Old House attic

I can’t recall the term “recycling” being used prior to the early 1970s. That’s when community programs began to separate glass, metal and plastic containers from other types of trash so that the materials could remain useful by being made into something else.

Recycling might’ve been a newly coined word at the time, but the concept itself was certainly far from new — especially if you grew up in a Pennsylvania Dutch area. In our part of the world, we’ve been “recycling” items for centuries. “Waste not, want not” is more than just an adage — it’s a way of life that has extended into many activities.

Take our farmhouse’s attic for example. Through the years, the door at the top of our attic steps has been painted to match the surrounding wallpaper and trim on its outside, but the inside of that door doesn’t match anything. In fact, it’s easy to tell from the attic door’s inside that it was once part of something much grander than a storage space. It has an attractive, mottled finish which I eventually learned is an old art form known as faux-graining, intended to give the appearance of expensive wood grain on a surface made out of cheaper lumber.

It always seemed odd to me that the prettier side of the door faced an area rarely seen. I also noted two little wooden knobs located toward the top of the door’s inner surface that appeared to serve no obvious purpose.

One day, while sifting through some old linens stored in a chest in the attic by a long-gone relative, I discovered a beautiful piece of embroidery that displayed different stitches in colorful folk-art patterns. I assumed it was a sampler, since embroidered into it was the name “Anny Gingrick.” She was my great-grandmother, Nancy Gingrich Bowman, who was born in July 1857, when the common nickname for Nancy was “Anna” or “Anny.”

Although I first exhibited this little treasure as a runner on the cherry gateleg table in our living room, my further research indicated that this piece was a “show towel.” The clue that gave it away was the two little loops on either side of the top of this piece. Guess what? They were exactly the proper width to fit onto those wooden knobs on the inside of the attic door. The towel was also just the perfect length to hang up without touching the floor.

I further learned that show towels were basically samplers with a purpose. They were made to show off a young lady’s needlework skills. The “towel” — which is actually made from several linen towels stitched end to end — would then be hung on the pegs of an interior door in a room where company would be entertained. That allowed visitors to see the quality of the embroidery, and theoretically served to demonstrate a woman’s homemaking abilities to prospective husbands.

Apparently, Anny’s talents must’ve impressed a young man named J. Alfred Bowman, born in August 1854, who lived not too far from the Gingrich family’s farm, because they married in September 1876. He became my great-grandfather and my father’s namesake.

But, going back to the recycled attic door, our farmhouse’s main section was built by the Kreider family in the mid-1800s. Anny Gingrich grew up on a farm in South Annville Township, across the county from our farm. Thus, it is virtually impossible that Anny Gingrich’s show towel would ever have hung on what is now the attic door in our house, prior to my discovering it fit the knobs on said door. This leads me to believe that show towels of that era were of a particular width and the pegs were thus spaced a pre-determined distance apart on doors of a certain era.

But wait — there’s more to this recycling tale. A second attic door not only appears to have been recycled from elsewhere, but it is also located in an obviously recycled wooden wall. That wall divides the main attic from the “back attic” in our farmhouse’s north wing, which we believe to be the older, original section of the house.

The wooden wall is painted a vintage shade of dark green and has holes drilled in it, some sporting wooden pegs, indicating that it once served a different purpose elsewhere. The door itself is painted a delicious shade of oxblood red on the one side, but has lovely faux graining on the other side. The red side has a painted black strip about 6 inches wide along the bottom, which apparently matched up with a baseboard in its original location. Attached to the door is what looks like a hand-wrought “pistol-style” latch and catch. Oddly, the faux-grained side of the door doesn’t have any show towel knobs, but rather, there are two widely spaced knobs near the top on the red side of the door. Perhaps those knobs were for wider show towels, or another purpose altogether.

I love old houses and their mysteries. I would love to know from whence these two recycled doors — which are the only six-paneled doors in a house of four-paneled doors — and the green wall originated and how they came to be installed in our attic. If only houses could speak and tell us their tales.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.

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