Elm City Scrapbook is a column alternately written by Daniella Sanchez (MC ’25) and Catherine Kausikan (GH ’25) which each week tells the story of a work of art in or around New Haven.
Pieces of art are time capsules that show us the past and bring us to the present. When I think of art, I often think of what will split me in two. What will allow me to dial back the numbers of the years while they continue to spiral forward?
The Yale Furniture Collection on West Campus is the right place to sink into the cushions of the past. The collection consists of rows upon rows of finely carved cabinets, desks, wardrobes, lamps, and futons. It’s an HGTV fantasy. What I like most about the furniture collection has nothing to do with the luxury of the rosewood cabinets or the glimmer of Ezra Stiles’s old clock. It’s the craft of personalization: how each piece becomes a remnant, a marking of the person who used it.
On my visit to West Campus—after a long walk to the Yale Shuttle’s Purple Line stop and an even longer ride away from Yale’s recognizably neo-gothic buildings—Eric Litke, Museum Assistant for American Decorative Arts at the Yale University Art Gallery, took me around the collections. He showed me pieces from the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Yale and elsewhere. I watched as he pulled down the drawers of old drop front desks. When the wood falls forward to make a flat surface, a miniature Shakespearean theater filled with Tuscan columns and tiny cabinets appears on the inside. Inside each writing station is a customized Grecian world for the writer to traverse, quill and ink in hand. On other pieces of furniture, instead of writing with a pen, pencil, quill, or any other practical writing instrument, the desk’s user has chosen something sharp like a knife or a stake with which to carve their names eternally in the wood. They look like the desks in William L. Harkness Hall or if you combined all the graffiti in the stacks onto one examination table. It’s a sign that times haven’t changed, at least not as much as we think they have.
Within the collections there is a mantelpiece from Lyceum, one of the buildings of the Old Brick Row—a group of seven Georgian-style buildings which once stood on Old Campus—built back in 1803. Inscribed on the upper left panel is the date “1901,” followed by the initials “T.L.C.” for Thomas Langdon Cheney, class of 1901. Maybe Cheney himself was warmed by the fires over which this mantelpiece guarded. This name-carving tradition was passed down from Thomas to his brother “P.C.” for Philip Cheney, and to two more brothers who followed the trail of burning embers to Yale. These young men embedded their memories in the wood. They gave their initials the chance of forever, even as Lyceum’s walls came crashing down.
It seems back then—before the age of smartphones—there was more of an obsession with keeping memories alive through written word and memorabilia. The pages of an early twentieth-century Yale scrapbook are filled with oddly humorous handwritten notes reading “Not at home call again in two years” or “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold,” old meal tickets, p-sets, and photos from good old Harvard-Yale Games. Seeing these scraps of the past made me rather sad. We’ve let our tech become our booklets, let our memories fade into tiny pixels that get lost in easy clicks of a button or a bad transfer of data.
Now, when I think about what I’m trying to preserve, I dial back in time. I think about the scraps, notes, essays, photos, autumn leaves, theater programs, and more scattered around my dorm, between pieces of polyester common-room furniture. I collect them and pray that they’ll someday outlive me.
https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/24036 – scrap book