Friday, March 24, 2017

Sepia Saturday: Sign of Summer

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.

My mother never drilled a dive bomber like the woman in this week’s Sepia Saturday photo challenge. However, she was known to wrap up her hair similarly from time to time, especially at the beach to control that thick hair of hers.
Mary Eleanor Davis Slade and friends about 1948
My mother on the left
at Virginia Beach probably about 1948

And she owned a drill. Yes, a drill, as well as a belt sander, jig saw, and a host of smaller tools like screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, chisels, saws, and hammers.

These tools were HERS, not my dad’s. Daddy was NOT “Mr. Fixit”; Momma was. She could even repair the fill valve in the back of the toilet. But most often Momma used her tools for refinishing furniture, one of her many creative outlets.

Our neighbor once said, “It wasn’t officially summer until the garage door was open, old furniture was in the driveway, and Mary E. was in her white work shorts.” Those shorts were so covered in paint and wood stain that they probably could have stood on their own. They were legend. Too bad we have no picture.

In the 1970s and 80s, antiques were very popular but very expensive. On weekends Momma, my sister, and I scoured many a thrift store and antique shop in search of a bargain. Trunks and wash stands were high on our list, and we found quite a few treasures.
Leo Slade and trunk 1974
Uncle Leo loved the trunk my mother refinished for him in 1974
(Note the new leather handles and metal caps)

Over the course of several years just about everyone in the family received a trunk which Momma had refinished and lined with fabric. Sometimes she had to replace runners or wheels; often she had to patch bad spots with wood filler. She even had to craft new covers for the leather straps which she had cut at a local horse tack shop. Where else could you get strips of leather back then?

Momma gave Barry and me a trunk the first Christmas we were married. In the trunk she placed a complete 7-piece Victorian wash set, another antique store find. Can you identify the pieces? The pitcher was for water; the bowl or basin was for washing face and hands; the smaller pitcher was for hot water; the small bowl with lid held a cake of soap; a shaving mug; a toothbrush holder; and a chamber pot.
Trunk and Victorian wash set 1973
The background of the fabric looks red
but it is blue

Trunk 1973

Wash stands were a favorite item to grab and redo. Momma gave new life to an array of stands from the primitive to the more refined, although none with marble tops as those were too expensive.

Wash stand
This simple wash stand works as a tv stand in our den.

Wash stand
This fancier wash stand is in the dining room
holding serving pieces and junk.
Wash stand
This one is in a guest room.
It has certainly paid for itself!
The one that is currently in one of our guest rooms was in pieces when she found it. The top was separated from the rest and the doors were stacked inside. The towel rack was in pieces as well, and the rod for holding a towel was missing. The cost - $4. Since this project required quite a bit of gluing, Momma went to Sears to buy some clamps. The clerk was surprised that a woman was clamping anything. He obviously had not met my mother!

Whatever we bought was always “a deal,” but our smartest purchase was a china press. In the 1970s and 80s, china presses were highly desirable with a price tag to match, so we never hoped to find one we could afford. The stars aligned that day when Momma and my sister walked into a thrift shop in search of a small bookcase. With her eagle eye Momma spied something that looked like a china press. It was black with coal dust, so she could not tell what the wood was, or even what condition it was in. But it had claw feet, a good sign. The owner of the shop had no idea what he had, so he phoned a friend who was in the antiques business. Since he could not see it to determine its value, the friend suggested he sell it for at least $100. SOLD!

China Press
When I inherited my mother's china press,
I moved my dishes and crystal into that one.
Now my $100 bargain holds my girls'
doll collections.
Momma was prepared to pay $250 without even knowing what she had. It turned out to be a steal!

We had feared it was some kind of cheap veneer with cardboard shelves, but it is beautiful oak, and the oak shelves are both substantial and in perfect condition, no warping or cracks. The curved glass is original.

Oh, how clearly I remember those summer days as Momma’s assistant, both of us in rubber gloves with putty knives, a wire brush, and paint remover scraping through layers of paint to find that beautiful oak or poplar. My clearest memory, though, is that flicks of paint and chemicals STING, my friend.

Please visit Sepia Saturday for more riveting stories and photos.

© 2017, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.


  1. So fascinating to read! Looked like she was good at what she did!


  2. What a clever lady and beautiful pieces to treasure.

  3. Whst a talented mother you had. Your post reminded me that my father, too, was no DIY man and it was Mum who wielded the paintbrush and did the decorating, including wall papering, and tiling the bathroom. A really funny coincidence - I was looking this morning at a magazine at our Health Centre and read an article on turning an old suitcase into a pet basket, by padding the interior, using stuffed pillowcases - the first time I had read about this upcycling idea - and then back home read your post! I too had a similar doll collection, though not as many, but i eventually passed them on, apart from a few favourites - I did photograph them first, so I at least I still have a record of them.

  4. Your mum (and her assistant) has done a wonderful job with these pieces, and it's fantastic that they are still treasured.

  5. You may not have photos of your mother in action but you've painted some great word pictures from your memories, and the 'refinished' articles look great! I think in Aus we'd say they were 'repaired' or 'refurnished', and we'd talk about a china cabinet rather than china press. We still have a couple of old wooden chests that we bought at antique shops back in the 1970s when we were newly married.

    1. Actually I meant refurbished rather than refurnished.

  6. I have a friend who always seems to come up with something good when we scour the thrift shops...I never do. The transition from the head covering in the prompt to your mother's "hobby" was excellent. I have a great visual of her in those white shorts!!

  7. Very crafty! As a woodworker myself, I can appreciate you mom's handiwork. Back in the 60s my mom also caught the fad for refinishing antiques and that's how I learned to love tools, glue, and sawdust.

  8. Those beautifully done trunks reminded me of the old round-topped trunk I bought at a flea market one time intending to refinish it. I started, but never finished it and finally gave it away. Sure wish I'd had your mother's talent and perseverance to get the job done!

  9. Those beautifully done trunks reminded me of the old round-topped trunk I bought at a flea market one time intending to refinish it. I started, but never finished it and finally gave it away. Sure wish I'd had your mother's talent and perseverance to get the job done!

  10. Great to read about your mom's talent and perseverance in changing the old trunks and washstands to new and beautiful treasures. Me too, I've been known to put my hair up in a scarf to work on something.

  11. What fantastic memories and a wonderful post. You make me want to go treasure hunting!

  12. Oh boy, your mother did beautiful work. And how wonderful that you are still enjoying the pieces today. And if I recall, you've done some refinishing yourself - she taught you well!