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BEDS AND TABLES, STOOLS AND CANDLESTICKS. XI.
PLEAS AND REMONSTRANCES.
"In after dinner talk Across the walnuts and the wine,"
No. I. A JACOBEAN CHAIR.
A WEEK or two ago at a prettily furnished mingled of reverence and affection.
seems that in his old age this man, like many another whose work has been a force to help lift his generation up to a higher plane, is not so rich in this world's goods as he would be if all the grateful thoughts that spring up at the mention of his name were coined into gold and poured into his lap. He lives in [Copyright, Scribner & Co., 1877-]
chance brought up the name of a poetphilosopher very dear to some Americans who were young thirty years ago, never thought of without a stirring of the heart,
a plain, good house in the country, the windows of which look out upon a modest acre or two of his own; he eats plain fare, and is pleased with what he eats, and cares, no more than the most homespun of his neighbors, for luxuries, or for the things that go for show. His luxuries are the liberal sunshine that streams in at his windows, the Æolian harping of the pine-tree grove that shelters his house, and the peace that dwells within its walls. It happened that some well-to-do people from the city had been visiting the poet's family, and they brought back to town a melancholy report of the condition of things they found there. Would Peek-in street believe it! The poet's table was set out with plain white china (Heaven grant that a closer view might not have found it only earthenware!), and some of it was chipped, and the tumblers were not mates, and the wine-glasses were in such a way that they actually had to be supported by the tumblers! It mattered not that to this plain house, and to its frugal New England table, came the picked society of the world, or that the best people in the land think it an added pleasure to their lives to be of the company. These fine city-people (one wonders how they came there!) saw nothing but the plain living, and found no compensation in the high thinking.
An incident like this might make one ashamed of the time he has given to thinking and writing about "things," if he could not comfort himself with the assurance that there has been nothing in his treatment of the subject, or in the advice he has given, inconsistent with good sense, or with right ways of living. It has been taken for granted that all his readers knew how little furniture, and decorations, and equipage, have to do with happiness or with true largeness of life. Almost all the great men of this world have lived in an absolute independence of things. The shining lights of our own time especially have been remarkable in a luxurious society, for the Spartan simplicity of their surroundings.
We all know of Wordsworth's abstemiousness, and though this were excessive, yet it is of a piece with English habits, and Shelley and Keats, Hunt and Godwin, knew how to be happy and to make others happy, without a parade of "things." It is true that though the list of great men, and of men not great, but who live in the immortality of our affection, who have known" how to do without" is a long one, yet there are
others who make a love of " things" respectable, to say the least: Solomon, Plato, Julius Cæsar, Thomas à Becket, Lord Bacon ("a queer list," I think I hear the reader laugh!), will befriend with their example-lovers of luxury, every man of them!-whoever wants an excuse for having two gowns and everything handsome about him, and does not wish to be written down an ass for the same!
What excuse, then, for writing all these pages to tell people how to do what so many good people get along very well without doing, without desiring to do? No excuse at all is needed, for these pages are not written for those who do not want advice, but for those who do, and though plenty of people are well content to go through life without spending money, thought, or time upon superfluities, yet the number is far greater of those who are not content with this wholesale abstinence; who will round the edge of their rough work-a-day world with beauty, or, at least, with taste, and who want better fare than only "to drink the clear stream and nothing eat but pulse;" and we have wished, being of their party ourself, to give them a helping hand.
But, now and again comes a letter or a spoken word that tells us the mark aimed at has not been always hit. Letters like that of the Texan gentlemen, quoted in the March installment of these articles, are not the kind we refer to: that was an unreasonable complaint, because the writer should have known we were not attempting to cater for persons in his case. Indeed it would have been easy to put his complaint in a humorous light. It was somewhat as if a a writer had made an essay on "Flower Gardens," and after giving some hints as to the ordering of them, and adding some pictures of the flowers it would be well to have if you could get them, he should receive a letter saying that the writer didn't like the essay, nor did his neighbor either; for they couldn't see how their cows could get enough to eat in these lily and violet beds, while the thorns of the rose-bushes would infallibly prick their noses. But, here, along with many letters thanking the writer of these articles cordially for what he has tried to do, and asking for advice in sundry plans and difficulties, comes one written evidently by a person of education and refinement complaining very amiably that to people of small means these articles of mine, with the objects pictured, are of
hardly any use. "Will not some one of your contributors," the letter goes on to say, "write for people with small incomes, telling them how to get pretty furniture and furnish their houses with taste, for little money?"
Now, we can assure this correspondent that no contributor, however desirous to do what is wanted of him; can accomplish the task-not for want of literary skill, nor for want of sympathy with people of small means, but because all the conditions of the furnishing market are against us. People may dress on a little money, and may set a good table on a little money; but unless they give a great deal more time to it than they ought to be able to afford, they cannot, here in America, furnish their houses elegantly and individually on a little money. Now and then one can find in an old country-house, or at auction, a piece of furniture, a chair, a table, a sideboard, which he gets at a bargain; but, to get a roomful, a houseful, of good furniture, and get it for a song, so rarely happens that the hope of it need not be entertained. I know of one house which is almost entirely furnished with old American (or English) and old Dutch furniture, but it is one house picked out of t ten thousand. It belongs to a deservedly prosperous artist, and the collecting this furniture has been the amusement of stray hours for many a year. The old Dutch furniture, remarkable for its richness and for its condition, was bought in Holland while its owner was a student there; and, hand
some as it is, it cost but little money, partly
The only use there is in citing such a case as this is to show what has been done, and to suggest what may be done by another. But nothing can be done by any one who does not care enough for the matter to take a good deal of trouble to get what he wants; and to those who insist so warmly that a house cannot be made pretty and attractive without money, I venture to insist as warmly that money is the least important element in the business! Taste and contrivance are of far more importance than money; and of all the attractive houses that it has been my good fortune to see, by far the greater number have owed their attractiveness to the taste and to the ingenuity of their owners rather than to their long purses. A person with no need to think about the cost of
anything may go into Cottier's rooms and buy and order right and left, and give the house commission to decorate and furnish,
for real ones by old beaus and maiden ladies; they may put artificial flowers in garden-boxes in their windows; they may do anything that comes into their nonsensical pretty heads, and all we shall have to say about it is what old Mrs. G― said after some stylish girls had been "going on" and "showing off" their new-fangled dress and airs: "How nice it is of 'em to do so, dear!"
and upholster, and fill his cabinets with "old blue," and never spare for cost, and when all is done, nobody who comes to visit him shall say, "How beautiful this is! How interesting! What taste you have!" but only, "Oh, then, I see Cottier has been with you!" There has simply been a transfer of goods from one show-place to another.
The truth is, we are depending too much in these days on furniture and bric-à-brac for
the ornament of our houses, and not enough on things more permanently interesting. We ought to seek (at least so it seems to me) the individual expression of ourselves, of our own family life, our own ways of living, thinking, acting, more than the doing as other people are doing, more than the having what other people are having. I am not in for a tilt against fashion; fashionable people may do what they like; 'twere vain to say them nay. They may buy embossed brass coal-scuttles and put them in the middle of their parlor hearths in front of dummy fire-places, neither coal-scuttle nor fire-place ever having been intended to be used; they may put china cats nursing their kittens on their satin sofas, and enjoy their being taken
So when people want to know how they can do as the rich, fashionable people do, and not pay for it what the rich, fashionable people pay, I am lost in wonder, and have no reply. If you have taste, perception, contrivance, and if you really enjoy having tasteful, pretty, beautiful things about you, you will somehow have them; but they will come out of yourself, and will look like you, and not like another. But if you only want to be in the fashion, and to have things that either come from Marcotte's, or Herter's, or Cottier's, or look as if they came from one of these places, you must be content, either to pay the round price for the real things, or to put up with such second-rate copies of them as your small means will buy.