Sometimes it’s an unexpected glimpse of times past that I really enjoy about my job here at Gloucestershire Archives. I had such a moment recently, with a discovery that came my way.
Part of my role as Collections Care Conservator is to protect the collection against damage from insect pests. Our eagle-eyed staff and volunteers are super-vigilant about spotting any possible signs of infestation. One of our volunteers was emptying out an old box when she spotted what she thought was frass (i.e. insect poop) and so brought the box to my attention.
The gritty residue she found was indeed from insect activity, likely from larvae feasting on the old animal glue used in the construction of the box. Close examination of the box showed that happily, the poop was old and there was no sign of current pest activity. That question answered, I became curious about the box itself.
It was very worn and damaged, but I thought that when new, it must have been a very attractive object. It was made of wood, covered in dark leather on the outside and colourful marbled paper on the inside. It had fine brass hardware on it, including a beautiful carrying handle on the top. And on the bottom was pasted a maker’s label.
As you can see from the photograph, some of the label is worn away so parts of the text are missing but what remains reads:
Trunk and Portmanteau Maker
No. 5, CHEAP[……]
Respectfully informs the Pu[blic that] she makes all kinds of strong
LEATHER [……] TRUNKS,
Leather Portmanteaus [….] for Carriages
Being the ONLY Maker in Bath, she flatters herself she is enabled to render
them on lower terms than any other Shop, and can warrant them made of the
Best Materials, and well executed.
Given the appearance of the box and the papers used in its construction, I believe that it could date from the time of Jane Austen’s association with the town of Bath. Does the address refer to Number 5 Cheap Street, just around the corner from No. 7 Trim Street, where Austen lived in 1806? Did Austen ever speak to the proud lady businesswoman? Ever purchase one of her products, similar to this elegant box? How did the lady come to own and run this business? Did she take over from her husband following the husband’s death, as we see in other businesses in the eighteenth and nineteenth century? Does the “COU…” stand for Cousins? Coutts? Coulson?
And how might the lady businesswoman have felt, had anyone been able to tell her that in 2017 (the year when Jane Austen’s face and words are gracing the new £5 note) her “strong” box “made of the best materials” was still doing its job, keeping its contents safe so we can study them and learn about the past?