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Louise Mirrer

Louise Mirrer

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Reading a Mother's Day Card From 300 Years Ago

Posted: 05/ 6/11 01:15 PM ET

Mother's Day is a time when many of us bring out our keepsakes -- cherished family photos, carefully preserved letters, perhaps a ring or a necklace that's been handed down over the years. These are the tokens we use to construct our personal histories.

But Mother's Day is also a good time to look at other sorts of items -- the kind that allow us to construct the history of a whole society. We can piece together the lives led by many thousands of people, who were much like us and yet very different. And so I've been looking over a keepsake left behind by a Dutch wife and mother in 17th-century New York.

What do we know about Margrieta van Varick? That she kept a textile shop in Flatbush (now Brooklyn); that she died a widow in 1695, before reaching the age of 50; and that she left behind two daughters and two sons. They were Johanna (13), Marinus (nine), Rudolphus (five) and Cornelia (three). She must have cared about them deeply, because we also know exactly what she bequeathed to them.

In addition to setting aside gifts for her children, which she wrapped in a napkin, Margrieta left behind 31 items of clothing or bedding suitable for babies or children, along with clothing and household linens meant for her daughters when they grew older. She directed that her holdings of unusual silk and cotton goods and exceptional silver and porcelain be passed on as heirlooms for future generations. And she ordered that half of her remaining goods be sold to provide funds for her orphaned children. We even know about the toys she carefully distributed among Johanna, Marinus, Rudolphus and Cornelia -- silver toys, which she had guarded for years.

How can we reconstruct so much of the texture of the life of a woman who died more than 300 years ago? How can we understand so precisely what motherhood meant to her? We can do it because the Library of the New-York Historical Society contains a remarkable inventory of her worldly possessions -- more than 2,000 items in all -- drawn up in 1696 so that her will could be fulfilled.

Before she settled in Flatbush with her husband, a Dutch Reformed minister, Margrieta had traveled the world, going as far as Malacca (now Malaysia). The global breadth of the possessions listed in her inventory is amazing. She had a China basin, an East India silver wrought box, Japanese lacquer boxes, thirteen ebony chairs, Indian textiles, cloth made in Holland. The world revealed to us by Margrieta's inventory has already been the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Marybeth De Filippis and an exhibition co-organized by the New-York Historical Society and the Bard Graduate Center.

And now, keeping with the Mother's Day theme, the Historical Society is preparing to use the Inventory to bring history to life for children, by re-creating the world of her youngest child, Cornelia.

In November 2011, the Historical Society will open its new DiMenna Children's History Museum, where young people will see the past through the eyes of seven historical figures -- including little Cornelia van Varick. A chest displayed in Cornelia's section of the main exhibition will show that the homes of New Yorkers in that era often did not have closets, so goods were stored in trunks. The Islamic markings on the chest will suggest that this item may have come from Southeast Asia, where Cornelia's parents had lived. A silver beaker on view will evoke the ministry of Cornelia's father in Brooklyn's Dutch Reformed Church. There will also be games to play in the exhibition. One such activity will involve needlework, to show that if you needed clothes, sheets or napkins in colonial times, you stitched them yourself, by hand. Another activity will be a game that reveals the presence in little Cornelia's life of global trade, in the form of the Spanish pesos, Arabian sultani, Dutch ducats, Massachusetts shillings and even Indian wampum that the child would have seen being used as money in her mother's shop.

As we celebrate Mother's Day 2011, let's be grateful for the mementos we have from our own mothers, and for the love they keep alive. But let's be grateful as well that the life of a 17th-century mother can open up before our imaginations. We can read the inventory of Margrieta van Varick as a matter-of-fact list of old possessions -- or as a kind of Mother's Day card from three hundred years ago.

 
 
 

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