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"Gram's Trunk" -- A story and activities to motivate students to investigate history (K-8th)


Gram's Trunk is a story about a family's memories being saved by the grandmother. The mother and daughter have gone to Grandmother B's house to visit and look at objects stored in the trunk.

Gram's Trunk can be used as a starting point to motivate students to investigate the past, especially as it relates to themselves.

Gram's Trunk

Grandmother B' keeps things. She always puts the date, month, day and year on birthday cards she gets or sends. Corsages and boutonnieres from parties or big celebrations rest tied up with ribbon in their boxes with a note on top about the event, the dress or the jacket it was worn on and the date.

Gram is the family historian. She doesn't call herself that; she just says she is sentimental, "she keeps memories."

Mom and I have come to Gram's to see inside the trunk.

Gram lives a half mile off the highway down a gravel road. Grandpa and Gram built the two story house in 1951. Grandpa died in 1989 but Gram still lives in their home. The house is white with green shutters now but it's been other colors too. I remember it blue and a soft green. White is new last summer.

"Gram, we're here!" Susan calls through the back door into the kitchen. Nobody but company uses Gram's front door. It's not used much because Gram knows lots of people, so nobody's company.

The kitchen is the heart of the home. It's a large room with a table and chairs. The table always has a centerpiece, whatever treasure Gram has found on her daily walk. In the spring or summer she picks little wild flowers along the road. She gathers leaves and sticks in the fall and rocks or pine cones in the winter. "Look for the little surprises." She always says the little ones are best.

Cooking smells always greet you at Grams. Blackberry cobbler is today's treat. It smells warm and sweet.

"We'll have a tea party later, Susan," Gram says as she sees me eyeing the cobbler resting on the breadboard Grandpa had built into the baking cabinet. Beneath the bread board is a flour bin that holds 50 lbs. of flour for bread, rolls, cobblers and sometimes pies.

Tea Parties are one of Grandmother's little surprises. Tea Parties come after hard work, afternoon naps, (Gram grew up in the south, where people work hard early in the day and rest when it's hot, in the afternoon), when she knows we are sad, or for no good reason.

Tea parties always have pretty napkins, and a full set of silverware, real plates. Food can range from rolls hot from the oven to a glass of pop with a straw that bends, but the emphasis is on little. One roll, or a tiny cup of hot chocolate, a little juice glass of pop or a single oatmeal cookie are on the menu of Gram's tea parties. I know now they are a chance for us to talk. Gram and I have had them in the middle of the night when I had a nightmare or just woke up. All her grandkids love Tea Parties although my brothers are not always pleased with just a cookie or tiny glass of pop.

"Lets go upstairs and see the trunk!" Gram was excited about sharing her treasures with us. We crossed the living room to the stairway door. The living room at Gram's is just that, a living room. There is no family room. This room dresses up for parties and down for games of Dominos and Rook.

Upstairs at Gram's house are four bedrooms. The trunk is in the last room on the right.

"Gram, how did you choose what you kept in the trunk?" I asked as we approached it under a west window.

"It was hard sometimes, when I was busy, to remember to include memories. This trunk is a history of our family, it's like digging up the ruins of a civilization. There are layers of items with the oldest things on the bottom layer and the newest on top."

"Do you still add items to the trunk?" my mother asked, "Or did you stop after all of us were gone from home?"

"I didn't exactly stop but items go in much more slowly now," Grandmother said. "Now I put in items from a big family party or things around the house I think should be saved for grandchildren. I thought we could go through the stuff in the trunk and I'd tell you about each item. Does that sound okay?"

"Sure, that would be great!" Mom said.

We three raised the trunk lid with a sense of excitement. I thought how amazing it was that a family's history would be gathered and kept over the years so faithfully.

The very top layer of the trunk were grandchildren's tiny hand prints, some painted on paper and some imprinted in clay, Christmas presents made, signed, dated and kept with love.

Just under the hand prints were Gram's very best linen and lace tablecloths.

"The linen cloth and napkins belonged to my grandmother" Gram said. "I use this only on special occasions, like wedding receptions or graduation parties. Mother gave it to me after my Grandmother died."

"You never machine wash linens like this. I wash them by hand and line dry them. Linen can't be starched either, that causes the fabric to rot in the trunk. I wrap these cloths in tissue paper to help protect them," Gram said as she gently laid the tissue back over them.

Two quilts were on the next layer. One was a wedding ring pattern quilt with many small colored shapes.

"The pieces of this quilt came from dresses my sisters and I had," Gram told us. "When a dress was outgrown Mother would cut out the best areas for quilt pieces. She made quilts in the wintertime when there were fewer outside chores to be done. After dinner, while we did homework, mother sat and pieced the quilt top. Quilting is a very long process, but the result is worth it."

Several boxes of various sizes came next. Some had labels on top and others were plain.

"Gram, what did you save in the boxes?" I asked, eager to continue the trip back though the family's history.

"Women always wore gloves to church, weddings and funerals. Since Grandpa was a minister I always needed clean gloves so I had several pairs of white and black ones. I wore the white ones to church Sundays and Wednesday nights and to weddings. Grandpa got phone calls or unplanned visits from couples wanting him to marry them and I'd be expected to be the witness so I kept an outfit with gloves always ready. You never wore totally white outfits to a wedding. Only the bride wore white. I don't think anyone follows that practice anymore."

The gloves in the box were neatly divided, three black pairs on one side and five pairs of white on the other. Gram has small hands so the gloves seemed rather small. Not one pair was identical to another.

One black pair had three buttons on the inside so it fit snug at the wrist. Another pair had three diamonds cut out on the top of the hand. I could tell by watching Gram as she held each pair that these gloves had been to many events in her life.

"I've always loved pretty greeting cards," Gram said almost apologetically. "Grandpa always gave me special cards and so did you kids, and I'd write the date on the envelope and add it to this box. I've had to change boxes a few times to hold the ones I've saved.

"Gram?" I asked "Have you ever written down the stories that go with the things in your chest?"

"I dated items as I included them but I haven't written stories about them." Gram replied quietly.

"There is so much family history in this chest," I said, "you should start a family history notebook with stories about the item and the events around it. How did you decide what to save?"

"Sometimes that was easy. I kept favorite baby clothes, a first dress or a sweater, and the first shoes were taken to a jewelry store and bronzed, but as the three children got older and I was busy, items went in much more slowly."

Gram took out a long box and put it out on her bed. It was a wedding dress. A full length gown of white chantilly lace, taffeta and tulle. Gram had worn this dress when she married Grandpa in 1940.

In the bottom corner was a tiny white dress and a little lace cap. Very gently, Gram lifted them out. "This was Grandpa's baby dress and his hat." Gram said as she gently straightened the fabric. "When we were babies, girls and boys both wore dresses while they were newborns. This outfit came from your great-grandmother's chest. There is a long line of treasure keepers in the family," Gram said with a hug for both mother and me.

"Let's go have a tea party," Gram said. "The chest needs to air and I'll repack it later. And Susan I will start a collection of stories."


  1. Ask how your family preserves their history -- photos, letters, newspaper clippings, greeting cards, objects; in a trunk, closet or drawer?
  2. Start a personal trunk in a shoe box. Be sure to date each artifact and write about why the item was included.

Family History

One way to learn about a period in history is to study what was happening in your own family at that time. You can also develop the ability to conduct interviews and write from oral accounts.

A. Conduct two interviews with individuals who lived through earlier times, either a grandparent or someone else that age.

  1. After you have decided which individuals you want to interview, write down five reasons you chose them. What interests you about each person?
  2. Prepare a list of at least five questions to ask. Write or type your questions in a journal or learning log and keep a record of your interviews.
  3. Decide how you will record the information from your interviews. Write it, type it using a word processor, record it on an audiotape, or record it on a videotape or on a digital camera. Think about the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  4. As you interview, follow interesting ideas or information with additional questions. Listen for information which you might use later in a story, poem, essay, etc.

B. Study a collection of photographs from earlier times, perhaps obtained from someone you interviewed. Consider several questions about the photographs:

  1. What clues do you have to indicate when this picture was taken? Study the background as well as at the focus of the photograph.
  2. What is in the picture that you may not understand? Who could you ask about it?
  3. Take a good look at any people in the photograph. How are they dressed? How does their clothing differ from yours?
  4. Do you respond differently to black and white photographs than to those in color? To digital photographs than to those developed from film?
  5. Write down some of the things you observed as well as ideas and information to support them.

C. Do newspaper and/or magazine research in the library or search the Internet. Find out when your parents were born and investigate what was happening on the dates of their birth. Investigate what was happening on your birthday in any year in the past. Choose the date of an important event or a date important to your family. Check for information such as:

  1. Headlines and information about the story.
  2. Other stories - local, state and national.
  3. Interesting information from advertisements, movie listings, or other things that catch you attention.
  4. How are earlier magazines and newspapers different from those of today?

D. Research what was happening to your family, (grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, etc.), during an earlier decade. Take notes as you ask questions such as these:

  1. Mobility. Where did the members of the family live? Did they move from one place to another?
  2. Housing. In what kinds of homes did family members live? Where were their homes in relation to where they worked?
  3. Occupations. What kinds of work did members of your family do in earlier times? Did women have jobs outside the home? How do these occupations compare to the occupations of your family?
  4. Education. What was the general level of educational attained in your family then and now? Eighth grade, high school completion, college?
  5. Leisure time. What did members of your family do for entertainment in earlier times? What does your family do for fun today? What did members of your family do together then? What do they do together now?
  6. Using a chart, compare the overall status of your family to the time when your grandparents were young. What conclusions can you make from your information?

    Photo Analysis

    Click here for a printable version of the worksheet

    Photo Analysis Worksheet

    Observation: Identifying the Photo

    Where was the photo found?

    What is happening in the photo?

    List the important details. Include how people are dressed.

    What is the title of the photo, if any?

    What is written on the back and front?

    Give the photo a title and a caption.

    Inference: Looking for clues

    Why was the photo taken?

    Who was the intended audience?

    When was the photo taken?

    Which details give the most information?

    Does the photo illustrate a theme, historical period or event?

    Questions: Evaluating the Photo

    List questions you have about the photo.

    Where could you find answers?

    Now let's analyze a photo together.

    Children on a Cow

    Photo Analysis Answers

    Photo Analysis Worksheet

    Observation: Identifying the Photo

    Where was the photo found?

    In an album of family photographs.

    What is happening in the photo? List the important details. Include how people are dressed.

    The photo is sepia-toned, old and faded. A boy and two girls in their best clothing are sitting on a milk cow in a field, facing the photographer. The girls have their hair tied with ribbons on the side and are wearing dresses, dark stockings and good shoes. The boy is wearing a suit with short pants, long stockings and good shoes.

    What is the title of the photo, if any? What is written on the back and front?

    There is no title. "Postcard, Correspondence Here, Address Only, Charles Walker, Hallie Walker, Elsie Pratt, Nancy's Great Aunt (on end)."

    Give the photo a title and a caption.

    Children on a Cow. Three children all dressed up in their best outfits are sitting on a milk cow to have their photograph taken.

    Inference: Looking for clues

    Why was the photo taken?

    Perhaps to send to friends and relatives for fun.

    Who was the intended audience?

    Friends and relatives of the children on the cow.

    When was the photo taken?

    The children's clothing indicates that the photo may have been taken in the early 1900s.

    Which details give the most information?

    The cow and the children's clothing.

    Does the photo illustrate a theme, historical period or event?

    The photograph was taken to put on postcards.

    Questions: Evaluating the Photo

    List questions you have about the photo

    Why were the children sitting on a cow in their best clothing to have their photo taken? Why were there no other people in the photo? Why was the cow standing so still? What was the purpose of the photo?

    Where could you find answers?

    Family members, books or the Internet about pioneer photographs and itinerant photographers.

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