My little box of unusual family treasure

I found this box today, still packed away in the garage from when we moved here five years ago.  I though I had lost it.  In the little box is a set of faux finishing tools which belonged to my grandfather. It is a tiny collection of some of the tools he accumulated for his trade, along with this wonderful old wooden box, which he must have found somewhere, and being frugal, and finding it to be just the just the right size to store and carry the tools, he “re-purposed” it.

It’s kind of funny still to see it. As seen from the label still inside the box, and the painted label on the cover, the box was originally for some kind of medical device for giving enemas. The top label says “Tyrell’s Hygiene Inst. N.Y. U.S.A –Pat. Jan 1894 – Aug. 1897” and “Joy, Beauty, Life – Tyrell’s J.B.L. Cascade”.

Inside the box, my grandfather kept a set of “English Blue Steel Graining Combs”, which were “Famed for Excellence”. They look like they might have cost a little something at the time. They are well used.

Also still with the box are wood-graining tools, some specialty brushes – a stipple brush and a “feathering” brush. And an odd kind of tool with a metal reservoir and several small camel hair brushes mounted in the ends of tubes coming from the reservoir.

This little box of tools is one of the most valued of my possessions.

In the 1920’s, when my paternal grandfather immigrated to Chicago, from a farm near Munich in Germany where he grew up with 13 brothers and sisters, he immediately found work as a house painter for a large painting contractor. The work was hard, low paying and he was treated like the low skilled worker that he was. But despite coming into the trade with absolutely no skill, within a matter of five or six years he was working for himself, and had no shortage of work until he retired when he was in his mid seventies. He not only thoroughly learned the trade, be also picked up several specialty skills as well. One was faux finishing.

One of his “clients” was the Catholic Archdiocese in Chicago. Through the 1960’s, he often was called to work with crews of other specialized painters to decorate church interiors as they were being built, renovated or repainted. In many of the Catholic churches, what looks like marble, or mosaics, is actually paint. The best example of faux finishes are in St. Hyacinth Catholic Church on the north side. He worked there during the 1940’s I think, so, well after it was built, probably during some early restorations. He didn’t paint any of the artwork, but specialized in faux marble, wood, stencils and decorative patterns.

At one time or another, he worked in about a dozen churches, St Benedict, St. Alphonsis, St. Edwards, St. Michael, Holy Name Cathedral. While working on scaffolding in St. Alphonsis, during restoration after a big fire, he fell about 20 feet and landed on his back in a pew. He survived with a back injury which kept him out of work for over a year, and he had back problems and sciatica for the rest of his life, which he medicated with alcohol. The church paid for his hospital costs, his union helped him with money while he was out of work.

I apprenticed as a painter, with my grandfather when I was in my teens, working with him for several summers when he was older and had difficulty doing the work himself, especially moving the heavy ladders around. By that time his work was all residential. I ended up taking a lot of the exterior work and eventually, when he retired, took on the few of his remaining clients. Thus my entry into the building trades. I never intended to work in the trades, but it proved to very helpful to have those skills later on as I began to work as a musician. My grandfather was the first to advise me that if I was going to be a working musician, I had better learn another trade as well.

I never learned the art of faux finishing. He showed me a few things in his basement workshop over the years, and I played around a little, but never had the chance to actually work in it, which is the only way to get real experience. I’ve done a little over the years for one or two clients, but was not very good at it.

The box still has a peculiar old paint smell.

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  • Cathie posted: 30 Apr at 2:44 pm

    I too have a box just like yours. It contained some of my mother’s baby hair brushes. Mine is not as scratched up as yours but then your grandfather used it on a day to day basis perhaps and my grandmother used it to store precious memories. Isn’t if fun finding these hidden treasures?