Her Mark: The Objects and Stories of Family Loss
The following is an excerpt from Object Studies: Introductions to Material Culture. It is taken from the model essay in a chapter on objects and personal narratives. Each chapter in Object Studies includes essays that model various methods in material cultural studies, as well as resources and ideas for using these approaches in a course.
To begin in Object Studies—to understand the potential this approach has for our scholarship and developing an understanding of the world around us—it makes sense to start with something that has a personal connection. What are the stories, well-known or hidden, that the things in our lives communicate for us? In pursuing this question we will find one of the fundamental truths about studying objects: our sense of self, the idea of who we are that we may think of as immaterial, actually connects profoundly with the material world. Many of our memories and stories would not exist without objects in which we can encode those ideas. Objects transmit the past into our lives today—this is one of the reasons families and societies collect “heirlooms,” objects that help preserve the stories of a family or community.
Object narratives have become a popular subgenre of biographical writing and memoir in recent years for this reason. Edmund de Waal’s family memoir, for instance, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, is a must-read for students and lovers of objects. De Waal tells the story of his remarkable ancestors, the Ephrussis, a family of bankers and aesthetes who built one of the world’s largest financial empires in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a Jewish family living in central Europe during the twentieth century, their fortunes were mostly lost during the Nazi invasions of Austria and France. What remains for de Waal to tell their story is a collection of Japanese netsuke, small carved figurines originally collected by his connoisseur great-great-uncle in Paris in the nineteenth century. Through his immense curiosity and assiduous research, de Waal reconstructs the path that these netsuke took from Paris to Vienna, to Japan and eventually to his home outside London.
De Waal is an inspiration for this kind of storytelling because his focus always remains on the materials themselves. “I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.” Such an approach would create a “thin” and nostalgic narrative—“…I am not interested in thin,” de Waal writes. “I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers—hard and tricky and Japanese—and where it has been” (16). What de Waal implicitly encourages us to do with this kind of “object biography,” as some have called it, is counterintuitive. We normally start with the person, the story, the lived experience of another human as shared orally or written down. Objects of course can’t tell us where they have been in the same way a person can. To tell the story of an object requires a different approach.
Objects are stubborn remnants of the past. We may try to fit them in to our grand narratives, but the things themselves remain as silent fact checkers. In Object Studies, we try to question stories about the past, whether personal or cultural, by relying on the hard evidence that things give to us. The stories we tell or that others have told are still important. An essential part of studying an object is gathering as much information as we can about it from those who have owned it. If we are lucky enough to know the people who originally owned the object, then we can interview them: the simple question “Tell me what you know about this thing” can be the start of an instructive conversation. But the object itself should be at the center of the story. I begin mine with a pair of cufflinks.
Before I ever saw the cufflinks, I somehow knew their story.
My great-grandmother, Catherine Mulready, coming over on the boat from Ireland, was out for some fresh air. On the deck of the steam liner, she talked her way into a game of shuffleboard with her fellow passengers. The game was a welcome distraction. Having only the money to afford tickets in third class with her children and mother, she was seeking a moment of respite on an anxious voyage. “Ma,” as her family called her (an Irish term of endearment for “mother”), apparently was a good hand at the game and by the end of it, she walked away with a hard-won prize: a pair of golden cufflinks depicting, in miniature, the ship where she won them.
The cufflinks are now mine, and as I look at the scuffed metal and majestic ship’s prow in the small portrait, I imagine her holding them in her hand, tucking the pair into her pocket with a smile of triumph. Her luck had changed. She was a widow with six children and an elderly mother in tow, but better days were ahead. One of the founding myths of my family is this voyage, and my great-grandmother is the undoubted heroine of the tale. The story of the cufflinks reflects the reverence we hold in my family for Ma. She was determined, crafty, gritty. This is the woman who not only emigrated from Ireland as a widow, but also set up a boarding house in North Dakota to get her family on its feet in America.
I inherited the cufflinks about 20 years ago, and ever since I have wondered about this story and its protagonist. As much as I wanted it to be true, I have also had my doubts. The object and its story don’t fit with the other facts I know about the family’s crossing. Firstly, the Mulreadys arrived in Canada during the early months of winter. My grandfather badly burned his hands on a stove in the immigration processing building while trying to warm them against the frigid Quebec air, he would later recount. Shuffleboard strikes me as an unlikely pastime on the cold waters of the North Atlantic and cufflinks as unusual winnings for a casual game.
The enigma of my cufflinks fascinates me because they are a rare physical trace of both my grandfather and my great-grandmother. As the youngest grandchild, my connections to the Mulready family consist almost entirely of objects: these cufflinks, a pocket watch, a tie tack, a shaving kit, a few photos. And a name. As inheritances go, it’s not much. Most of these items fit in the top drawer of my dresser, hiding behind my socks and a few other cherished possessions. Peter Mulready, my grandfather (and Ma’s youngest son) died when I was seven, but I do have a few scattered memories of him that I hold onto along with these objects. For a year or so toward the end of his life we shared a bedroom and he often looked after me while my parents were at work. I remember the leather case he kept his reading glasses in, always in his chest pocket, stories and songs he would share with me, his red leather recliner, his kind voice. He was a teacher (maybe another part of my inheritance): he built and served as the principal of the trade school and industrial arts programs at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska. The shaving kit I have was made as a retirement gift from the boys in his leatherworking shop.
Over the years, I have dabbled in research into my family tree, trying to find the clues and hints that might unfold something about my personal story. Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the world, and with the internet and new technologies like personal DNA kits, it has never been easier to find out information about our ancestors and trace family lineages. Television shows like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Finding Our Roots and “Who Do you Think You Are?” speak to a wider popularity in the media, as well, for stories that tell us something about our origins and the people in our ancestry. But my own experiences with this kind of research have been disappointing. While my Ancestry.com app holds a large set of names, birth and death dates, and perhaps an occasional grainy photo or grave site, it seems to me more like a roll call than a family. What does it really tell me about the lives that these people lived: their loves, fears, and frustrations? There is an inherent emptiness that accompanies the fascination with these people I may have never known. They seem spectral, insubstantial.
But things can also conceal. These remnants of the past take us to unexpected places and hidden truths. In my case, the sentimental version of family history that had been handed down to me was a fabrication that covered up a profound episode of family trauma. The boat in the miniature portrait on my cufflinks was not what it seemed.
When I hold the cufflinks in my hand, they are lighter than I would expect them to be. Each link has two oblong-shaped discs that are connected by a metal link roughly ½ inch in length. One of the oblong pieces is a smooth piece of rosy gold metal that is also about ½ inch long. The other disk is the decorative part: a miniature portrait of a ship at sea on a smooth enameled surface. The image is small, about the size of the nail on my pinky finger, but I can see that the ship has four masts and a long black hull. It sits in front of a sky that is creamy white with a hint of pink. On the reverse side of the disk are two words that were stamped into the metal when they were manufactured: “QUIKFIXR” and “PATENT”.
It is hard to make out these tiny words, but once I do, I find my first real clue to the origin of the cufflinks. With some quick internet searching of these terms, my screen fills with images of a virtual fleet of cufflink ships like mine. I also find the manufacturer and patentee: Henry Owen and Sons of 72 Caroline St., Birmingham (UK). An advertisement for the firm from a 1929 trade show, the “British Industries Fair,” describes their business:
Manufacturers of Links, Collar Studs, Dress Studs in large variety; Gent’s Collar Pins, in Rolled Gold, Gold Fronted, Silver Mounted and Mother of Pearl, Patentees of the “Neverseen” Stud, “Quikfixr” Link, etc. Birmingham Jewellers; and Silversmiths Association.
This early twentieth-century commercial language makes me smile; the company makes practical yet decorative fasteners for men’s and women’s clothing. The “Quikfixr” cufflink is just the thing for the professional man on the go (I can picture the advertisement). According to an online antiques appraiser, “rolled gold” is an alloy invented in England in the nineteenth century that became popular during the 1920s and ’30s, “especially in utilitarian objects such as watches and fountain pens”. So the cufflinks I have before me were made in England in the early twentieth century. They strike me as the kind of souvenir middle-class travelers still pick up today, maybe as a gift for a husband or something to tuck away for Father’s Day.
Sometimes we refer to objects and styles as “timeless” but more often the things in our lives are layered with age. That is probably the reason why I have held on to this pair of cufflinks for so long. They are rich with time. I don’t wear shirts with French cuffs that require the accessory (and probably never will). These are also not the kind of item that I would put on display, nor can they be reused for another purpose. They have no practical utility in my life. But as witnesses to the world that my grandfather inhabited, they are invaluable to me. Between the image of this old ship and the darkened patina on reverse side of the portrait, the objects in my hand immediately evoke another era. Cufflinks themselves are a holdover from a time before shirts came with buttons sewn into them, and while some people still wear them today for style, they proclaim to me a slightly retro flourish. They are time travelers, but not the kind that step into a machine and pop out immediately in the future. They carry the wear of the decades with them. There’s a bit of dexterity involved in flipping the fasteners so they sit properly in the shirt to hold the cuffs together. I imagine my grandfather rubbing his thumb over this surface to ensure a snug fit against his cuff, just so. The clasps now have a dulled shine on their metallic surface from his countless touches. Although we think of objects as being separate from us, most of our things bear such marks, residue of their connection to our lives. To me these cufflinks are more than a reminder of my grandfather, they are part of him.
I am thrilled to put my cufflinks into their historical place and find that they are not some one-off item of curiosity. But the discoveries of my research present even more problems for my family’s shuffleboard story. Henry Owen and Sons became incorporated in 1900, and while I cannot find the exact date for the Quikfixr Patent, the manufacture of these cufflinks almost certainly came sometime after 1901. I own a copy of the ship manifest for my Mulready family’s transatlantic voyage, so I know the trip took place in November of 1901 on board a ship called the Corinthian. And it is when I find a photograph of that ship that I put an end to the speculation about the family story: even with the tiny dimensions of the portrait on my cufflinks I can tell immediately that the ship is not the Corinthian. It only had two masts, and in the photo is less imposing than the ship on the cufflinks. The hard evidence of this object has made the conclusion clear, and it is with some sadness that I accept my cufflinks were almost certainly not won or purchased on that trip.
As I researched the Corinthian, I came across a record from a 1913 Parliamentary discussion of regulations involving emigrant ships. It seems that there were complaints about conditions on-board the ship, particularly for its 200 third-class passengers, “who complain of overcrowding, poor bedding, and of having no place to sit down on except their bunks during rough weather.” The complaint received a typical bureaucratic response:
I am informed on inquiry that she [the ship] fully complied with the requirements of the Merchant Shipping Acts. Nine hundred and seventy-nine steerage passengers (equivalent to 828 adults) were embarked at London and Plymouth, and the clear space allotted to emigrants was much more than sufficient for the number carried, according to the scale laid down in the statutory rules. Besides the usual dining rooms, additional rooms were provided for recreation.
This exchange and discussion of regulations brings me closer to what my family may have experienced—“additional rooms for recreation” sounds like a far cry from a shuffleboard court. I wonder whether the Mulreadys even ventured outdoors during their trip.
While I have found this family legend to be false, these objects are still a puzzle to me: why do I have them, how did my grandfather get them, what is the ship pictured on them (if not the Corinthian) and why would he hold onto them well past the time he retired from professional life? Maybe they were a gift from someone else? Did he find them in a secondhand store or charity shop? Was it then that he slyly spun the tale? I am especially intrigued by the English provenance of the cufflinks. My grandfather never left the United States after he emigrated, so far as I know, and while purchasing British-made items in the middle of America is not unheard of, my research showed me that these cufflinks were originally purchased, in all likelihood, on board a transatlantic carrier. They were likely originally a part of a set that included a tie clip; I found just such a set on eBay depicting a different ship. Owen and Sons, I can speculate, had an agreement with these carriers to produce souvenir cufflinks and tie-clips depicting voyaging vessels. It was a good way for the young company to place its products. This must have been how my cufflinks were originally purchased, the tie clip now lost to time.
Searching a UK database that documents passengers on transatlantic voyages, I come across an unexpected breakthrough. My unusual last name is a gift for this research, and when I search the name “Mulready” I find “Catherine Mulready,” my great-grandmother’s name, on a passenger list for another voyage, this one back across the Atlantic. In 1926 the database records her as a passenger on a ship that passed through Southampton, the RMS Adriatic. I learn from my mother (who probably heard the story many times around family gatherings in North Dakota) that Ma took this trip back to Ireland so she could see what was left of her family and old homestead. She also wanted a handful of dirt from County Mayo to be buried with her, perhaps revealing her own longing for a material connection to her past.
When I find an image of The Adriatic online, it is indeed a near perfect match for the portrait on my cufflinks. The ship in the picture was a starkly different vessel than the Corinthian that carried my great-grandmother with her family 25 years prior, as described in an advertisement for the Adriatic from 1907:
The seating accommodation is of the most comfortable type, and for ladies there are work tables, while cozy corners have been arranged for conversation, tea, or cards. The lounge is as delightful a place as is the reading and writing room, or the smoke room, to enjoy a book from the well-selected library.
The Adriatic was part of the White Star and Dominion Line, the same company that produced the Titanic. In fact, the Adriatic was dispatched in 1912 from New York to help with the rescue and recovery of passengers following that historic disaster. It had luxury accommodations, including an indoor pool and Turkish bath (the first cruise ship to offer these amenities). The features of these baths sound sumptuous even by twenty-first century standards: “They consist of the usual hot, temperate and cooling-rooms, with shampooing rooms, a plunge bath, and massage couches. It is likewise worthy of remark that three electric baths have been provided”. By 1926 the RMS Adriatic was one of the older ships in the White Star fleet and probably not as posh as other transatlantic steam liners, but it still must have seemed like stepping into another world for my great-grandmother from rural North Dakota.
And so, a new story emerges for these cufflinks, but this one is about a successful immigrant who is now an American citizen, travelling back to Ireland to visit family, friends, and the graves of her husband and two children that she had to leave behind. My great-grandmother has been in North Dakota for almost a generation. For over 20 years her family has thrived running a boarding house in Jamestown, a town bustling with workers for the railroad needing a place to stay for a few weeks or months. This was an all-hands-on-deck operation: anyone in the family old enough to hold a broom or fry an egg would have been put to work. But by 1926, her sons and daughter are all college graduates or successful in a trade: her oldest, Jack, has become a lawyer and would eventually work in the office of US District Attorney for the State of North Dakota. My grandfather, Peter, is a relatively recent college graduate himself, beginning his career as a teacher of mathematics and industrial arts. Ma, approaching sixty, is probably not taking in boarders any longer. Some days she helps out with running a business owned by the family, a machine shop that performs contract work for the railroad and other local businesses. Her daughter, Nellie, is a bookkeeper there, and another of her sons, Mike, runs the shop.
Looking at the photographs of the Adriatic and reading the descriptions of its accommodations, I know immediately that this is the place where my cufflinks originated, the room where they first lived. There is an image online of a biscuit tin printed with pictures of the Adriatic (with those famed Turkish baths) that could be purchased on-board the ship. She must have picked out the cufflinks in a gift shop on that journey as a souvenir gift for my grandfather. Perhaps she bought matching sets for all her sons. Maybe she saved the biscuits for herself. I am struck for the first time that these cufflinks are mementos not of a migrant’s voyage, but of a tourist traveling overseas. They speak to me of the pride she must have had in her sons for their aspirations and successes. I still can’t know for certain if they were won in that apocryphal game of shuffleboard. It is possible she played the game on that trip and came up with the story.
As I follow this voyage to its end, I also find the re-entry record at Ellis Island for my great-grandmother. That place looms so large in the imaginations of descendants of American immigrants, but when the first Mulready passed through there it was not as a foreign national. Her papers show her home address, 921 2nd St., Jamestown, N. Dakota, and that she became a naturalized citizen 10 years earlier in 1916 (Passenger Record). This was not the traumatic journey that had brought her to America a quarter century before. In fact, it may have been a voyage of healing, a way to sort out the personal losses that had sent her to American in the first place.
Over 100 years ago my family were victims of another global pandemic. I learned this, unexpectedly, while I was conducting research about my cufflinks. Objects preserve stories, but in this case, they also hide things: the cufflinks proved one of my family’s prevailing stories to be false, even a purposeful fabrication. Documents I found in my research revealed the more stunning truth about the circumstances under which my family left Ireland. As objects they were boring and bureaucratic: a series of entries in a registrar’s account book. At the time this discovery was a cause of some curiosity but didn’t seem related to my research, so I filed the documents away. But in 2020, living during a more recent medical crisis, my family’s experience with a nineteenth-century outbreak gained new relevance.
From 1896-1901, my great-grandfather, his sister, and two of his (and Ma’s) daughters all died in Ireland of tuberculosis. How could this tragedy have been hidden from me for so long? My beloved grandfather was at least partly to blame. When Peter Mulready emigrated with his mother, siblings, and grandmother from County Mayo to North Dakota he was just a toddler, not yet two. What I know of this trip and the circumstances that led to the Mulready family leaving Ireland comes from an oral history my grandfather recorded on a cassette tape shortly after I was born. That recording is one of my most prized possessions. I have listened to it countless times over the years, to the extent that I have probably internalized much of what I know (or think I know) about my grandfather and my Irish immigrant family from these stories.
It only occurred to me in recent years, when I shared this recording with my own children, that my grandfather did not experience first-hand much of what he reports in these stories. As the youngest in his family of six children he could not, for instance, have remembered the transit from Ireland, the reasons why his mother (my great-grandmother) chose to leave, or even many of the colorful tales he shares about his brothers. These are all part of an oral tradition that circulated within his family, shared many times over tea (or something stronger) with his brothers and sister. He tells them well, and with a remarkable level of detail (“the Londonderry newspaper,” Colonel Blake, the name of their landlord, the stops the ship took on its way to America). In the end they are stories—quite good stories—but largely unsubstantiated.
What do objects add to our stories? How can materials like jewelry, books, documents, furniture, clothing, and other keepsakes help us better understand the past? These objects of history elucidate, enhance, but sometimes reveal inconsistencies in stories such as my grandfather’s. The first document I found that upended his narrative was an entry in an Irish death registry. Here is the record from March 1901 recording my great-grandfather’s death:
Two key pieces of information directly contradict the oral account handed down through my family and change the way I now understand my own story. First, my great-grandfather was not a laborer working on the rail lines, a “supply man” as my grandfather calls him in his story, but an accountant for the Midland Great Western Railway Company. I had always thought that I was descended from poor Irish farmers, not a member of the professional class. This detail, though, fits with the story of his reading in the loft and earning a living wage. Second, and even more jarring to my view of this man and his family, he died not from a work-related injury but from “phthisis,” the lung disease caused by tuberculosis. I also found entries for his two daughters, Anna Marie (13) and an infant Delia, indicating that they had suffered the same painful death before him, as had his sister, Eliza Mulready. According to the death records, Catherine, my great-grandmother, attended to all four of them in their final months and days.
These documents tell a new story of their own: of a compassionate sister-in-law who takes in and tends to a fatally ill family member even though she herself had just given birth. Of a mother who had to watch that infant suffer from “convulsions” that led to her death in just a few days. Of a mother and father who, with increasing panic, watch their 10-year-old in anguish with a debilitating lung disease over the course of three years. Of a wife who sees her husband of 20 years succumb to the same fate over the course of a miserable year. In the end he suffers through a month of wildly spiking temperatures, “Hectic Fever,” as it is described in the register. None of this was part of my grandfather’s story. Before seeing these documents, I had never heard or seen the name “Eliza Mulready,” most likely patient zero in my family’s four-year struggle with tuberculosis. She is listed as a “Servant” in the Registrar’s account book, and I wonder if she contracted the disease working in another household, finding herself vulnerable as many service workers have in the COVID-19 pandemic. My great-grandmother nursed her in her final days, as indicated by the X in the account book: “her mark,” the Registrar recorded on the document.
Like migrants caught in the tides of war, disease, and environmental catastrophe today, the Mulreadys left Ireland in hopes of finding safety, better employment and economic opportunities abroad. Ireland in the early twentieth century was in the grips of a widespread tuberculosis pandemic; the bacterial infection killed at least 13,000 people there at its peak in 1904, accounting for 16% of all deaths that year. Even in the age of COVID, TB remains the deadliest infectious disease in the world. I feel both empathy and pride for my great-grandmother as I look at these documents. According to my grandfather, their landlord, a kindly man named Colonel Blake, advised her to take her five boys and young daughter and move to America. They left Ireland on October 31, 1901, a little more than six months after Pat Mulready’s death.
Our stories can be things, too. They begin as thought and breath, material of infinitesimal weight. But as we record and retell them, they gain a power disproportionate to their physical size. The fiction my grandfather passed on of his father’s workplace injury and death was a kind of talisman that I imagine my great-grandmother crafted to ward off fear and stigma. It was a protective covering that could see her frail family through their journey. Diseases like TB and COVID-19 continue to mark their victims and their families with shame and fear. Maybe Ma sat her oldest boys down and told them sternly that this would be the story they would tell to Colonel Blake, to the medical staff that would screen them on-board the steamship Corinthian, and to the American immigration officials on the Canadian border when they arrived (the same border that was shut down in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus).
I speculated before that my cufflinks, with their portrait of the luxury ship Adriatic, were originally something of a metaphor for the Mulreadys’ life in America; they manifested the achievements of an immigrant family. With the knowledge of my great-grandmother’s grief and loss, I understand them differently. I wonder if these gifts, like the trip back home itself, were a small way that Ma could reclaim something in her past. Maybe my great-grandfather wore cufflinks when he went to work as a part of his accountant’s professional uniform. Perhaps she saw her son carrying on the same legacy and wanted a material connection, something to link past and present.
For Peter Mulready these objects meant something different. He wasn’t burdened by the unshakable memories of family death as his mother was. And as I imagine my grandfather wearing the cufflinks, I glimpse, I think, the origin of the story that came with them. “These? Oh, my mother was a shark of a shuffleboard player,” I hear my grandfather say, “she won them on the boat from Ireland.” My grandfather, the storyteller, would have turned this one out with aplomb, raising his wrists and showing off the cufflinks while spinning the tale, maybe with a wink and a sparkle in his eye. At some point he passed the story along to my mother and her siblings, its transmission assured by the objects that give it substance. When it comes time for me to pass along the cufflinks, I might recount that story, but I think I’ll say more about what is really remarkable about these items: that they were loving gifts purchased by a woman whose strength preserved her family.