Mystery Box Unlocked at Local Museum
A Civil War era sewing box now on display at the Marblehead Museum was unlocked for the first time in more than 50 years Friday and curator Karen Mac Innis was surprised by what she found inside.
When Marblehead Museum curator Karen Mac Innis successfully picked the lock to a Civil War era imported Chinese sewing box Friday afternoon and discovered a parchment filled with silk, she said she "nearly deafened" several people nearby.
Mac Innis said the lacquered sewing box, which is now on display as part of the museum's new Federal Period Exhibit was donated by a local resident in 1960 and was never opened because it didn't come with a key.
So, wearing her white curator gloves, Mac Innis began trying to delicately pick the lock with a bent plastic-wrapped paper clip - and after a couple of minutes, it popped right open.
"It was thrilling," Mac Innis said. "It's just one of the many reasons why my job is so fascinating. I'm always learning something and I frequently get to see something beautiful and rare."
Inside the box, Mac Innis found various intricately-carved ivory sewing accessories, including knotting and tatting shuttles, needle cases, thread holders, a thimble and a pin cushion on a clamp, all of which had been sitting in the dark for more than 50 years.
"When I lifted out the panel inset, I saw the packet inside," Mac Innis said. "When I unfolded the packet, I saw those glorious colors of the silk embroidery floss."
But what did the Chinese symbols on the packet say? Was it a note? A poem? Was there information in the text that would help shed some light on the sewing box's former owner? Mac Innis didn't know.
Sounding like the perfect opportunity to complete this week's You Ask...Patch Answers column, Marblehead Patch took a photocopy of the text and set out to get it translated.
The search for answers led to the History Department at Salem State College, where professor Dr. Li Li gladly took a look at a photocopy of the mystery text.
Li's determination was, unfortunately, that the text wouldn't lead to buried treasure and it wouldn't help us find out who owned the box.
Li said the text, which was written in an older form of Chinese script, couldn't be easily translated to English. Though he was able to confirm that it described the store where the silk embroidery floss was purchased, the materials they sold, where they were obtained and how they were shipped.
"The name of the store is written right up top," Li said in his office Tuesday. "It describes the places where the store's materials were found and how they arrived at there."
Although the translation of the text wasn't as exciting as we had hoped it would be, Mac Innis said shedding some light on the mystery parchment was excitement enough.
"It's still very interesting to find out that this is an advertisement," Mac Innis said. "A couple of days ago we didn't even know it was in there."
If you have a question for us, not matter how strange it may seem, let us know and we'll try to find the answers.