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Antique Roadshow

It wasn’t until her late mother’s heirloom furniture and china were on the auction block that author Lisa Tracy realized their real value—and made her peace with letting go.

Author Layla Schlack Photography Allison Dinner

Image – Allison Dinner

MOST OF US ARE surrounded by so much clutter that a book about someone else’s junk sounds, frankly, a little silly. (Where would we even put it?) But Lisa Tracy’s Objects of Our Affection goes beyond the belongings themselves into their history, which is where she found real worth.

“The impetus for the book was to discover why we hold on to this stuff,” Tracy says. “I mean, Americans are spending about twelve billion dollars annually on storage facilities.”

Tracy and her sister contributed to that total for years, paying hundreds of dollars a month to store family furniture. About 10 years after their mother’s death, they decided to auction it off. The women didn’t know what else to do with centuries of family history in the form of Chippendale sofas and cut-glass salt dishes.

Her forebears, many of whom served in the military, had picked up pieces in far-flung locations. Some items dated to the 17th century, when her ancestors first came to North America. When it came time to type up the auction catalog, an appraiser had questions about the provenance of all that furniture and bric-a-brac. For instance, did the piece her family called “the George Washington chair” ever actually belong to the first president? Tracy investigated, digging through historical society records in southern New Jersey and Philadelphia, and ultimately found ties to Washington. She took a similar approach to other items, uncovering the fascinating backgrounds of everything from a pair of antique dueling pistols to a set of Canton china.

Every piece had a story to tell. But the real takeaway was a new perspective on her own belongings, including those heirlooms she held on to. “At this point, I could really let go of it all,” she says. “We love our stuff, but I think what we really love is the stories behind it.” Take heed as you start your spring cleaning.

Associate editor LAYLA SCHLACK stores her parents’ old furniture in her living room.

MR. HOSPITALITY

A new book remembers business pioneer Fred Harvey

Long before Starbucks, McDonald’s and Marriott Hotels, a dapper Englishman named Fred Harvey invented the modern hospitality industry. Starting with a chain of restaurants serving the Santa Fe Railway in the 1880s, he created the first national brand, a sprawling empire spreading from Chicago to California. As author Stephen Fried writes in his absorbing biography, Appetite for America—which comes with recipes, including the tempting Butterscotch Pie Chantilly—he helped settle the American West along the way.

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