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27 Jun 2019

Getting personal – the thrill of cataloguing meaningful everyday items

Written by Silvia Scopa – Inventory Officer, Project Reveal Team West
A black and white photo of Agnes Toward standing in a yard beside the Tenement House. She wears a pale jumper and dark skirt.
Miss Agnes Toward © National Trust for Scotland, The Tenement House
Over the past few years, Project Reveal and the Morton Photography Project have been working to document and digitise the National Trust for Scotland’s historical collections. Along the way, they have discovered the stories of several women and girls. Some are already known to Trust staff and visitors, while some have been overshadowed by others associated with them, or simply overlooked and forgotten. Throughout this series, members of the project teams will share their experiences, thoughts and research to show how the objects we care for can reveal new ways of thinking about Scotland’s women.

I’ve been an Inventory Officer for Project Reveal for almost two years now. And after 23 months, 10 colleagues and 9 properties, I can say there’s nothing like the thrill of cataloguing an object that has an intimate connection with the location where it’s stored. These objects can also help us reveal new information about the people who once lived there.

So far, my favourite Trust property to catalogue has been the Tenement House in Glasgow – a flat frozen in time, where Miss Agnes Toward, a shorthand typist, lived from 1911 to 1965. The fact that the majority of the collection is original to the property makes it a very special space.

The parlour at the Tenement House. It has patterned wallpaper, and there are 2 blue armchairs in the foreground.
The parlour at the Tenement House © National Trust for Scotland, The Tenement House

Miss Toward moved to the Tenement House in Buccleuch Street with her mother, who was a young widow and started her own dressmaking business that she ran from the flat. After her mother’s death, Miss Toward continued to live in the apartment alone. She never married and worked for almost 50 years in the same job and company.

A sewing box filled with colourful reels of thread.
Box of sewing material, bobbins, ribbons etc © National Trust for Scotland, The Tenement House

Neither Miss Toward nor her mother liked to throw things away. This was surely due to a ‘make do and mend’ attitude and possibly for sentimental reasons; a lot of the objects at the Tenement House still carry the emotional value they must have carried a century ago. The house is full of furniture, documents, cleaning products, dresses and photographs that tell us a lot about the story of these two independent women.

A stuffed toy dog with black ears and a tan body.
A toy dog that possibly belonged to Miss Toward as a child © National Trust for Scotland, The Tenement House

A few of the objects in the collection are very private to Miss Toward, and I’m not sure she would really have appreciated me enjoying them so much. But I think they’re a very good example of how much objects in the care of the National Trust for Scotland can open a door to past lives.

A blue and white cardboard box of sanitary towels.
Some of the most interesting objects at the Tenement House seem like unlikely survivors. © National Trust for Scotland, The Tenement House

In the picture below you can see a postcard sent to Agnes by an admirer when she was a teenager. We don’t know if she ever wanted to get married or have a family, but a lot of women from that generation never had the chance to do so as many men died during the First World War. In any case, we don’t know anything about the postcard’s sender – or why he signed himself ‘Mr Bulldog’.

All in all, Miss Toward had an unremarkable life, but what is amazing is that we have such a detailed picture of it. We know her favourite lipstick was ‘Cherry in the Snow’ by Revlon, she liked to bake, went to the theatre, often had sore feet, liked to write letters to her friend in Canada, and much, much more.

Taking care of this fantastic collection means preserving not only her legacy but also life in a very specific time and space –  Glasgow between the late 19th and early 20th century.

This article is part of the Revealing Scotland’s Women series – read about E A Hornel’s depictions of women and girls and Margaret Fay Shaw’s photographs of South Uist women.

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