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Mission of Household Furniture by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

From, Maids Wives and Bachelors

Have wood and paper and upholstery really any moral and emotional agencies?

Certainly they have. Not very obvious ones perhaps, but all-pervading and ever-persistent in their character; since there is no day—scarcely an hour—of our lives in which we are not, either passively or consciously, subject to their influences. Our cravings after elegance of form, glimmer and shimmer of light and color, insensibly elevate and civilize us; and the men and women condemned to the monotony of bare walls and unpicturesque surroundings—whether they be devotees in cells, or felons in dungeons—are the less human for the want of these things. The want, then, is a direct moral evil, and a cause of imperfection.

The desire for beautiful surroundings is a natural instinct in a pure mind. How tenaciously people who live in dull streets, and who never see a sunrise, nor a mountain peak, nor an unbroken horizon, cling to it is proved on all sides of us by the picturesqueness which many a mechanic's wife imparts to her little twelve-feet-square rooms. And it is wonderful with what slender materials she will satisfy this hunger of the eye for beauty and color. A few brightly polished tins, the many-shaded patchwork coverlets and cushions, the gay stripes in the rag carpet, the pot of trailing ivy or scarlet geranium, the shining black stove, with its glimmer and glow of fire and heat, are made by some subtle charm of arrangement both satisfactory and suggestive.

In spite of all arguments about the economy of “boarding,” who does not respect the men or women who, at all just sacrifices, eschew a boarding-house and make themselves a home?

A man without a home has cast away an anchor; an atmosphere of uncertainty clings about him; he advertises his tendency to break loose from wholesome restraints. So strongly is the force of this home influence now perceived that the wisest of our merchants refuse to employ boys and women without homes, while the universal preference is in favor of men who have assumed the head of the house, and thus given hostage to society for their good behavior.

But a house is not a home till it is swept and garnished, and contains not only the wherewithal to refresh the body, but also something for the comfort of the heart, the elevation of the mind, and the delight of the eye.

If we would fairly estimate the moral power of furniture, let us consider how attached it is possible for us to become to it. There are chairs that are sacred objects to us: the large, easy one, in which some saint sat patiently waiting for the angels; the little high chair which was some darling baby's throne till he “went away one morning;” the low rocker, in which mother nursed the whole family of stalwart sons and lovely daughters.

Ask any practised student or writer how much he loves his old desk, with its tidy pigeon-holes and familiar conveniences. Have they not many a secret between them that they only understand? Are they not familiar? Could they be parted without great sorrow and regrets? Nothing is more certain than that we do stamp ourselves upon dead matter, and impart to it a kind of life. Is there a more pathetic picture than that of Dickens's study after his death? Yet no human figure is present; there is nothing but furniture, the desk on which he wrote those wonderful stories, and the empty chair before it.

Nothing but the empty chair and the confidential desk to speak for the dead master; but how eloquently they do it!

Our furniture ought, therefore, to be easy and familiar. We cannot give our hearts to what is uncomfortable, no matter how quaint or rich it may be. And though it is always pleasant to have colors and forms assorted with perfect taste, it is not desirable to have the effect so perfect that we are afraid to make use of it, lest we destroy it. No furniture ought to be so fine that we dare not light a fire for fear of smoking it, or let the sunshine in for fear of fading it. In such rooms we do not lounge and laugh and eat and rest and live,—we only exist.

The proper character of drawing-rooms is that of gayety and cheerfulness. This is attained by light tints, and brilliant colors and gilding; but the brightest colors and the strongest contrasts must be on the furniture, not on the walls and ceilings. These must be subordinate in coloring, or the effect will be theatrical and vulgar.

The dining-room ought to be one of the pleasantest in the house; but it is generally in the basement. It ought to be a room in which there is nothing to remind us of labor or exertion, for we have gone there to eat and to be refreshed. A few flowers, a dish of fruits, snowy linen and china, glittering glass and silver, a pleasant blending of warm and neutral tints are essentials. For ornaments, rare china, Indian vases, Eastern jars suggestive of fine pickles or rare sweetmeats, and a few pictures on the walls, representing only pleasant subjects, and large enough to be examined without exertion, are the best.

Advantages of locality, a refined diner will always perceive and appropriate. Thus I used to dine frequently with a lady and gentleman who in the spring always altered the position of the table, so that while eating they could look through the large open windows, and see the waving apple-blossoms and breathe the perfumed air, and listen to the evening songs of the birds. Bedrooms should be light, cleanly, and cheerful; greater contrasts are admissible between the room and the furniture, as the bed and window-curtains form a sufficient mass to balance a tint of equal intensity upon the walls. For the same reason gay and bright carpets are often pleasant and ornamental.

Staircases, lobbies, and vestibules should be cool in tone, simple in color, and free from contrasts. Here the effects are to be produced by light and shadow, rather than by color. Every one must have noticed that some houses as soon as the doors are opened look bright and cheerful, while others are melancholy and dull. The difference is caused by the good or bad taste with which they are papered. Yet who shall say what events may arise from such a simple thing as the first impressions of an important visitor? And these impressions may involuntarily receive their primal tone from a light, cheerful, or dull, dark hall paper.

All rooms open to the public must have a certain air of conventional arrangement; but the parlor in every home ought to be a room of character and individuality. Here is the very shrine and sanctuary of the Lares and Penates. Here is the grandmamma's chair and knitting, and mamma's work-basket, and the sofa on which papa lounges and reads his evening paper. Here are Annie's flowers and Mary's easel and Jack's much-abused class-books. Here the girls practise and the boys rig their ship and mamma looks serious over the house books. In this room the picture papers lie around, every one's favorite volume is on the table, and the walls are sacred to the family portraits. In this room the family councils are held and the dear invalids nursed back to life. Here the boys come to say “good-bye” when they go away to school or to business. Here the girls, in their gay party-dresses, come for papa's final bantering kiss and mamma's last admiration and admonition. Ah, this room!—this dear, untidy, unfashionable parlor! It is the citadel of the household, the very heart of the home.

None can deny the influence which childhood's home has over them, even unto their hoary-hairs; the memory of a happy, comfortable one is better than an inheritance. The girls and boys who leave it have a positive ideal to realize. There is no speculation in their efforts; they know that home is “Sweet Home.” But in all their imaginings chairs and tables and curtains and carpets have a conspicuous place. This life is all we have to front eternity with, therefore nothing that touches it is of small consequence. It is something to the body to have comfortable and appropriate household surroundings, it is much more to the mind. Is there any one whose feelings and energies are not depressed by a cold, comfortless, untidy room? And who does not feel a positive exaltation of spirit in the glow of a bright fire and the cosey surroundings of a prettily furnished apartment?

God has not made us to differ in this respect. A pleasant home is the dream and hope of every good man and woman. As Traddles and his dear little wife used to please themselves by selecting in the shop windows their contemplated service of silver, so also many honest, hopeful toilers fix upon the chairs and curtains that are to adorn their homes long before they possess them. The dream and the object is a great gain morally to them. Perhaps they might have other ones, but it is equally possible that the possession of this very furniture is the very condition that makes higher ones possible.

Depend upon it “A Society for the Improved Furnishing of Poor Men's Homes” would be a step taken in the seven-leagued boots for the elevation of poor men's and women's lives.


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