When I have a little time to myself, I like to drop into my favorite chair in the living room, the one next to the low white bookshelf near the fireplace.
On the shelves, beside the stack of pages torn from magazines or clipped from newspapers from around the world, are the books I’m reading, or the books I’m hoping to read, or the books I read a long time ago and like to have where I can pick them up and fall back into a familiar story.
I start reading and before long, out of habit and without taking my eyes off the page, I reach over and pick up my silver cigarette case. My fingers find the latch, press it and the case pops open. But I’m not fumbling for a cigarette.
The engraved silver plate cigarette case is a bit battered but that’s to be expected. It’s almost 100 years old, after all, and who knows where it’s been over the last century? The silver is thin in places, showing the brass beneath, but one can still read the date and message engraved on the top: “To A. Gates from the girls at Manor Works.” and the date: 1918.
I keep colorful self-adhesive paper flags in the case and use them to mark an interesting page or passage in a book so I can easily find it again.
When I found the case online I was intrigued. I was searching for reference material about World War I and it popped up because of the date. I wasn’t looking for a cigarette case, but it was a bargain. There is a tiny puncture in the back but the latch still works and even with shipping costs, it was less than a lunch out. And, to be honest, I was attracted to the slight mystery of the engraving--Who was A. Gates? What was Manor Works?--and I knew I would eventually find a use for it.
So I placed the order. The day it came in the mail I unwrapped it and again wondered about the man it had been given to. I’m assuming A. Gates was a man. Women smoked at the time but there is something a bit masculine about the case. Still, I could be wrong...
I’ve been searching for more information about A. Gates and Manor Works and I think it might somehow be connected to the historic Crittall Window Company’s Manor Works in Braintree England. The company began in 1849 and during the early 20th Century moved into the U. S. market manufacturing windows for Ford Model T’s and built steel windows in Detroit.
During the Great War Crittall’s role shifted ( as did so many others) and they produced munitions.
In 1918, the year the war ended, Crittall entered into a manufacturing agreement with a Belgian company and began to manufacture metal windows for modern post-war housing.
Perhaps Mr. Gates was leaving to work in the new enterprise and the the cigarette case was a goodbye gift from “the girls.”
I’m going to keep digging but for now, the case, a kind of mystery of its own, is at home near my favorite chair in the company of a lot of fine old books. I think the girls would approve
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org