Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Suitcase #10

Posted in Uncategorized, Willard Suitcases by joncrispin on 27/12/2011

This is another of Eleanor G.’s cases.

The way in which the museum wraped these suitcases really resonates with me on this one, and you will see just why as you scroll down to the last picture.

I like the style of this one; nothing special but extremely functional.

The remnants of the tags are always interesting to me.

Eleanor made some of her own clothes, as you might have inferred from the contents of the previous post.

The clothing in this case really got to me.

The fabric had a feel to it that was so much of another time.

And the embroidery work on the collar of this sun dress was so delicate.

I couldn’t figure out why she or someone else wrote her initials on this dress, especially in such a prominent place.

Here is more of her embroidery work.

I love the color of the hat, and would guess that she added the adornment to it herself.

It might be a bit difficult to make out, but the bow on this dress so resembles the way the string is tied on the outside of the wrapped cases that I immediately made a connection between the two.

34 Responses

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  1. Nikki Soppelsa said, on 27/12/2011 at 1:12 pm

    ‘oh I love this’ … I murmured to myself moments ago. I have old suitcases, clothing, hats…I collect and rarely to ever never have a person to connect these things with. I think many of us are sharing a heart with Eleanor as we watch her life unfold here.

  2. sarah said, on 27/12/2011 at 1:20 pm

    What an amazing installment! I too wonder why Eleanor or someone else wrote on such a lovely dress — unless she wanted to add a monogram at a time when she had no supplies for embroidery?

    Speaking of which, those collars are not actually embroidered, they’re crocheted or possibly tatted — I can’t do either so I’m not great at telling the difference. Lovely work though.

    • joncrispin said, on 27/12/2011 at 1:23 pm

      Sarah, Thank you so much for clarifying about the process of the crochet work. (I also love the word tat.) This is one reason why I love being able to post these photographs online. It is great to get feedback on things that I know so little about. Best, Jon

    • Lady Ashmire said, on 12/09/2012 at 10:32 am

      Or simply did not get a chance to finish the embroidery? It usually is done over either pencilled or transferred lines. Mind you, perhaps writing on the dress was a sign of a not-quite-clear mind—she did go into a mental hospital, after all.

  3. John Efroymson said, on 27/12/2011 at 1:40 pm

    I am trying to choose my favorite of these photos, and although each one has its grace, for me they really work best as a whole story. Thanks for continuing to share. It’s been such a joy watching your project progress in both images and in monetary contributions to the work. Here’s wishing for continued success into the coming year.
    Maybe we can celebrate at Turkey Club one day.
    John E

  4. Jennifer said, on 27/12/2011 at 2:25 pm

    What time & care put into the clothing! It’s a shame there are no pictures to go with the artifacts…still so telling & poignant.
    A prior roommate’s friend used to & explore (trespass) the former Danvers State Hospital, in Danvers, MA.(now condos). It had been a gorgeous Gothic like structure, notorious for the stories of patient care/life (both good & bad) & history. Roommates friend happened upon many old letters, scattered about in a decaying room. He figured they would get destroyed by the elements, so he brought a bunch home. Upon inspection, he discovered they were letters from former patients families…the letters had photos of the patients & reasons why the families wanted their loved ones commited. I never got to see the letters & understand that client confidentiality was broached, however..what fascinating history those letters must have held!

  5. Theanne said, on 27/12/2011 at 2:46 pm

    Would you know if any of these items of clothing were used after the patient was admitted? Or were the suitcase(s) packed and brought and never opened again? I’ve wondered why the suitcases were brought at all, some of the items in them would never have been allowed a psychiatric patient. I’m curious about the contents and at the same time very saddened by them. A life reduced to the contents of small suitcases…and the fact that the suitcases are still available means the person never went home to live again. A mind muddled a life muddled…and for us to know anything about these people we look at the contents of their suitcases!
    Excellent photos…when I was a child my family had a suitcase like Eleanor’s…it had a very distinctive smell which I can still recall!

  6. Ellen said, on 27/12/2011 at 4:36 pm

    Adding to what Theanne wrote: I, too, have very often wondered if patients were able to have their possessions once they were admitted. The written initials, if so, might have been a crude way of identifying that graceful item of clothing as belonging to Eleanor, like a name tag. Maybe she wrote them herself, boldly – “This is me, this is mine, I made this for myself.” How very few indicia of identity these patients must have had, or means of holding onto what was theirs – both literally and metaphorically. These photos in particular pull at the heart.

    • joncrispin said, on 27/12/2011 at 6:29 pm

      Theanne and Ellen, as I have mentioned in some previous threads, I am quite sure the residents at Willard did indeed have access to their things while there. The institution was so different prior to the 1960s; it was a working farm, residents made clothing and shoes and was it basically a self contained community. Much more research will be done on this before the project is completed and I hope to have some solid answers to this and other questions. Thanks for your interest and support. Jon

      • Theanne said, on 30/12/2011 at 10:49 pm

        I like that the residents lived where there was a working farm…hope all or some were able to work on this farm. Being outdoors with nature can be very healing!

      • L.S. Stuhler said, on 20/01/2012 at 6:07 pm

        Hi Theanne, By 1900, half of all residents worked and not because they wanted to. It was unpaid labor and the state reaped the benefits. They made their own clothes, shoes, underwear, mattresses, aprons; fixed and repaired the grounds and buildings; dug the ditches in the cemetery, etc. By the early 1970s, forcing patients to work fell out of favor. Within 20 years, the state hospitals closed because of the enormous expense of keeping them running without unpaid labor.

  7. Dan said, on 27/12/2011 at 6:18 pm

    Initialing clothing and personal items to this day is a wise move in hospitals and nursing homes. Clothing and various items are routinely stolen and/or misplaced by tenants and staff alike. Many who have had relatives at these facilities can testify to this.

  8. Myrna Rowe Uhlig said, on 27/12/2011 at 8:55 pm

    One thing about the sundress collar is that it is not only crocheted, but also embroidered. The embroidery, done over the crochet, is rather crude. I don’t want to be cruel, so please don’t take this as such, but, to my mind, the fact that the colors of the flowers and the borders from one side to the other don’t match (and that the work on the left seems a bit finer than that on the right) might speak to her mental capacity. Of course, there could be many other reasons for this.

    Crocheted collars of this type were available to purchase to add to handsewn clothing (and may still be), so it’s possible she didn’t actually do the crochet herself, but the dress does definitely appear to be handmade (and handsewn, not by machine) of at least two different fabrics. They possibly started out as the same shade of white, but one yellowed more than the other with age.

    I agree with Dan about the initials being used to keep her clothes coming back to her from the laundry and not to anyone else. My mom worked at homes for developmentally fragile children, and all clothing was prominently marked.

    Thanks for another fascinating view of Eleanor’s life. Do you know if there are any ideas/plans to further research the people who owned these suitcases?

    • joncrispin said, on 27/12/2011 at 9:00 pm

      Myrna, I too was interested in the color variation in the collar. I thought it might be that she was trying to make some kind of statement, but that was just a guess.

  9. Desiree said, on 28/12/2011 at 5:26 am

    Oh Jon this suitcase is a favourite for me. I get to see Eleanor’s fabrics up close. I agree with Sarah that perhaps she wanted to embroider her initials on her dress but didn’t have supplies, but as Dan said, initialling clothing is routine and still done in nursing homes. I would have thought that if Eleanor had penned her initials herself, she would have done so in a less obvious place as she had so much pride in her appearance. Thanks so much for your continued hard work Jon:)

  10. Sandy said, on 28/12/2011 at 12:15 pm

    This is amazing!! Wow! I would love to be you and have the opportunity to photography what is left of someone’s life. I am big into antiques and feel that each item tells such a story. I love to sit and think about the person who may have owned something…the time period they lived in, what their lives might have been like. It’s so amazing! I am glad someone feels that same way about these people and their belongings. I am glad you are doing this…I have told me mom that I often feel like I have to “single-handedly preserve history and the people who lived it”…so I am glad someone is out there helping me out!

  11. Laurel Cartwright said, on 28/12/2011 at 7:29 pm

    I have been following your work for about a month, and I want to thank you. I struggle every day with slowing time enough to focus on the small, the simple, the minor. The fragments that comprise life. Your posts make it simple for me to do that — to pause. To see. Thank you.

  12. Sue said, on 31/12/2011 at 6:28 pm

    The similarities in how the bows were tied could be attributed to the museum staff. The contents of the suitcase would have been accessioned and inspected for condition before being placed in the acid free paper. It is possible that staff member tied or retied the dress, placed the contents inside the suitcase and then wrapped the suitcase and then tied the cotton ties. As a former museum registrar in a small county museum, I would have performed those tasks.

  13. Nicole said, on 01/01/2012 at 6:30 pm

    Hi Jon,

    I found your work through the Peach Farm Studio Blog. I love the work you are doing and I have a book about Willard that I’ve found fascinating. I share your interest in the institutions of the past and I have been fascinated by Kirkbride buildings for a long while. I’d love to see more of your work and I’ll be following your blog from now on. If you have any time, I’d enjoy talking with you about your experiences with the cases. Thanks for doing what you’re doing.


    • L.S. Stuhler said, on 20/01/2012 at 5:56 pm

      Hi Nicole, Willard was not a Kirkbride building. It consisted of a main building with 4 separate groups of cottages, and the old state agricultural college building known as The Branch. You should go on the tour in May. The main building no longer stands but The Branch and one of the “cottage” groups remains.

      • headcasepress said, on 20/01/2012 at 6:17 pm

        Hi L.S. I did know that Willard wasn’t a Kirkbride, but all of these beautiful buildings being destroyed are interesting to me. I’m especially fascinated in Kirkbride though. I’d love to go on the tour, that would be amazing, I didn’t know such a thing existed! If I can make my way there I will. Is it something that needs to be reserved? Is there a website I can look at? Thanks so much.


      • L.S. Stuhler said, on 19/03/2012 at 5:47 pm

        Hi Nicole, The main building was torn down around 1995 but a couple of the really old buildings are still standing. I think that the open house is the second weekend in May, $10.00 per person. If and when I find out for sure, I will let you know. I have pictures on my blog of Willard and other NYS hospitals at:

        I know that Jon also has pictures of Willard before it was torn down. Have a great day! -Lin

      • headcasepress said, on 24/03/2012 at 12:13 pm

        Thanks so much for the info!

    • L.S. Stuhler said, on 06/05/2012 at 8:41 am

      Nicole, Willard Open House is May 19, 2012; $10.00 per person. Here is the link:

      • headcasepress said, on 06/05/2012 at 7:32 pm

        Thanks so much for letting me know Jon! Is there anywhere to buy your prints?

      • L.S. Stuhler said, on 06/05/2012 at 8:08 pm

        This isn’t Jon.

      • Nicole said, on 06/05/2012 at 8:25 pm

        OH!! So sorry! I didn’t notice that when it came through my e-mail. Thanks Lin! I’m excited to check it out!

      • joncrispin said, on 07/05/2012 at 9:48 am

        Thanks for asking headcacepress. I will have something set up soon. In what size are you interested? I am starting to get feelers about this and am not sure where to start. Jon

  14. Barbara Henry said, on 02/01/2012 at 3:03 am

    Like Jennifer, above, I too thought at first, “It’s a shame there are no pictures to go with the artifacts.” And then I realized that these are the pictures. Your pictures are the pictures of these people from so long ago, whom we can see and know a little bit through your beautiful work.

    • joncrispin said, on 02/01/2012 at 8:36 pm

      Barbara, you totally got what I am trying to do with this project, and you put it into words better than I ever could. Thanks, Jon

  15. […] Willard Suitcase #6, Willard Suitcase #7, Willard Suitcase #8, Willard Suitcase #9, Willard Suitcase #10, Willard Suitcase #11, Willard Suitcase #12, Willard Suitcase #13, Willard Suitcase #14, […]

  16. Mary said, on 11/06/2013 at 3:12 pm

    How very fascinating. Yes the handwork is crochet. To be exact it is called thread crochet and is done with tiny thread and super slender steel crochet needles. It really is a lost art that used to adorn everything from clothing, curtains, to the edge of kitchen or linen closet shelves. When the stitches form a picture, like it does with the flowered collar, it is called fillet crochet.

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