Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850–1930
I was recently shown a house whose interior was being renovated. The house was in a prosperous part of the city, and I was curious to see what sort of changes and alterations had been specified by owners who had enough money to have a wide range of choices. It was not the interior decoration itself that concerned me, although like most people I am a voyeur when it comes to the houses of strangers—especially rich strangers. Interior decoration is customarily thought of as merely an illustration of good or bad taste—or of fashion; it is more than that. The embellishment and arrangement of a home are a graphic (and sometimes symbolic) representation of public and private cultural attitudes to domesticity and family life. More interestingly, they are also an indication of how these attitudes are changing.
As we walked up the garden path I could hear the sounds of hammering and the whine of an electric saw. I enjoy visiting building sites. To the average onlooker, used to the ordered anonymity of office bureaucracy, or to the featureless regularity of the factory assembly line, a building site appears disorderly and chaotic. In fact, there is organization, but of a sort different from the uniformity of the corporate workplace. Instead there is a loose orchestration of many separate tradesmen, working side by side but not necessarily together. In this aspect, a building site—especially a small building site—has changed little since the Middle Ages. Journeymen still ply their separate trades—no company men here. No industrial robots either; work is still done largely by hand, or at least with hand-held tools.
Inside the house, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers were busily at work. Plywood covered the floor, and everything was shrouded in a thin film of white dust. A plasterer on a ladder was touching up a molding; an older man in overalls stood at a table-saw, cutting strips of wood flooring; two other workers—electricians, to judge from the tool belts slung around their waists—were conferring over a set of blueprints that had been spread out over a make-shift trestle table. A well-dressed woman, obviously the owner, surveyed this activity with what appeared to be a mixture of pride and trepidation.
Since a friend of mine lived in a matching house next door, I was surprised to see little that resembled the original structure. The interior was being transformed—walls moved about, skylights added, new services installed. The ceilings were perforated with new downlights, the windows had been replaced, so had the front door. The scope of these changes suggested the need for a major reconstruction, as if the house were the survivor of some earlier, pretechnological period whose antiquated standards of comfort and convenience would no longer do. My impression of the exterior facade hardly suggested great age, however, and this suspicion was confirmed by my guide—the house was barely twenty-five years old.
I walked around the house and my attention was caught by …
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