Updated: Feb 24
John and I were out making a Valentine's Day delivery, when we noticed a sign in the neighborhood and made a U-turn.
It directed us to a corporate estate sale.
Are you familiar with them? These little niche companies have popped up more and more in recent years. They go into the home of a deceased person, pull everything out of closets and cupboards, sort and price each item, take pictures, and then market it all, culminating in a two-day sales event. They are garage sellers with a business plan, hawking your grandma's cupid lamps without the emotional attachment (or guilt).
From leaf blowers to salt shakers, they liquidate estates. Perhaps you've read articles about how younger generations find themselves overwhelmed by all the crap they inherit after their baby boomer family members pass. These businesses understand the emotional load attached to heirloom wedding china and they have a remedy. They promise to do the sorting and selling, bring a profit to the heirs and, of course, to themselves.
I love these events, as the sales are often filled with useful treasures. Last year, I acquired a pile of of nearly-new table linens that ended up in constant rotation all summer long. When we dined outside (and hosted Timberstock), those linens were on the table. That particular sale felt like traveling to another country. The home was filled with colorful vases, funky area rugs, exotic artwork, and carved furniture: all evidence of lives well lived and of owners who surrounded themselves with possessions that evoked happy memories.
It felt pretty good to repurpose those linens.
So, yeah, I get that sniffing around deceased people's homes and barns is a little weird (barns are awesome, by the way!). And to be honest, there are times when walking through a life is so depressing I can barely breathe. Holy cow, there is a shit ton of stuff in this world and a lot of it is wicked ugly. It's not uncommon to find mismatched bits of silverware, odd porcelain figurines, outdated textbooks, mugs with now-defunct corporate logos (Polaroid!), piles of holiday decorations, and shoes. Dear God, so many shoes. A depressing sale offers a weird stew of useless tchotchkes and outdated (but not vintage) clothing.
But on a good day? Hey, these events are fun.
(Plus, as a baby boomer, I feel it's my responsibility to accumulate stuff that will give my kids a headache down the line. You're welcome, S. and E.)
So we went inside. We were greeted by the owner's snowblower and lawn mower, parked side-by-side on the driveway, like sentries. They remind New England buyers of life—dreary winters with a promise of sunshine ahead. For this, we need machines. Walking inside this house, I was cheered by the sun-filled rooms. The dreaded dread didn't hit, perhaps because the owner had been an artist. Actually, he was woodworker and well-known for carving and painting duck decoys as well as other birds on commission. This was his job. Some of his ducks, in various states of completion, were scattered around the house alongside his army jacket, bedroom furniture, wildlife magazines, and kitchen items.
The owner's life looked like it was fueled by creativity and a love of the outdoors. I wish I'd known him.
On our way out, I noticed a locked display case. Oooooh! Jewelry! A small array of necklaces, earrings, and pins sat under glass. A woman had lived there at one time, and judging by the selections in the case, she loved her pearls. I looked at the strands. One had heft and shine and a lovely clasp. (I think. My glasses were in the car.) On this Valentine's Day, a day when I felt a little bit lucky, I considered that strand of pearls. The clerk suggested I make an offer. I did. They were mine.
The tag said, "Miriam Haskell."
And so began my rabbit holing.
Here's what I learned. Born in 1899, Indiana-bred Miriam Haskell founded and built a jewelry business shortly after she arrived (with $500 in her wallet) in New York City. The year was 1920. She set up a boutique in the McAlpin Hotel. With her co-designer, Frank Hess, she created and sold well-made, affordable, and popular jewelry that was worn by celebrities and royalty from the 1920s through the 1960s. Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball were fans. So was Wallace Simpson. My pearls—which weren't pearls after all, but a delicate strand of glass beads that looked like pearls—were created by Haskell's company several years after she retired. In fact, Haskell had passed away by then, but her legacy (and business) was still chugging along. Even today, 101 years after her business was born, her work is well-known in the collectible costume jewelry world.
So, why am I writing about glass beads? My faux pearls?
Actually, it's not the pearls that intrigue me.
Miriam Haskell was an artist and business woman who built, ran, and grew her successful company in a time when most were typically run by men; from manufacturing to marketing to sales, she led all of it. Haskell (much like Coco Chanel, a competitor) was one of the first, successful, American business women of the twentieth century.
Have you heard of her? I had not.
I dug deeper and saw pictures of the work she designed and created over the decades. The jewelry sparkles. Images show pieces designed with whimsy and creative materials, mirroring the decade when they were manufactured. She designed jewelry of the time, pricing them affordably so that more women could enjoy them. My necklace is pretty classic. After identifying the clasp type and markings, I discovered it was likely manufactured in the late 1970s and, perhaps, considered a high-end-but-reasonably-priced alternative to natural pearls.
It wasn't the "find" I expected, for sure, but the experience reminded me of the literary device: a play within a play. I attended an estate sale within an estate sale. Saw a life within a life. The pearls offered a window into the world of a woman business owner's life from 100 years ago. That life was replete with successes, failures, health challenges, family squabbles, happiness, and disappointment. I obtained that necklace in the home of another visionary and artisan who left behind his own legacy.
I'm honored to repurpose Miriam Haskell's work, to tell part of her story forty years after her death. And, of course, to wear this pretty little necklace. Shiny things rock.
If you've made it this far, here's what I've learned.
First, I encourage you to check out estate sales. They're a fine way to keep the landfills a little tidier while exposing yourself to other cultures, experiences, and lives. And to score some awesome, vintage record albums.
Second, may we all lead lives like the woodworking-duck-carver or Ms. Haskell, and leave behind evidence of our own vision, our adventures, our purpose, to inspire others who walk through our worlds after we're gone.