Attic-renovation project yields fun find for St. Paul family

After ripping out the carpet in their St. Paul attic last week, Aaron Nunberg and Jen Kamarainen decided to pull up a section of the floorboard.

They wanted to determine the strength of the joist below.

They found the joist and an unexpected treasure: four pages from the April 19, 1942, edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The Sunday newspaper, ripped, yellowed and brittle, gave them a chance to show their sons, Theo, 9, and Walter, 6, what life was like during World War II.

A photo of a page from the 1942 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press found in the attic of a house in St. Paul in January 2021. (Courtesy of Jen Kamarainen and Aaron Nunberg)

From the ads, they learned that a Columbia Records 78-rpm record of Benny Goodman and His Orchestra performing “Buckle Down Winsocki” could be purchased for 53 cents; a chenille bedspread cost $3.98; a five-piece Chromium dinette set would set you back $34.95; and a “space-saving Simplex ironer” machine, one of the most expensive items listed, cost $39.95.

Headlines ranged from “Underprivileged Children of City Look Forward to Co-op Camping” to “Lord and Lady Halifax Ride Jeep” to “Bank Cashier Meted 3 Years For Thefts.”

But it was the “Sugar Rationing Details Listed” headline that really stood out, Kamarainen said.

“That was one that we pointed out to our boys just because we wanted them to understand that that was a thing back during wartime,” Kamarainen said. “Walter, especially, had lots of questions. He kept saying, ‘Well, why couldn’t they get more?’ It was a good lesson on the sacrifices during the war.”

According to the article, published four months after the U.S. entered World War II, sugar rationing was to begin at midnight the following Sunday. “No more sugar will be sold from then until the morning of May 4,” the article stated. “This will be effective all over the United States.”

Americans had to have government-issued sugar stamps in order to purchase sugar, according to the article. But family units “who had six pounds of sugar on hand for each member would not be issued books until the supply is brought to less than two pounds each,” the article stated.

Although newspapers were often used as insulation in old houses, including in the basement of the couple’s 1900 house, that did not appear to be the case with the Pioneer Press they found in the attic, Nunberg said.

“It appeared to just be a random piece of paper below the floorboards,” he said. “It was in a clothing gift box. It was in an insulated area, but this was just a flat-folded single page of the paper.”

“This one was just laying there, and that’s what made it weird,” Kamarainen said. “It was in a half-built gift box, and there was actual insulation around it.”

A 19-pound bag of what appears to be sugar was found in the attic of a St. Paul home under renovation on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Courtesy of Jen Kamarainen and Aaron Nunberg)

Nunberg and Kamarainen, who live on the 800 block of Holly Avenue, took photos of the newspaper pages and decided to create their own miniature time capsule under the floorboard in the attic. They sent a note out to their neighbors asking for a copy of last Sunday’s Pioneer Press to add to it.

Once the new oak floor is installed, the attic will be turned into an “exercise/video game space,” Kamarainen said. “It’s kind of a wide-open room with a chimney in the middle. It’s going to be bonus space. We’ve had a playset up there, but as our boys have gotten older, we’re kind of outgrowing that at this point.”

On Tuesday night, the couple decided to take one more look under the floorboard prior to placing both newspapers — spanning almost 79 years — in the space.

There, tucked deeper under the wood amidst the attic’s insulation, was a dusty white cloth bag containing a white substance that appeared to be sugar.

Theo Nunberg, 9, and Walter Nunberg, 6, examine a bag of what appears to be sugar that was found in the attic of their house in St. Paul on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Courtesy of Jen Kamarainen and Aaron Nunberg)

“It was hard, and it was big, and it was hard to pry it out,” Nunberg said. “I had work it through the floorboard space because it was packed and solid. At that point, we started to suspect it was sugar.”

The drawstring bag, which was filled about a quarter of the way, weighed 19 pounds.

“The newspaper seemed random until we found the bag of sugar,” Kamarainen said. “After re-reading the sugar-rationing article, our best guess is that the household hid their excess sugar in order to qualify for their sugar stamps.”

Theo and Walter, who posed for pictures with their finds, are “amazed that the newspaper — and now the sugar — have been there longer than their grandparents have been alive,” she said.

The couple is still trying to confirm that the white substance is sugar. No one has tasted it, they said.

“I was just texting a chemist friend to see if they had any Benedict’s solution, so we can confirm that it is sugar without tasting it,” Kamarainen said, referring to the chemical test that can be used to check for the presence of reducing sugars in a given analyte. “We’ve heard lots of jokes about whether we should be telling people about the white powder under our attic floor. They’re like, ‘Oh, you really think the white powder is sugar?’ ”

“We did not call the haz-mat team,” Nunberg said.

The bag of sugar — or whatever it turns out to be — was not included in the family’s time capsule, Kamarainen said.

“We’re kind of amazed that there wasn’t any evidence of ants or mice or any other critters getting into it,” she said. “We did not put that back in because we decided it wasn’t good to leave sugar around the house. We don’t want mice snacking in the rafters.”

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