Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Antiques and Family History: Ornaments/Vases

All in a Vase

 [This article first appeared in the now obsolete Practical Family History 2008]

Our family history is all around us – present even in the innocent-looking objects that stand on our fireplaces and windowsills. Vases and picture frames, mirrors and jewellery boxes can certainly be the silent repositories of all sorts of information about the lives of our ancestors. As the nineteenth-century poet John Keats wrote of a  Grecian urn.‘When old age shall this generation waste/ Thou shalt remain.’ But how can we get these ‘foster-children of silence’ (as Keats described them) to tell their tales?

Objects that look somehow incongruous in your family home – too exotic, too expensive, or too unattractive, perhaps, to be examples of the normal taste of your ancestors - really should be investigated. Items that prompt mystifying remarks or odd memories from the older generation might be the ones that first send you rushing to the library, or diving into the internet to see if you can find out more. The tangible presence of a vase or ornament may lead you on to more traditional family history sources such as censuses, certificates or passenger lists, and to the information you are looking for.  

Two ornaments have been passed down through the family from my great-grandparents, Mary Wilkinson (1867-1939) and George Wilkinson (1867- 1939). It was always made clear to me as a child that though this couple were married for more than 40 years, one of these ornaments was associated very firmly with her and one with him. The first is a white bisque ornament portraying two figures playing a guitar – this I was told - belonged to Mary. The other is a tall black vase which, when held to the light, sparkles with colour as if it is covered in petrol or treacle. This, by all accounts, was George’s.

As both Mary and George died long before I was born, the ornaments have somehow come to stand in for the two of them in my imagination. The family story has it that George was not kind to Mary and that he left her on several occasions with five children to bring up whilst he travelled to America to satisfy his wanderlust. The figurine is gentle, full of soft curves, and pleasing to the eye – and I can believe that my great-grandmother too was soft and vulnerable, generous to a fault. The black vase on the other hand seems mysterious, opaque, and difficult to understand – the very embodiment of the unpredictable George. But these, of course, are just the wanderings of my imagination. What is more to the point is that neither of these objects seemed to be typical acquisitions of a working-class Lancashire family. My great-grandmother, as far as I knew, had worked in a cotton factory before her marriage and my great-grandfather was a miner. How then, I wondered did they come to have two such unusual, and potentially valuable items on their mantelpiece?

Vase 1 The Bisque Figurine

Whilst visiting a distant relation a few years ago I was astounded to see an ornament, very similar to my own, on her shelf. When I asked her where it came from, she said that the two ornaments were a pair. Originally, they had stood side by side on her grandmother’s (my great-grandmother’s) sideboard, but, on her death, one had found its way to my side of the family and the other to hers.  Then she presented me with that crucial clue. Our mutual ancestor – Mary Wilkinson -  had, she believed, been given the ornaments when she left her job ‘in service.’

This tale inspired me to check the certificates and censuses relating to my great-grandmother’s life again. Her birth certificate (1867) told me that she was the daughter of a small-time farmer, Richard Knowles, in Westhoughton near Bolton, Lancashire. But, according to the 1881 census, she started out in the world of work, not on her father’s four acres, but as a ‘knotter in a cotton factory.’ At this point, she was just fourteen. Twenty years later, in 1901, she is simply described as the wife of George Wilkinson. It was then that I realised that I had no information on Mary from the 1891 census which was taken just a few weeks before she married.

After a search online for Mary under her maiden name (Knowles) and her age (24), I was surprised to find that  - though still unmarried –  she was no longer living at her father’s address. Rather, she was living at the rather grandly named ‘Laburnum Villa’, Pilkington Street, Hindley, Wigan. This was a far more elegant abode than I had expected. It appeared that my great-grandmother had left the mill and was now working as a ‘general servant’ and living in the home of a family named Lowe -  Thomas (63) – a retired grocer -, his wife Ellen (63), and their two grandchildren Ellen (13) and John  (11)).


Thomas Lowe, my great-grandmother’s employer was a retired grocer – somewhat higher up the social scale than Mary. To be able to employ her, he probably had an annual income of something between £150 and £300. Had he been a professional man, earning up to £1,000 a year, he would have had at least three servants each with specialist tasks. As it was, Mary probably took on the duties of housemaid, parlourmaid, nursemaid, kitchenmaid, cook and laundrymaid. She was in good company. By the 1880s, around a third of all young women between the ages of 15 and 21 in Britain were likely to be in service. This corresponded with a sharp rise in the numbers of families able to afford resident domestic staff. A majority of three fifths of all servants were employed, like Mary, not as part of large retinues in big stately homes, but as ‘maids-of-all work’ in the homes of small tradesmen such as drapers, plumbers, and coal merchants.

The Lowes could well afford a couple of ornaments such as those now in the possession of myself and my distant cousin. It is more than likely that Mary continued to help out at Laburnum Villa after her marriage – particularly if – as legend has it – husband George was often away. Such piecemeal work by women often went unrecorded on censuses. Perhaps the ornaments were originally possessions of the Lowe family and came to Mary at the death of the older generation as a reward for all her hard work. They certainly seem more in keeping with the ambience of a house named ‘Laburnum Villa’ than with Mary’s own small terrace.

Vase 2 Carnival Glass

George Wilkinson’s vase presents a rather more exciting story.  As a child, I would hold this up to the light and observe how its rainbow sheen shimmered in much the same way that petrol does on the surface of water. I remember being told that this vase was made of something called ‘carnival glass.’ The term set my imagination alight. My great-grandfather, I was told, had travelled to America in the early years of the twentieth century. I wondered whether he had won the vase at a fair and brought it home in his knapsack for his wife, Mary.

The idea that the carnival glass vase might have come from the United States started me on a search to find out whether my great-grandfather actually did make a trip across the Atlantic. I set about investigating the online passenger lists available at http// and  http// and searched for men named George Wilkinson sailing from Liverpool to New York in the period that I had guessed he had travelled (i.e. the five years after his youngest child was born in 1904). To my delight, I quite quickly discovered a man of that name who travelled to America on a ship called the ‘Lucania’ in January 1909. The address he gave on the passenger list - Argyl Street, Hindley -  confirmed that I had the right man. 

Transatlantic passenger lists are fascinating genealogical resources. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more and more information was being required of passengers year by year. As I ran my eyes across the various columns of the Lucania’s passenger list, a picture of George Wilkinson started to emerge. I learned his height and weight, the colour of his eyes and the fact that he had a crooked jaw, for example, but more importantly, I discovered - from a quick scrawl in the hand of the shipping official - his destination in America: ‘Wash. Roslyn’. An internet search for Roslyn (at,Washington) showed it to be a remote mining town in Washington State on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains.

I realised that George must have been was what is known as a ‘bird of passage.’ He was one of more than 20 million immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1920 (the period before the Johnson -Reed Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed into the country). The passenger list suggests that he did not have a firm offer of work in America, but he most certainly expected to get it. Roslyn was a coalmining town founded in 1886 by the Northern Pacific Company (a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad) to support the building of the American railroad. The mining provided coal for engines fuelling up for the trip across the Cascade Mountains. After a strike by white American miners in 1888, the Roslyn mines recruited black miners from the east to replace them, and in the early twentieth century, miners from all over Europe came to work in Roslyn. Men like George were a crucial part of the U.S. economy.  

So George had indeed been in America. He had not gone as some hair-brained adventurer, however, but as a hardworking miner. An internet search for ‘carnival glass’ (at gave me some scientific terms for describing George’s vase. It is, in fact, made from a pressed glass that has had an iridised surface treatment. Such glass, initially known as ‘Iridill’, ‘Rubi-glass,’ or ‘dope-glass,’ was first produced on a large scale by the Fenton Art Glass Company, of Williamstown, West Virginia, but was later made by several other companies across America. My  ornament is a ‘swung vase’ made by forming the vase in a small mould of 4-5 inches high and then swinging the molten glass piece around to stretch it, often to over 20 inches.

I contacted the archivist at Ellensburg Public Library in Washington by email and mentioned my great-grandfather’s vase to him. He said that carnival glass was very popular in America between 1908 and 1918 – exactly the time period when George Wilkinson would have been there. More importantly, the archivist answered my one pressing question about how George had come to own the vase. Rather than winning it at the fair, he would probably have purchased the vase at a general store in Roslyn. Despite its remote location, such a shop would have carried glass souvenir items. It is local historical information like this – only to be acquired by actually asking an expert, that really makes family history come alive.

Vases of Value

It’s important to think twice before consigning ‘ugly’ family ornaments to a car boot sale or re-purposing them. In addition to the leads they might provide about your family history, these items may have real value. This year, a family in the West Country took a decorated porcelain vase -  brought back from the Far East by  their great-grandfather  - to be valued at the Dorchester Auction House. The item turned out to be around 250 years old and was from the reign of Chinese Emperor Quianlong (1735-1796). In good condition, this vase would have been worth somewhere in the region of  £250,000 (the price boosted by today’s strong Chinese economy). How annoyed with themselves that family must have felt when they realised that the hole they had bored into the foot of the vase (in order to turn it into a table lamp) had reduced its value to about £20,000!

So next time you are arranging a bunch of flowers in that strange old vase, or standing your umbrella in that grotesque stand in the hall, do pause to ask yourself how these objects came to be in your possession. And ask as many questions as possible of the older generation about inherited heirlooms - especially where the objects seem to be out of place with other details of your family history. It might just be that a throwaway comment will lead you on from the porcelain or glass to other avenues of research and that they, in turn, will provide you with those all-important names and dates for your family tree.  

Useful books

Kathleen Cole, Head Vases:Identifications and Values, Collectors Books, 2nd edition, 2006

Judith Miller, Antiques Detective: Tips and Tricks to Make You the Expert, Dorling Kindersley, 2007

Judith Miller, The Antiques Roadshow A-Z of Antiques and Collectibles, Dorling Kindersley, 2008-12-15

Peter Philip and Gillian Walking,  Antique Furniture Expert: How You Can Identify, Date and Authenticate, Tiger Books, 1995

Useful Websites Information about carnival glass. If you are interested in appearing in one of the BBC’s antiques programmes eg Cash in The Attic, The Antiques Roadshow, Bargain Hunt, or Flog It. Antique dealers and customers online market place  Passenger lists for those sailing from England to America can be viewed here Passenger Lists for those sailing from England to America can be viewed here.

Keywords: family history, European ancestors, America, emigration, ornaments, vases, antiques

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