Two square stout hard packages of age-worn faded green silk hold, we think, sand. They are pin cushions designed to anchor ladies’ hat pins 150 years ago and to sharpen their points.
They were made by Curtie—her last name was not recorded—in a glebe or minister’s house in County Down, for one of the eight Lefroy children she had raised.
The first pin cushion memorializes the birth of my great grandfather, Jeffrey Arthur Lefroy: “May the Eye that Ne’re Sleeps/Watch over babe and mother keep”—each letter pricked out with small steel pins.
The second memorializes the birth of his only child, my grandmother, Helena Lefroy.
Both pin cushions are edged with faded green lace and designs picked out with pins. They have been waiting a long time to find a safe harbor and an appreciative audience.
They found it yesterday in the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University.
My sister Eleanor Miller found the pin cushions several years ago in a blue box at the top of our mother Mary’s closet, along with the fascinating letters, spanning 1850-1931, that form the core of my next book, to be published by Sarabande in August: “The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters.” The cover of my book will look like the cover of the blue box.
When Beth, the conservationist at the library, carefully folded back the acid-free tissue paper in which I had wrapped each pin cushion, her face shone with delight and surprise.
Everyone crowded around the table to touch the delicate lace and the steel pin tops and to read the inscriptions.
Curtie would never have imagined that her handiwork, perhaps not appropriately valued during her life time, could inspire such awe and pleasure in a group that knows their textiles and their important role in interpreting our history.
Beth will make a special padded box for the pin cushions, which writers and scholars will be able to visit in the library.
Perhaps someday a writer will imagine Curtie as the heroine of a novel set in Northern Ireland in the last years of the nineteenth century, and give her pin cushions another life.