A part of Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart:

However, I did the best I could. When Gertrude got past the hair-ribbon age, and Halsey asked for a scarf-pin and put on long trousers--and a wonderful help that was to the darning.--I sent them away to good schools. After that, my responsibility was chiefly postal, with three months every summer in which to replenish their wardrobes, look over their lists of acquaintances, and generally to take my foster-motherhood out of its nine months' retirement in camphor.

Was it a misspelling or dead expression? I can't find any proper meaning of this word in any dictionary to fit in the above sentence.

  • 1
    Nothing is misspelled in your highlighted sentence. It might also not be a case of a dead expression, but rather a metaphor. Dec 21, 2014 at 6:02

2 Answers 2


Camphor is used (among other applications) as a repellent against moths and other insect pests.

So I take the mention of 'retirement in camphor' in the extract you cited as a somewhat laboured reference to the fact that for nine months of the year, the author's foster-motherhood was 'in mothball storage'.

Her comment that during the three months of the year in which she was actively involved with her foster children she would replenish their wardrobes subtly encourages or emphasises this interpretation.

  • 1
    Indeed, when I was young, every spring my mother routinely put her winter clothes away in closets hung with moth balls. I suppose more versatile and moth-resistant fabrics have made this ritual less frequent. Dec 21, 2014 at 7:37
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    @AndrewLazarus - My Polish grandmother did the same; but the mothballs she used were of the now-banned naphthalene rather than camphor. I still recall the carcinogenic miasma of her clothes closets with nostalgic fondness.
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 21, 2014 at 7:58
  • Nowadays, paradichlorobenzene is more commonly used in making mothballs than camphor. Dec 21, 2014 at 14:04

It's another way of saying "mothballed"

  • I think you're spot-on, but do you have a source that shows this meaning?
    – Marthaª
    Dec 21, 2014 at 23:53

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