Rebecca Runkle and her husband, W.J. Runkle, were wealthy landowners from Elkton, Virginia. One day at the turn of the 20th century, Rebecca took one of her used petticoats to her sister, Mrs. Lou Davis, with the instructions that she put it in her travel trunk for safekeeping. In those days, people kept their valuables and sentimental items, things they rarely used but wanted to keep safe, in their trunks. Rebecca’s sister thought little of the request and followed Rebecca’s instructions without inspecting the petticoat. She placed it in her trunk and forgot about it.

On Jan. 5, 1908, Rebecca’s husband died. Rebecca contracted pneumonia near the time of her husband’s death. With each passing day, her condition deteriorated. On Jan. 12, 1908, a week to the day of her husband’s death, Rebecca died at the young age of 55.

As happens when someone passes away, families are left to determine what happens to the individual’s worldly possessions unless they leave explicit instructions in the form of a last will and testament. Rebecca and her husband, however, had left no such instructions. Normally, Rebecca’s and W.J.’s possession would have passed down to their children, but the couple never had children. W.J.’s and Rebecca’s brothers and sisters began the difficult task of dividing up their possessions, a task that can turn even the closest of family members against each other.

A week after Rebecca’s death, her sister remembered the petticoat Rebecca had given her to store in her trunk. She still thought little about the petticoat because it was just a nondescript undergarment with little, if any, monetary value. In the interest of being fair to her siblings, Rebecca’s sister removed the petticoat from the trunk to add it to the inventory. At first glance, it looked like any other well-used petticoat. When Rebecca’s sister picked up the garment, however, something felt out of place. The normally lite material was heavier than she thought it should have been. Parts of the petticoat were pliable while other parts were stiff. Rebecca’s sister ran her hands along the petticoat and felt rectangular objects within the folds of the cloth.

What purpose did these rectangles serve? Were they put there to alter the appearance of the wearer? Would they make the wearer look smaller, thinner, or maybe even larger? Rows and rows of these rectangles covered the entire petticoat. Rebecca’s sister knew that the only way to determine what the rectangles were made of was to remove the stitching, thereby destroying the very petticoat which Rebecca wanted to be kept safe.

Rebecca’s sister had to solve the mystery. She carefully removed the stitching around one of the rectangles. She was astonished to reveal a small stack of paper. She removed the stitching around another rectangle and found another small stack of paper. Rebecca’s sister removed stacks and stacks of paper. She thought she had removed all of the paper, which her sister had carefully sewn into the petticoat, when she realized the garment still hid some thinner stacks of paper. She continued to remove the stitching until the petticoat was little more than tattered rags. Rebecca’s sister knew that the reason Rebecca had sewn the paper into the petticoat was not to alter appearance. Rebecca wanted to keep the paper safe. She wore the petticoat under her dress for parties, dinners, and for many other occasions which required fancy attire. The rectangular stacks of paper Rebecca’s sister found in the petticoat was $4,000 in cash, which, adjusted for inflation, would amount to about $115,000 today. With this find, you can bet Rebecca’s family took a closer look at her remaining wardrobe.

Brad Dison taught as an adjunct instructor at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana and is a contributing author for the scholarly journal Louisiana History.

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