons too. …the zither, the lace/embroidery, the green bakelite dresser set, that marvelous suitcase of tools/inks … even the suitcases on their own, empty of good and empty of known history. These are a treasure hunters dream and hit at the very heart of a collector …

    • joncrispin said, on 05/12/2011 at 7:29 pm

      The museum has tried to track down family of the original 12 cases in the exhibit from 2004 and did not have any luck. I would be great if family could be located, but still seems unlikely. Thanks, Jon

  12. Nikki Soppelsa said, on 05/12/2011 at 6:23 pm

    You have to think it was family that put these people here and if anyone kept up with them, one would think that personal items would be returned to the family or friend/s if all of these people died there. …just thinking of the labor involved in researching surviving family … if there are any … and what a can of worms to open!

    • JohnL said, on 05/12/2011 at 7:19 pm

      I worked for NYS/OMH for 40 years they have the records. There are plenty advocacy groups that would love to open the can of worms. Speaking for myself and others that have worked there it all about patient rights . Let’s not ignore their rights and their family rights.

  13. Desiree said, on 05/12/2011 at 7:25 pm

    Thank you for sharing a tiny part of Eleanor’s life with us here – she must have been the sort of woman I would love to have spent time with. The curling irons are exquisite and all the beautiful sewing bits and bobs are precious. She must have been so careful with her appearance and oh the perfume bottle – how could these beautiful things have been just left unclaimed by family? Was she not given a proper burial? Did she have anyone? So many questions, I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of her belongings. Thank you Jon.

    • joncrispin said, on 05/12/2011 at 7:34 pm

      Desiree, you are so right. So many questions. One thing I do know is that the residents of Willard did have some wonderful people looking after them. I have met and photographed them, and I can say with certainty that Eleanor must have spent some nice moments with them. Thanks for your great comment. Jon

  14. Barbara Swinney said, on 05/12/2011 at 7:45 pm

    This is so interesting! So much personality and life style of the person can be shown just by these contents.. a life before entering the institute. I know you must be excited with what you have found. Do any of the things every go to nearest relatives? Thank you so much for sharing and I am looking forward to further posts!

  15. Carolyn Placko said, on 06/12/2011 at 12:55 am

    I really love your work with the Willard Suitcases. You provide such fascinating glimpses into the lives of forgotten souls. Thanks so much for sharing.

  16. Theanne L Crossett said, on 06/12/2011 at 1:03 am

    She did hand sewing, had a curling iron and a bottle of expensive perfume…and yet something happened to her and the remainder of her life was spent in a mental institution! Terrifying!

  17. L.S. Stuhler said, on 06/12/2011 at 8:57 am

    As always, I love looking at your wonderful photos! I spoke to a man on Friday who said that his uncle owned a funeral home in Seneca Falls in the 1960s. The funeral homes had to take turns preparing about 20 bodies each, per year, free of charge, for burial. This man was in his teens at the time. His voice and demeanor changed as he was recounting the story of how sad it was going to pick up the bodies from Willard; what a foreboding place it was; and how there was never a family member to be found at the burial. These people were alone. He said they used to hope and pray that the plywood coffin wouldn’t fall apart as it was lowered into the ground; there were no vaults, just a hole in the earth. I can’t get the image out of my head. My great-grandmother was an inmate at Willard who died there in 1928. I am her family and I can’t get her medical records or photographs. It’s a long story but the fact is that the NYS Office of Mental Health is perpetuating the stigma by not releasing patient names and records. They are dehumanizing the very people that they claim to represent.

    • JohnL said, on 06/12/2011 at 12:38 pm

      I would write to Gov Cuomo. Make sure you copy the media. I was off and on the person who was in charge of some of the burial details in the mid 70’s. The pine boxes were a 1/4 thin with a velvet material glued on to the surface. I was only 20 its something that I’ll never forget. I know in the 70’s we were were moving to the PMRS record system. Records going back to even the 20’s were moved to that system by the MHTA’s reading and writing for that record. Those were the clients that were alive at the time. I never considered the clients inmates. It was a tough place to work but the clients were treated with respect and diginity! Not saying there were bad pepole that worked there. They didnt last long working there.

      • L.S. Stuhler said, on 06/12/2011 at 2:05 pm

        Hi John, I have written to both Governors, Senators, you name it, I wrote to them for two years. That is why I wrote the book and started a blog in order to bring national attention to this issue. Hopefully, I’ll sell five books and get the word out. I have been working with a senator who asked to be unnamed at this point while they are drafting a bill. The Legislature meets in January but the whole thing could fall apart. I guess we will have to wait and see.

      • JohnL said, on 06/12/2011 at 7:42 pm

        You have my support. I’ll write Andy!

    • Barbara Swinney said, on 06/12/2011 at 4:16 pm

      How sad…..just to think of these people and their circumstances and what they must have faced while in the institution. It is a shame that the information is not being released. Lots of people today are trying to re-connect with their ancestors and it is not fair to with hold any information such as this from the families. When I first went on this site (recommendation came from my niece by way of facebook), there was another web site that went into the background of several of their patients. I thought I had bookmarked it, but can’t find it right now. If I find it, (or if someone else knows about any other site that might have additional information) I will post it here. It had to do with an display of articles such as the suitcases in a exposition. I am sorry for your not being able to re-connect with your own family history. Finding out about people makes them become more of a special individual to us and it honors their memories and dignity as a human being.

    • Barbara Swinney said, on 06/12/2011 at 4:28 pm

      Hi..Barbara again…Here is one of the sites I found about the institution. There are some links underlined in the article that leads to other information about the forgotten suitcases and some photos of the institution itself. Willard Psychiatric Center – Various Articles I hope you can find this helpful.

  18. JohnL said, on 06/12/2011 at 8:00 pm

    I don’t agree with Darby Penny saying that Willard was built to be the end of the line. That is incorrect. It was built to give better conditions then the Pauper Houses were giving back in the 1860’s. Willard in the early 1900’s was a self efficient community as such. It had its own farm. Many of the clients worked there. The thing that you should key in on is if Darby could find out so much about the people that owned the suitcases…..Well then there should be info on your relative! Hello!

    • L.S. Stuhler said, on 07/12/2011 at 9:24 am

      John, I think you will like my book because it begins at the county poor house. You are correct that it was built because of the deplorable conditions in the poor houses and jails were they kept the “insane” naked, starved, and chained. I met Darby last year, she is an advocate for people who suffer with mental illness. Her book focuses on patient lives, mine on historical documents from the 1800s. I’m not sure how she was able to get permission to view patient medical records but I do know that you have to be approved by the Institutional Review Board. According to the Commissioner of Mental Health, no one has the “right” to their ancestor’s medical record unless it will help with a current diagnoses. I love what Jon is doing; I have all his posts on my “Links” page. For more information on Willard and other state hospitals, visit my blog at: Thanks!

      • johnL said, on 07/12/2011 at 4:42 pm

        She worked at OMH! I was the PEF eboard rep for both CDPC and Central office. I ran a work program that got clients for the community. One of our jobs was to move the library that was at CDPC to another unit. The librarian had the clients throw out books that were titled “Willard Reports” from the 1800’s . I said to him why he said they had more than one! Unbeliveable! Theses books were hard covered and gave a report that even said how many chickens they raised!

  19. Sharon said, on 08/12/2011 at 12:44 am

    Did you read on the perfume website about how first edition 1924 bottles of this perfume where hand blown in a specially designed case. This certainly sounds like and original. It also says they are rare and valuable. Not sure who owns these cases now, but maybe the bottle and the profits it could make could be put to good use. Maybe it could be donated to help people like the ones who ended up at Willard.
    Love your pictures and the facts you post with them. Thanks for sharing.

    • joncrispin said, on 09/12/2011 at 6:58 am

      Sharon, thanks for your comment. Since the bottle is part of the museum collection, it would be very unlikely that it would be sold. It is really beautiful though. Best, Jon

  20. L.S. Stuhler said, on 08/12/2011 at 8:05 am

    John, Please email me at: so that we don’t take up space on Jon’s page. I am very interested in knowing why the OMH is bent on withholding the names, for all eternity, of former psychiatric patients buried in anonymous graves on NYS Hospital property in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To me, this is unconscionable. Thank you!

    • joncrispin said, on 09/12/2011 at 7:02 am

      Lynn and John, just a note on the comments. I am really excited about the dialogue that has started up on these posts. So please don’t feel you have to move to another venue to exchange ideas. I think it a very interesting part of the project that so many people want to share what they think. Best, Jon

      • L.S. Stuhler said, on 09/12/2011 at 9:35 am

        Thank you, Jon. I think what you are doing is fabulous! I think what the NYSOMH is doing is unconscionable, especially considering that Willard opened on October 13, 1869; and considering that there were 15 state hospitals by 1901. Thousands of former patients are buried in anonymous, unmarked graves. Yes, there are people from poor houses, orphanages, etc., that are also buried in anonymous graves but the difference is these graves can be marked; the graves of former patients of long closed insane asylums cannot be marked and their names cannot be disclosed unless a descendant allows the release. Keep in mind that many of these people no longer have living descendants; many were newly arrived immigrants and had no family in the U.S; and many were dumped in these institutions because their families wanted nothing to do with them in the first place. On my blog, there is a pre-written letter to NYS Senators that anyone can print, sign, and mail. You don’t have to be a NYS resident to participate in trying to right a wrong. THANK YOU JON, for allowing me to rant! I can’t wait for the next group of photos! Sincerely, Lin

      • JohnL said, on 09/12/2011 at 9:46 am

        When I was at times in charge of Burial detail in the mid 70″s . I had to go to the main building to get a Glass capsule with the clients name and info that was to be put inside the coffin. It had a cork stopper that was covered with red stuff. That way if they had to dig the remains up there would be some sort of Identification.

  21. merrycricket said, on 08/12/2011 at 9:11 pm

    I love the perfume bottle! It’s such a beautiful shape.

  22. rachelabooth said, on 12/12/2011 at 4:45 pm

    so evocative, it makes you smile, gives you a window into a person’s life but in the same sweeping breath makes you want to weep for mans inhumanity to man – in the name of what was good for them.

  23. Charis said, on 16/12/2011 at 5:55 pm

    Wow this is such a fantastic project. It’s incredible to see what people packed, what they thought they needed. This project made me think of the book White Oleander.. towards the end one of the characters using suitcases in her artwork to build up an image of a stage of her life. This is like an unintentional version.

  24. […] Willard Suitcase #5, Willard Suitcase #6, Willard Suitcase #7, Willard Suitcase #8, Willard Suitcase #9, Willard Suitcase #10, Willard Suitcase #11, Willard Suitcase #12, Willard Suitcase #13, […]

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