Monday, March 18, 2013

Shadow of the Willard Suitcase Project

Hey Guys and Dolls, Cats and Kittens,  all you vintage lovers out there....  Have I got a wonderful thing to share with you!   I came across a blog by photographer Jon Crispin who hails from western Massachusetts, who over the past few years did a series called "The Willard Suitcases."

Willard Suitcases - scroll down for more
The Willard Asylum for the Insane was a facility outside Ithaca NY that was closed down in 1995. It had operated since the 1860's. In the attic of one of the buildings were found hundreds of suitcases that had belonged to past residents who had been admitted to the hospital from around 1920 to 1960's.      A few of the suitcases were found to be empty, which is a little hopeful in that the person might have collected their belongings and moved on to better things. The majority of the cases however held the possessions of people who spent their lives at Willard and died there.  

Rather than be destroyed,  the suitcases were turned over to the New York State Museum where they were on exhibit for a few years ("The Lives they Left Behind").   Jon Crispin (aforementioned photographer)  undertook the project of photographing the different suitcases in a way preserving and giving honor to many of the people that lived there.

I spent several hours pouring over Jon's site, taking in the pictures, reading comments, and following up links to other sites and looking up various information on the Willard Asylum itself.    On the information I found about the Asylum, I was left with feelings of despair.  It seems that after passing, many of the residents were buried in a large 'cemetery'  where the graves were not marked, kept track of, nor were the grounds particularly cared for.   The graves were dug by many of the patients themselves as part of their work program.     Some of the bio's I found for the residents made me think that they were less insane and more misunderstood, or just had no place else to go.   In some cases, their mental issues seemed to be actually brought on by the treatments (electro-shock, medicines, etc) they were given. Of course it is easy to judge another time with a modern eye, and the best lesson we can take from the past is to improve the future

In stark contrast to the anonymity of many of the residents deaths, and what was most probably a cold and institutional existence on a daily basis, Jon is able to bring a certain warmth and dignity to the patients' lives through the possessions of theirs he photographs.  

 I have copied some of them below,  I was particularly intrigued by how many of the patients were sewers or craftspeople to some degree.    I have included links to Jon Crispin's blog where you can see more of his beautiful photographs of the suitcases and their contents,  as well as photos of the Asylum he did as part of an abandoned buildings project.

These first two cases belonged to a lady named Anna G. There was no mention of her date of entry, but some close-ups of the contents show a postmarked letter dated 1950, so one would assume sometime thereafter.  The clothes look to be circa 1940's, and due to the numerous items and quality of them,  I would think Anna probably was from a well to do background.   In reading some of the  

different bios of the patients,  it seemed like there was a good mix of people from wealthy and poorer backgrounds.

 I absolutely love these pieces!  Hard to tell if these beaded accessories are belts or perhaps fancy headpieces.  And the shoes (picture below)  are so lovely and unique!  They remind me of a fairytale I used to love as a kid "The twelve dancing princesses"   where each day 12 sisters had pairs of shoes made for them, and each night they snuck away and danced 'til dawn and the shoes were worn down.   I wonder if Anna might have been a socialite dancing til dawn herself?

These next cases belonged to Eleanor G.

Jon has carefully shot not only the contents, but also the cases, the tags, (of which he has a special affinity) and the wrapped packages as sent from the NY State Museum wrapped in archival paper and tied with cotton ribbon.  The whole series has almost an other-worldly feel, the way parcels used to be wrapped and carried.  (Brown paper packages tied up with string..these are a few of my favorite things)

  Eleanor G. was apparently a sewer. Many of the contents of her several cases were things like patterns, thread, & other sewing notions.  There was one case with several handmade dresses in it. The clothes are very beautiful, and the embroidered collars a lovely touch.   A date book among the contents is circa 1935, and some of the letters are postmarked '37, so we can assume Eleanor was probably admitted                    
 sometime in the late thirties or early forties.  Note the card depicting the girl picking flowers titled "To My Sister" So precious!

 Some close-ups of the items and the handcrafted work.

More of the sewing stuff from (another) of her cases, along with a period curling iron.  Note the perfume bottle - Jon has a link on his blog to a re-release from the original company "Isabey"  The site lists the original perfume to have been available in 1925.    

Also note the sewing pattern circa early 1930's.  I tried to find the exact pattern number, but alas was unable to.    I did find an awesome flickr stream for McCall's patterns in the thirties though.    (It seems that in the early 30's McCall's had that format of showing the colored drawings to the one side on the front, and the b&w line drawings to the other side. the later patterns from this decade have a more 'modern' format a little closer to what we see today)

The next few pictures are of a suitcase belonging to Mary. She, too, was a sewer. This is a beautiful trunk that had a few levels to it.  There is the close-up of the hooks 'n' eyes, ribbons and other bits of stuff.  Also, check out the beautiful perfume bottle that was in Mary's case (last picture down)

There was some discussion on his site as to whether the patients had access to their effects while they were there.   From what I gather, and this has not been confirmed,  that yes they did, which could explain why some of the case were empty.   It was suggested by another reader that because it was a 'mental health' hospital, they might have rules as to what the patients could keep with them (i.e. nothing they could potentially harm themselves with, like sharp objects).
One other thought was that reading some of the bios,  the patients showed up with many boxes/suitcase full of all their worldly belongings, and depending on the living arrangements, may just not have had space to accommodate everything they brought with them.


This case belonged to Freda.  It seems like this came with a full out ladies grooming-vanity set with mirror, brush, nailbrush and a few other accessories.  There was no admittance date mentioned, but a book that was in the case I googled the title for and found to be originally printed pre-1923.  The vanity set looks to me to be Art Deco, which might place it a little later?    You simply cannot find anything made today that has quite the beauty that these items do.

This last case here belonged to Mary. Her admittance date was 1968, a later piece  in the collection.  Here are a few clothes that look handmade, several bits of lace trim, and also there was a set of bath towels.  

 Please, please have a look at Jon's blog and see firsthand the beautiful photographs he took.   There is mention of a book coming out at some point too.
Special thanks to him for allowing me to use some of his photographs to illustrate the sewing/vintage clothing aspects for my blog.

Here are a couple other interesting sites if you want to find out more about Willard Asylum, and the suitcases:
Treasures of the Tier
Inmates of Willard: A Geaneological resource
The lives they left behind

Have a lovely weekend!

1 comment:

  1. Yours is the best presentation of the suitcase project that I have seen. Thank you.