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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Getting Stuff Out of the Chest

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas AUGUST. 07, 2021

This is a bit like getting stuff off your chest. Further to my post on Friends of PhotoBlog. The deed of clearing out the old chest is done. What I put off until a rainy day is done, because it rained.

This old pine chest is very old if I am to believe what I was told when I bought it more than twenty years ago. The reason you know it is old is because of the small compartment included just inside the lid. So it is pre-electricity at least, because this small compartment is for candles.

It was supposed to be at least two hundred years old when I bought it and supposed to be from Eastern Europe. I always retain a certain level of scepticism when it comes to art or antiques so it always comes down to, do you like it and can you afford the price, but in this case it does in fact feel like it could be at least two hundred years old.

It has served us all the time since we bought it, as a coffee table and handy storage. Storage for CD's and DVD's. As of today, they are all now at the tip, or if you prefer, the dump. Why? Well one good reason is that I have no means of playing either. They are dead technology, just like candles.

Of course people still use candles and CD's, but you don't need to.

Why did every house, even the poorest, always have a chest? It was the repository of all that you owned that was valuable or necessary. Two hundred years ago, the majority of people could house their entire wealth in a box like this. Their wealth would mainly have consisted of linen and candles, you could also, usually lock the box.

Growing up, one often heard older people denouncing modern crime rates in cities and declaring that in the good old days they never needed security and always left their doors unlocked. Of course they did, they had nothing to steal.

Years ago I read Moll Flanders, published in 1722 and written by Daniel Defoe. Do not die before you read some Daniel Defoe. Why? Because if a man in 1722 can write something on paper that makes another man cry three hundred years later from reading it, that's why. It's about the humanity, the reality and the language. His simple account of his tour around Great Britain, describing the people he met and his utmost admiration for them, his description of a boatman self-isolating from his own family during the Great Plague while he risked his life to earn pennies with which to buy food that he could leave at their door while he slept under a canvas on his boat, make you weep.

It struck me today, thinking about this wooden chest, how it brought back an impression that stuck with me when I read Moll Flanders. Moll is in a house in London that catches fire and the occupants throw out their linen and bedding before making their escape. Defoe tells us this as a matter of fact, even he sees nothing worth explaining about this action. Why would they do that? Because their linen and bedding was all they owned. People sometimes ask even now, if your house caught fire what would you rescue, that is only because we have so much choice, where would bedding be on our list? If you have seen 21st century refugees on your TV, flooding out of some war torn city, how often have you seen the pathetic spectacle of some vehicle, loaded up with a single chair or a bed, it's the humanity of meagre possessions in a sight and circumstance like that, that really devastates?

Chests like these kept things dry and dust free, they also kept away vermin. I always asked myself why this chest and many others contained a compartment for candles. Candles are food for vermin, it's that simple.

Vermin - any of various small animals or insects that are pests; e.g. cockroaches or rats. c. 1300, "noxious animals," from Anglo-French and Old French vermin "moth, worm, mite," in plural "troublesome creatures" (12c.), from Vulgar Latin *verminum "vermin," possibly including bothersome insects, collective noun formed from Latin vermis "worm".

People's houses contained vermin, so you needed something to secure your valuables. If you live in houses that are not overrun with vermin this becomes something you need to research, it isn't obvious.

People would not have understood the concept of dead technology, like the LP or the CD or the MP3 or whatever comes along next month, because people mostly died using the same technology they were born with. People didn't live as long as we do and technology didn't change that fast. Candles and vermin were just facts of life, from the cradle to the grave.


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