A (Pillow) Case of the Human Condition: Time to Crack Open That Hope Chest and Live a Little

hand embroider pillowcase with french knots & daisies. Photo by BF Newhall.

Every Christmas for many years another pair of hand embroidered pillow cases would arrive from my Grandma Falconer. Photos by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I waited too long to get married. By the time Jon and I said our vows, the contents of my hope chest were hopelessly outdated. Unusable.

There wasn’t all that much in my hope chest when I got married, just a few pillowcases hand embroidered by my grandmother, a woman who was born way, way back in the nineteenth century, when girls still collected fancy table linens, sheets and towels in anticipation of the day they’d marry and start households of their own.

hand-embroidered-pillowcase-ca1960-butterfly. Photo by BF NewhallBy the time I was a teenager, however — this would be the mid-twentieth century Midwest — the hope chest tradition had pretty much gone the way of knickers and corsets, so I didn’t have an actual hope chest, just a shelf in my bedroom closet. But I did have a substantial collection of hand-embroidered pillow cases from my grandmother.

She’d sent me a pair every Christmas for years, and each time she did, I wrote a nice thank-you note and stored the pretty things away.

They would be my trousseau, I decided. I’d save them up until I was married and my Real Life could begin. When that time came, I’d share my pretty pillow cases with my husband and our most special houseguests. Bed sheets were always white in those days, and the pillowcases with their delicate embroidered edges would bring color to my marriage bed and to our guest room.

Marrimekko sheet from 1970s. Photo by BF Newhall

Marimekko prints were in when Jon and I married.

Unfortunately, by the time 1977 rolled around and Jon and I finally began our life together, white bed sheets had gone the way of big Sunday dinners right after church and nylon stockings with seams up the back. All the department stores at the time were showing bright, boldly colored sheets with big blocky prints.

Crisp white sheets? A thing of the past. Dainty, flowered pillowcases? Fussy and sentimental. My trousseau pillowcases with their daisy chains and sprigs of orange blossom? An embarrassment. The very idea of a trousseau – still more embarrassment. I hid the pillowcases away and bought a set of Marimekko sheets at Macy’s.

As a result, after thirty some years of marriage, I continue to be the owner of a dozen or so beautiful, hand-embroidered, virginal pillowcases. I’ve had them in my possession for a half century. And I’ve never used them.

Over the years, Jon and I moved from a double bed, to a queen sized bed, to a king. Sheets were purchased, used till threadbare, then ripped up and stuffed in the rag bag. Children were born. They slept in cribs. They slept in bunk beds. They slept in sleeping bags. They went off to college and slept on extra-long sheets in extra-long dorm beds.

Mid 2oth century hand embroidered pillowcase with pink hearts. Photo by BF Newhall

The little balls are french knots. Also: cross stiches.

But every Christmas when it came time to dig through the linen closet for the Christmas stockings, I’d come across Grandma Falconer’s hand-made pillow cases and feel sad. Chain stitch, satin stitch, cross stitch, French knot — her handiwork was so careful, so loving, so Midwestern, so out of synch with my West Coast life style.

But in time styles changed. Eventually, I lost interest in the big, bold patterns of my newlywed years. I took to buying plain pastel blue and green sheets with interchangeable blue and green pillowcases. At our house, pillowcases are like socks – a pair goes into the wash and only one comes out, its mate gone missing. It’s simpler to make the beds up with plain pastel colors.

Meanwhile, the faithful pillow cases continued to turn up every Christmas. Pretty, I’d think when I spotted them in their linen wrapping under the Christmas stockings. Old-fashioned, but pretty. And really, they are treasures. Heirlooms practically. In fact, they’re too good to use every day. I’ll just put them back on their shelf in the linen closet and save them for a really special occasion.

More years go by. Lots of them. Until, finally last week, getting ready for houseguests – my son Peter and his girlfriend from Minnesota – once again I was short a pillowcase or two. And there they were in the linen closet buried under the Christmas stockings as always: Grandma’s lovely old hand-embroidered pillowcases with their trilliums and marguerites and vines of ivy.

I thought to myself, if Peter and his girlfriend don’t qualify as our most special houseguests, who does?

I found this Christmas card tucked among my grandmother's pillowcases. Her handwriting was as meticulous as her needlework. Photos C B.F. Newhall

I found this Christmas card tucked among my grandmother’s pillowcases. Her handwriting was as meticulous as her needlework.

I pulled the pillowcases off the shelf. I picked out the prettiest pair. I dropped them into the washing machine.

Grandma’s pillowcases had been waiting forty years for my Real Life to begin — I thought they’d want to freshen up a bit.

If you enjoyed this post you can share it with friends by clicking on the Facebook, Twitter or Email icons below. And — you can read more of my thoughts on  long-distance parenting at “Geographic Mobility in America — Watching My Kids Disappear.” 




  1. Scott Farley says:

    I enjoyed your pillowcases blog!
    I remember Christmas with great fondness and expectation each season. My grandmother’s sister would
    send a present when I was between 8 and 12. She started out with a white dress shirts followed by
    books which was even worse.Only when she switched to sending $2.00 did she make a good impression.
    More in keeping with your story, my Godmother would send a silver water goblet with my initials each Christmas and then switched to butter dishes. They have never been used before, during or after my
    marriage. They sit in a wooden chest in a corner of my living room.
    My parents generation used silver, my generation used stainless steel and my children use their fingers,
    but not as much as they used too, or go out to eat. The good news about my silver is I might be able to sell
    it when things get even worse and send my great nephews white dress shirts, books or even money.

    P.S. How do I acess spell check on these blogs?

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Thanks, Scott. Good luck selling that silver. Better yet, put those goblets out nest to sinks and use them! Let them go black with tarnish, if necessary.
      I haven’t a clue as to how to check spelling when posting a comment. And, by the looks of comments I see posted all over the Internet, I don’t think people much care about spelling in cyberspace.


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