Our House by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Story type: Essay

Our gallant Bob Stephens, into whose lifeboat our Marianne has been received, has lately taken the mania of housebuilding into his head. Bob is somewhat fastidious, difficult to please, fond of domesticities and individualities; and such a man never can fit himself into a house built by another, and accordingly housebuilding has always been his favorite mental recreation. During all his courtship, as much time was taken up in planning a future house as if he had money to build one; and all Marianne’s patterns, and the backs of half their letters, were scrawled with ground-plans and elevations. But latterly this chronic disposition has been quickened into an acute form by the falling-in of some few thousands to their domestic treasury,–left as the sole residuum of a painstaking old aunt, who took it into her head to make a will in Bob’s favor, leaving, among other good things, a nice little bit of land in a rural district half an hour’s railroad ride from Boston.

So now ground-plans thicken, and my wife is being consulted morning, noon, and night; and I never come into the room without finding their heads close together over a paper, and hearing Bob expatiate on his favorite idea of a library. He appears to have got so far as this, that the ceiling is to be of carved oak, with ribs running to a boss overhead, and finished mediaevally with ultramarine blue and gilding,–and then away he goes sketching Gothic patterns of bookshelves which require only experienced carvers, and the wherewithal to pay them, to be the divinest things in the world.

Marianne is exercised about china-closets and pantries, and about a bedroom on the ground-floor,–for, like all other women of our days, she expects not to have strength enough to run upstairs oftener than once or twice a week; and my wife, who is a native genius in this line, and has planned in her time dozens of houses for acquaintances, wherein they are at this moment living happily, goes over every day with her pencil and ruler the work of rearranging the plans, according as the ideas of the young couple veer and vary.

One day Bob is importuned to give two feet off from his library for a closet in the bedroom, but resists like a Trojan. The next morning, being mollified by private domestic supplications, Bob yields, and my wife rubs out the lines of yesterday, two feet come off the library, and a closet is constructed. But now the parlor proves too narrow,–the parlor wall must be moved two feet into the hall. Bob declares this will spoil the symmetry of the latter; and, if there is anything he wants, it is a wide, generous, ample hall to step into when you open the front door.

“Well, then,” says Marianne, “let’s put two feet more into the width of the house.”

“Can’t on account of the expense, you see,” says Bob. “You see every additional foot of outside wall necessitates so many more bricks, so much more flooring, so much more roofing, etc.”

And my wife, with thoughtful brow, looks over the plans, and considers how two feet more are to be got into the parlor without moving any of the walls.

“I say,” says Bob, bending over her shoulder, “here, take your two feet in the parlor, and put two more feet on to the other side of the hall stairs;” and he dashes heavily with his pencil.

“Oh, Bob!” exclaims Marianne, “there are the kitchen pantries! you ruin them,–and no place for the cellar stairs!”

“Hang the pantries and cellar stairs!” says Bob. “Mother must find a place for them somewhere else. I say the house must be roomy and cheerful, and pantries and those things may take care of themselves; they can be put somewhere well enough. No fear but you will find a place for them somewhere. What do you women always want such a great enormous kitchen for?”

“It is not any larger than is necessary,” said my wife, thoughtfully; “nothing is gained by taking off from it.”

“What if you should put it all down into a basement,” suggests Bob, “and so get it all out of sight together?”

“Never, if it can be helped,” said my wife. “Basement kitchens are necessary evils, only to be tolerated in cities where land is too dear to afford any other.”

So goes the discussion till the trio agree to sleep over it. The next morning an inspiration visits my wife’s pillow. She is up and seizes plans and paper, and, before six o’clock, has enlarged the parlor very cleverly by throwing out a bow-window. So waxes and wanes the prospective house, innocently battered down and rebuilt with India-rubber and black-lead. Doors are cut out to-night and walled up to-morrow; windows knocked out here and put in there, as some observer suggests possibilities of too much or too little draught. Now all seems finished, when, lo! a discovery! There is no fireplace nor stove-flue in my lady’s bedroom, and can be none without moving the bathing-room. Pencil and India-rubber are busy again, and for a while the whole house seems to threaten to fall to pieces with the confusion of the moving; the bath-room wanders like a ghost, now invading a closet, now threatening the tranquillity of the parlor, till at last it is laid, by some unheard-of calculations of my wife’s, and sinks to rest in a place so much better that everybody wonders it never was thought of before.

“Papa,” said Jenny, “it appears to me people don’t exactly know what they want when they build; why don’t you write a paper on housebuilding?”

“I have thought of it,” said I, with the air of a man called to settle some great reform. “It must be entirely because Christopher has not written that our young people and mamma are tangling themselves daily in webs which are untangled the next day.”

“You see,” said Jenny, “they have only just so much money, and they want everything they can think of under the sun. There’s Bob been studying architectural antiquities, and nobody knows what, and sketching all sorts of curly-whorlies; and Marianne has her notions about a parlor and boudoir and china closets and bedroom closets; and Bob wants a baronial hall; and mamma stands out for linen closets and bathing-rooms and all that; and so, among them all it will just end in getting them head over ears in debt.”

The thing struck me as not improbable.

“I don’t know, Jenny, whether my writing an article is going to prevent all this; but as my time in the ‘Atlantic’ is coming round, I may as well write on what I am obliged to think of, and so I will give a paper on the subject to enliven our next evening’s session.”

So that evening, when Bob and Marianne had dropped in as usual, and while the customary work of drawing and rubbing out was going on at Mrs. Crowfield’s sofa, I produced my paper and read as follows:–

OUR HOUSE

There is a place, called “our house,” which everybody knows of. The sailor talks of it in his dreams at sea. The wounded soldier, turning in his uneasy hospital-bed, brightens at the word; it is like the dropping of cool water in the desert, like the touch of cool fingers on a burning brow. “Our house,” he says feebly, and the light comes back into his dim eyes; for all homely charities, all fond thoughts, all purities, all that man loves on earth or hopes for in heaven, rise with the word.

“Our house” may be in any style of architecture, low or high. It may be the brown old farmhouse, with its tall wellsweep, or the one-story gambrel-roofed cottage, or the large, square, white house, with green blinds, under the wind-swung elms of a century; or it may be the log-cabin of the wilderness, with its one room,–still there is a spell in the memory of it beyond all conjurations. Its stone and brick and mortar are like no other; its very clapboards and shingles are dear to us, powerful to bring back the memories of early days and all that is sacred in home love.

* * * * *

“Papa is getting quite sentimental,” whispered Jenny, loud enough for me to hear. I shook my head at her impressively, and went on undaunted.

* * * * *

There is no one fact of our human existence that has a stronger influence upon us than the house we dwell in, especially that in which our earlier and more impressible years are spent. The building and arrangement of a house influence the health, the comfort, the morals, the religion. There have been houses built so devoid of all consideration for the occupants, so rambling and haphazard in the disposal of rooms, so sunless and cheerless and wholly without snugness or privacy, as to make it seem impossible to live a joyous, generous, rational, religious family life in them.

There are, we shame to say, in our cities things called houses, built and rented by people who walk erect and have the general air and manner of civilized and Christianized men, which are so inhuman in their building that they can only be called snares and traps for souls,–places where children cannot well escape growing up filthy and impure; places where to form a home is impossible, and to live a decent, Christian life would require miraculous strength.

A celebrated British philanthropist, who had devoted much study to the dwellings of the poor, gave it as his opinion that the temperance societies were a hopeless undertaking in London unless these dwellings underwent a transformation. They were so squalid, so dark, so comfortless, so constantly pressing upon the senses foulness, pain, and inconvenience, that it was only by being drugged with gin and opium that their miserable inhabitants could find heart to drag on life from day to day. He had himself tried the experiment of reforming a drunkard by taking him from one of these loathsome dens, and enabling him to rent a tenement in a block of model lodging-houses which had been built under his supervision. The young man had been a designer of figures for prints; he was of a delicate frame, and a nervous, susceptible temperament. Shut in one miserable room with his wife and little children, without the possibility of pure air, with only filthy, fetid water to drink, with the noise of other miserable families resounding through the thin partitions, what possibility was there of doing anything except by the help of stimulants, which for a brief hour lifted him above the perception of these miseries? Changed at once to a neat flat, where, for the same rent as his former den, he had three good rooms, with water for drinking, house-service, and bathing freely supplied, and the blessed sunshine and air coming in through windows well arranged for ventilation, he became in a few weeks a new man. In the charms of the little spot which he could call home, its quiet, its order, his former talent came back to him, and he found strength, in pure air and pure water and those purer thoughts of which they are the emblems, to abandon burning and stupefying stimulants.

The influence of dwelling-houses for good or for evil–their influence on the brain, the nerves, and, through these, on the heart and life–is one of those things that cannot be enough pondered by those who build houses to sell or rent.

Something more generous ought to inspire a man than merely the percentage which he can get for his money. He who would build houses should think a little on the subject. He should reflect what houses are for, what they may be made to do for human beings. The great majority of houses in cities are not built by the indwellers themselves; they are built for them by those who invest their money in this way, with little other thought than the percentage which the investment will return.

For persons of ample fortune there are, indeed, palatial residences, with all that wealth can do to render life delightful. But in that class of houses which must be the lot of the large majority, those which must be chosen by young men in the beginning of life, when means are comparatively restricted, there is yet wide room for thought and the judicious application of money.

In looking over houses to be rented by persons of moderate means, one cannot help longing to build,–one sees so many ways in which the same sum which built an inconvenient and unpleasant house might have been made to build a delightful one.

* * * * *

“That’s so!” said Bob with emphasis. “Don’t you remember, Marianne, how many dismal, commonplace, shabby houses we trailed through?”

“Yes,” said Marianne. “You remember those houses with such little squeezed rooms and that flourishing staircase, with the colored-glass china-closet window, and no butler’s sink?”

“Yes,” said Bob; “and those astonishing, abominable stone abortions that adorned the doorsteps. People do lay out a deal of money to make houses look ugly, it must be confessed.”

“One would willingly,” said Marianne, “dispense with frightful stone ornaments in front, and with heavy mouldings inside, which are of no possible use or beauty, and with showy plaster cornices and centrepieces in the parlor ceilings, and even with marble mantels, for the luxury of hot and cold water in each chamber, and a couple of comfortable bath-rooms. Then, the disposition of windows and doors is so wholly without regard to convenience! How often we find rooms, meant for bedrooms, where really there is no good place for either bed or dressing-table!”

Here my wife looked up, having just finished redrawing the plans to the latest alteration.

“One of the greatest reforms that could be, in these reforming days,” she observed, “would be to have women architects. The mischief with houses built to rent is that they are all mere male contrivances. No woman would ever plan chambers where there is no earthly place to set a bed except against a window or door, or waste the room in entries that might be made into closets. I don’t see, for my part, apropos to the modern movement for opening new professions to the female sex, why there should not be well-educated female architects. The planning and arrangement of houses, and the laying-out of grounds, are a fair subject of womanly knowledge and taste. It is the teaching of Nature. What would anybody think of a bluebird’s nest that had been built entirely by Mr. Blue, without the help of his wife?”

“My dear,” said I, “you must positively send a paper on this subject to the next Woman’s Rights Convention.”

“I am of Sojourner Truth’s opinion,” said my wife,–“that the best way to prove the propriety of one’s doing anything is to go and do it. A woman who should have energy to grow through the preparatory studies and set to work in this field would, I am sure, soon find employment.”

“If she did as well as you would do, my dear,” said I. “There are plenty of young women in our Boston high schools who are going through higher fields of mathematics than are required by the architect, and the schools for design show the flexibility and fertility of the female pencil. The thing appears to me altogether more feasible than many other openings which have been suggested to woman.”

“Well,” said Jenny, “isn’t papa ever to go on with his paper?”

* * * * *

I continued:–

* * * * *

What ought “our house” to be? Could any other question be asked admitting in its details of such varied answers,–answers various as the means, the character, and situation of different individuals? But there are great wants, pertaining to every human being, into which all lesser ones run. There are things in a house that every one, high or low, rich or poor, ought, according to his means, to seek. I think I shall class them according to the elemental division of the old philosophers: Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. These form the groundwork of this need-be,–the sine-qua-nons of a house.

* * * * *

“Fire, air, earth, and water! I don’t understand,” said Jenny.

“Wait a little till you do, then,” said I. “I will try to make my meaning plain.”

* * * * *

The first object of a house is shelter from the elements. This object is effected by a tent or wigwam which keeps off rain and wind. The first disadvantage of this shelter is, that the vital air which you take into your lungs, and on the purity of which depends the purity of blood and brain and nerves, is vitiated. In the wigwam or tent you are constantly taking in poison, more or less active, with every inspiration. Napoleon had his army sleep without tents. He stated that from experience he found it more healthy, and wonderful have been the instances of delicate persons gaining constantly in rigor from being obliged, in the midst of hardships, to sleep constantly in the open air. Now the first problem in housebuilding is to combine the advantage of shelter with the fresh elasticity of outdoor air. I am not going to give here a treatise on ventilation, but merely to say, in general terms, that the first object of a house builder or contriver should be to make a healthy house; and the first requisite of a healthy house is a pure, sweet, elastic air.

I am in favor, therefore, of those plans of housebuilding which have wide central spaces, whether halls or courts, into which all the rooms open, and which necessarily preserve a body of fresh air for the use of them all. In hot climates this is the object of the central court which cuts into the body of the house, with its fountain and flowers, and its galleries, into which the various apartments open. When people are restricted for space, and cannot afford to give up wide central portions of the house for the mere purposes of passage, this central hall can be made a pleasant sitting-room. With tables, chairs, bookcases, and sofas comfortably disposed, this ample central room above and below is, in many respects, the most agreeable lounging room of the house; while the parlors below and the chambers above, opening upon it, form agreeable withdrawing rooms for purposes of greater privacy.

It is customary with many persons to sleep with bedroom windows open,–a very imperfect and often dangerous mode of procuring that supply of fresh air which a sleeping-room requires. In a house constructed in the manner indicated, windows might be freely left open in these central halls, producing there a constant movement of air, and the doors of the bedrooms placed ajar, when a very slight opening in the windows would create a free circulation through the apartments.

In the planning of a house, thought should be had as to the general disposition of the windows, and the quarters from which favoring breezes may be expected should be carefully considered. Windows should be so arranged that draughts of air can be thrown quite through and across the house. How often have we seen pale mothers and drooping babes fanning and panting during some of our hot days on the sunny side of a house, while the breeze that should have cooled them beat in vain against a dead wall! One longs sometimes to knock holes through partitions, and let in the air of heaven.

No other gift of God so precious, so inspiring, is treated with such utter irreverence and contempt in the calculations of us mortals as this same air of heaven. A sermon on oxygen, if one had a preacher who understood the subject, might do more to repress sin than the most orthodox discourse to show when and how and why sin came. A minister gets up in a crowded lecture-room, where the mephitic air almost makes the candles burn blue, and bewails the deadness of the church,–the church the while, drugged by the poisoned air, growing sleepier and sleepier, though they feel dreadfully wicked for being so.

Little Jim, who, fresh from his afternoon’s ramble in the fields, last evening said his prayers dutifully, and lay down to sleep in a most Christian frame, this morning sits up in bed with his hair bristling with crossness, strikes at his nurse, and declares he won’t say his prayers,–that he don’t want to be good. The simple difference is, that the child, having slept in a close box of a room, his brain all night fed by poison, is in a mild state of moral insanity. Delicate women remark that it takes them till eleven or twelve o’clock to get up their strength in the morning. Query: Do they sleep with closed windows and doors, and with heavy bed-curtains?

The houses built by our ancestors were better ventilated in certain respects than modern ones, with all their improvements. The great central chimney, with its open fireplaces in the different rooms, created a constant current which carried off foul and vitiated air. In these days, how common is it to provide rooms with only a flue for a stove! This flue is kept shut in summer, and in winter opened only to admit a close stove, which burns away the vital portion of the air quite as fast as the occupants breathe it away. The sealing up of fireplaces and introduction of air-tight stoves may, doubtless, be a saving of fuel; it saves, too, more than that,–in thousands and thousands of cases it has saved people from all further human wants, and put an end forever to any needs short of the six feet of narrow earth which are man’s only inalienable property. In other words, since the invention of air-tight stoves, thousands have died of slow poison. It is a terrible thing to reflect upon, that our Northern winters last from November to May, six long months, in which many families confine themselves to one room, of which every window-crack has been carefully calked to make it air-tight, where an air-tight stove keeps the atmosphere at a temperature between eighty and ninety, and the inmates sitting there, with all their winter clothes on, become enervated both by the heat and by the poisoned air, for which there is no escape but the occasional opening of a door.

It is no wonder that the first result of all this is such a delicacy of skin and lungs that about half the inmates are obliged to give up going into the open air during the six cold months, because they invariably catch cold if they do so. It is no wonder that the cold caught about the first of December has by the first of March become a fixed consumption, and that the opening of the spring, which ought to bring life and health, in so many cases brings death.

We hear of the lean condition in which the poor bears emerge from their six months’ wintering, during which they subsist on the fat which they have acquired the previous summer. Even so, in our long winters, multitudes of delicate people subsist on the daily waning strength which they acquired in the season when windows and doors were open, and fresh air was a constant luxury. No wonder we hear of spring fever and spring biliousness, and have thousands of nostrums for clearing the blood in the spring. All these things are the pantings and palpitations of a system run down under slow poison, unable to get a step farther. Better, far better, the old houses of the olden time, with their great roaring fires, and their bedrooms where the snow came in and the wintry winds whistled. Then, to be sure, you froze your back while you burned your face; your water froze nightly in your pitcher; your breath congealed in ice-wreaths on the blankets; and you could write your name on the pretty snow-wreath that had sifted in through the window-cracks. But you woke full of life and vigor,–you looked out into the whirling snowstorms without a shiver, and thought nothing of plunging through drifts as high as your head on your daily way to school. You jingled in sleighs, you snowballed, you lived in snow like a snowbird, and your blood coursed and tingled, in full tide of good, merry, real life, through your veins,–none of the slow-creeping, black blood which clogs the brain and lies like a weight on the vital wheels!

“Mercy upon us, papa!” said Jenny, “I hope we need not go back to such houses?”

“No, my dear,” I replied. “I only said that such houses were better than those which are all winter closed by double windows and burnt-out air-tight stoves.”

* * * * *

The perfect house is one in which there is a constant escape of every foul and vitiated particle of air through one opening, while a constant supply of fresh outdoor air is admitted by another. In winter, this outdoor air must pass through some process by which it is brought up to a temperate warmth.

Take a single room, and suppose on one side a current of outdoor air which has been warmed by passing through the air chamber of a modern furnace. Its temperature need not be above sixty-five,–it answers breathing purposes better at that. On the other side of the room let there be an open wood or coal fire. One cannot conceive the purposes of warmth and ventilation more perfectly combined.

Suppose a house with a great central hall, into which a current of fresh, temperately warmed air is continually pouring. Each chamber opening upon this hall has a chimney up whose flue the rarefied air is constantly passing, drawing up with it all the foul and poisonous gases. That house is well ventilated, and in a way that need bring no dangerous draughts upon the most delicate invalid. For the better securing of privacy in sleeping-rooms, we have seen two doors employed, one of which is made with slats, like a window-blind, so that air is freely transmitted without exposing the interior.

When we speak of fresh air, we insist on the full rigor of the term. It must not be the air of a cellar, heavily laden with the poisonous nitrogen of turnips and cabbages, but good, fresh, outdoor air from a cold-air pipe, so placed as not to get the lower stratum near the ground, where heavy damps and exhalations collect, but high up, in just the clearest and most elastic region.

The conclusion of the whole matter is, that as all of man’s and woman’s peace and comfort, all their love, all their amiability, all their religion, have got to come to them, while they live in this world, through the medium of the brain,–and as black, uncleansed blood acts on the brain as a poison, and as no other than black, uncleansed blood can be got by the lungs out of impure air,–the first object of the man who builds a house is to secure a pure and healthy atmosphere therein.

Therefore, in allotting expenses, set this down as a must-be: “Our house must have fresh air,–everywhere, at all times, winter and summer.” Whether we have stone facings or no; whether our parlor has cornices or marble mantles or no; whether our doors are machine-made or hand-made. All our fixtures shall be of the plainest and simplest, but we will have fresh air. We will open our door with a latch and string, if we cannot afford lock and knob and fresh air too; but in our house we will live cleanly and Christianly. We will no more breathe the foul air rejected from a neighbor’s lungs than we will use a neighbor’s tooth-brush and hair-brush. Such is the first essential of “our house,”–the first great element of human health and happiness,–AIR.

* * * * *

“I say, Marianne,” said Bob, “have we got fireplaces in our chambers?”

“Mamma took care of that,” said Marianne.

“You may be quite sure,” said I, “if your mother has had a hand in planning your house, that the ventilation is cared for.”

It must be confessed that Bob’s principal idea in a house had been a Gothic library, and his mind had labored more on the possibility of adapting some favorite bits from the baronial antiquities to modern needs than on anything so terrestrial as air. Therefore he awoke as from a dream, and taking two or three monstrous inhalations, he seized the plans and began looking over them with new energy. Meanwhile I went on with my prelection.

The second great vital element for which provision must be made in “our house” is FIRE. By which I do not mean merely artificial fire, but fire in all its extent and branches,–the heavenly fire which God sends us daily on the bright wings of sunbeams, as well as the mimic fires by which we warm our dwellings, cook our food, and light our nightly darkness.

To begin, then, with heavenly fire or sunshine. If God’s gift of vital air is neglected and undervalued, His gift of sunshine appears to be hated. There are many houses where not a cent has been expended on ventilation, but where hundreds of dollars have been freely lavished to keep out the sunshine. The chamber, truly, is tight as a box; it has no fireplace, not even a ventilator opening into the stove-flue; but, oh, joy and gladness! it has outside blinds and inside folding-shutters, so that in the brightest of days we may create there a darkness that may be felt. To observe the generality of New England houses, a spectator might imagine they were planned for the torrid zone, where the great object is to keep out a furnace draught of burning air.

But let us look over the months of our calendar. In which of them do we not need fires on our hearths? We will venture to say that from October to June all families, whether they actually have it or not, would be the more comfortable for a morning and evening fire. For eight months in the year the weather varies on the scale of cool, cold, colder, and freezing; and for all the four other months what is the number of days that really require the torrid-zone system of shutting up houses? We all know that extreme heat is the exception, and not the rule.

Yet let anybody travel, as I did last year, through the valley of the Connecticut, and observe the houses. All clean and white and neat and well-to-do, with their turfy yards and their breezy great elms, but all shut up from basement to attic, as if the inmates had all sold out and gone to China. Not a window-blind open above or below. Is the house inhabited? No,–yes,–there is a faint stream of blue smoke from the kitchen chimney, and half a window-blind open in some distant back part of the house. They are living there in the dim shadows, bleaching like potato-sprouts in the cellar.

* * * * *

“I can tell you why they do it, papa,” said Jenny. “It’s the flies, and flies are certainly worthy to be one of the plagues of Egypt. I can’t myself blame people that shut up their rooms and darken their houses in fly-time,–do you, mamma?”

“Not in extreme cases; though I think there is but a short season when this is necessary; yet the habit of shutting up lasts the year round, and gives to New England villages that dead, silent, cold, uninhabited look which is so peculiar.”

“The one fact that a traveler would gather in passing through our villages would be this,” said I, “that the people live in their houses and in the dark. Barely do you see doors and windows open, people sitting at them, chairs in the yard, and signs that the inhabitants are living out-of-doors.”

“Well,” said Jenny, “I have told you why, for I have been at Uncle Peter’s in summer, and aunt does her spring-cleaning in May, and then she shuts all the blinds and drops all the curtains, and the house stays clean till October. That’s the whole of it. If she had all her windows open, there would be paint and windows to be cleaned every week; and who is to do it? For my part, I can’t much blame her.”

“Well,” said I, “I have my doubts about the sovereign efficacy of living in the dark, even if the great object of existence were to be rid of flies. I remember, during this same journey, stopping for a day or two at a country boarding-house, which was dark as Egypt from cellar to garret. The long, dim, gloomy dining-room was first closed by outside blinds, and then by impenetrable paper curtains, notwithstanding which it swarmed and buzzed like a beehive. You found where the cake plate was by the buzz which your hand made, if you chanced to reach in that direction. It was disagreeable, because in the darkness flies could not always be distinguished from huckleberries; and I couldn’t help wishing, that, since we must have the flies, we might at last have the light and air to console us under them. People darken their rooms and shut up every avenue of outdoor enjoyment, and sit and think of nothing but flies; in fact, flies are all they have left. No wonder they become morbid on the subject.”

“Well now, papa talks just like a man, doesn’t he?” said Jenny. “He hasn’t the responsibility of keeping things clean. I wonder what he would do, if he were a housekeeper.”

“Do? I will tell you. I would do the best I could. I would shut my eyes on fly-specks, and open them on the beauties of Nature. I would let the cheerful sun in all day long, in all but the few summer days when coolness is the one thing needful: those days may be soon numbered every year. I would make a calculation in the spring how much it would cost to hire a woman to keep my windows and paint clean, and I would do with one less gown and have her; and when I had spent all I could afford on cleaning windows and paint, I would harden my heart and turn off my eyes, and enjoy my sunshine and my fresh air, my breezes, and all that can be seen through the picture windows of an open, airy house, and snap my fingers at the flies. There you have it.”

“Papa’s hobby is sunshine,” said Marianne.

“Why shouldn’t it be? Was God mistaken, when He made the sun? Did He make him for us to hold a life’s battle with? Is that vital power which reddens the cheek of the peach and pours sweetness through the fruits and flowers of no use to us? Look at plants that grow without sun,–wan, pale, long-visaged, holding feeble, imploring hands of supplication towards the light. Can human beings afford to throw away a vitalizing force so pungent, so exhilarating? You remember the experiment of a prison where one row of cells had daily sunshine and the others none. With the same regimen, the same cleanliness, the same care, the inmates of the sunless cells were visited with sickness and death in double measure. Our whole population in New England are groaning and suffering under afflictions, the result of a depressed vitality,–neuralgia, with a new ache for every day of the year, rheumatism, consumption, general debility; for all these a thousand nostrums are daily advertised, and money enough is spent on them to equip an army, while we are fighting against, wasting, and throwing away with both hands, that blessed influence which comes nearest to pure vitality of anything God has given.

“Who is it that the Bible describes as a sun, arising with healing in his wings? Surely, that sunshine which is the chosen type and image of His love must be healing through all the recesses of our daily life, drying damp and mould, defending from moth and rust, sweetening ill smells, clearing from the nerves the vapors of melancholy, making life cheery. If I did not know Him, I should certainly adore and worship the sun, the most blessed and beautiful image of Him among things visible! In the land of Egypt, in the day of God’s wrath, there was darkness, but in the land of Goshen there was light. I am a Goshenite, and mean to walk in the light, and forswear the works of darkness. But to proceed with our reading.”

* * * * *

“Our house” shall be set on a southeast line, so that there shall not be a sunless room in it, and windows shall be so arranged that it can be traversed and transpierced through and through with those bright shafts of light which come straight from God.

“Our house” shall not be blockaded with a dank, dripping mass of shrubbery set plumb against the windows, keeping out light and air. There shall be room all round it for breezes to sweep, and sunshine to sweeten and dry and vivify; and I would warn all good souls who begin life by setting out two little evergreen-trees within a foot of each of their front-windows, that these trees will grow and increase till their front-rooms will be brooded over by a sombre, stifling shadow fit only for ravens to croak in.

One would think, by the way some people hasten to convert a very narrow front-yard into a dismal jungle, that the only danger of our New England climate was sunstroke. Ah, in those drizzling months which form at least one half of our life here, what sullen, censorious, uncomfortable, unhealthy thoughts are bred of living in dark, chilly rooms, behind such dripping thickets? Our neighbors’ faults assume a deeper hue, life seems a dismal thing, our very religion grows mouldy.

My idea of a house is, that, as far as is consistent with shelter and reasonable privacy, it should give you on first entering an open, breezy, outdoor freshness of sensation. Every window should be a picture–sun and trees and clouds and green grass should seem never to be far from us. “Our house” may shade but not darken us. “Our house” shall have bow-windows, many, sunny, and airy,–not for the purpose of being cleaned and shut up, but to be open and enjoyed. There shall be long verandas above and below, where invalids may walk dry-shod, and enjoy open-air recreation in wettest weather. In short, I will try to have “our house” combine as far as possible the sunny, joyous, fresh life of a gypsy in the fields and woods with the quiet and neatness and comfort and shelter of a roof, rooms, floors, and carpets.

After heavenly fire, I have a word to say of earthly, artificial fires. Furnaces, whether of hot water, steam, or hot air, are all healthy and admirable provisions for warming our houses during the eight or nine months of our year that we must have artificial heat, if only, as I have said, fireplaces keep up a current of ventilation.

The kitchen-range with its water-back I humbly salute. It is a great throbbing heart, and sends its warm tides of cleansing, comforting fluid all through the house. One could wish that this friendly dragon could be in some way moderated in his appetite for coal,–he does consume without mercy, it must be confessed,–but then great is the work he has to do. At any hour of day or night, in the most distant part of your house, you have but to turn a stop-cock and your red dragon sends you hot water for your need; your washing-day becomes a mere play-day; your pantry has its ever-ready supply; and then, by a little judicious care in arranging apartments and economizing heat, a range may make two or three chambers comfortable in winter weather. A range with a water-back is among the must-be’s in “our house.”

Then, as to the evening light,–I know nothing as yet better than gas, where it can be had. I would certainly not have a house without it. The great objection to it is the danger of its escape through imperfect fixtures. But it must not do this: a fluid that kills a tree or a plant with one breath must certainly be a dangerous ingredient in the atmosphere, and if admitted into houses, must be introduced with every safeguard.

There are families living in the country who make their own gas by a very simple process. This is worth an inquiry from those who build. There are also contrivances now advertised, with good testimonials, of domestic machines for generating gas, said to be perfectly safe, simple to be managed, and producing a light superior to that of the city gas works. This also is worth an inquiry when “our house” is to be in the country.

And now I come to the next great vital element for which “our house” must provide,–WATER. “Water, water, everywhere,”–it must be plentiful, it must be easy to get at, it must be pure. Our ancestors had some excellent ideas in home living and housebuilding. Their houses were, generally speaking, very sensibly contrived,–roomy, airy, and comfortable; but in their water arrangements they had little mercy on womankind. The well was out in the yard; and in winter one must flounder through snow and bring up the ice-bound bucket, before one could fill the tea-kettle for breakfast. For a sovereign princess of the republic, this was hardly respectful or respectable. Wells have come somewhat nearer in modern times; but the idea of a constant supply of fresh water by the simple turning of a stop-cock has not yet visited the great body of our houses. Were we free to build “our house” just as we wish it, there should be a bath-room to every two or three inmates, and the hot and cold water should circulate to every chamber.

Among our must-be’s, we would lay by a generous sum for plumbing. Let us have our bath-rooms, and our arrangements for cleanliness and health in kitchen and pantry; and afterwards let the quality of our lumber and the style of our finishing be according to the sum we have left. The power to command a warm bath in a house at any hour of day or night is better in bringing up a family of children than any amount of ready medicine. In three quarters of childish ailments the warm bath is an almost immediate remedy. Bad colds, incipient fevers, rheumatisms, convulsions, neuralgias innumerable, are washed off in their first beginnings, and run down the lead pipes into oblivion. Have, then, O friend, all the water in your house that you can afford, and enlarge your ideas of the worth of it, that you may afford a great deal. A bathing-room is nothing to you that requires an hour of lifting and fire-making to prepare it for use. The apparatus is too cumbrous,–you do not turn to it. But when your chamber opens upon a neat, quiet little nook, and you have only to turn your stop-cocks and all is ready, your remedy is at hand, you use it constantly. You are waked in the night by a scream, and find little Tom sitting up, wild with burning fever. In three minutes he is in the bath, quieted and comfortable; you get him back, cooled and tranquil, to his little crib, and in the morning he wakes as if nothing had happened.

Why should not so invaluable and simple a remedy for disease, such a preservative of health, such a comfort, such a stimulus, be considered as much a matter-of-course in a house as a kitchen-chimney? At least there should be one bath-room always in order, so arranged that all the family can have access to it, if one cannot afford the luxury of many.

A house in which water is universally and skillfully distributed is so much easier to take care of as almost to verify the saying of a friend, that his house was so contrived that it did its own work: one had better do without carpets on the floors, without stuffed sofas and rocking-chairs, and secure this.

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“Well, papa,” said Marianne, “you have made out all your four elements in your house, except one. I can’t imagine what you want of earth.”

“I thought,” said Jenny, “that the less of our common mother we had in our houses, the better housekeepers we were.”

“My dears,” said I, “we philosophers must give an occasional dip into the mystical, and say something apparently absurd for the purpose of explaining that we mean nothing in particular by it. It gives common people an idea of our sagacity, to find how clear we come out of our apparent contradictions and absurdities. Listen.”

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For the fourth requisite of “our house,” EARTH, let me point you to your mother’s plant-window, and beg you to remember the fact that through our long, dreary winters we are never a month without flowers, and the vivid interest which always attaches to growing things. The perfect house, as I conceive it, is to combine as many of the advantages of living out of doors as may be consistent with warmth and shelter, and one of these is the sympathy with green and growing things. Plants are nearer in their relations to human health and vigor than is often imagined. The cheerfulness that well-kept plants impart to a room comes not merely from gratification of the eye,–there is a healthful exhalation from them, they are a corrective of the impurities of the atmosphere. Plants, too, are valuable as tests of the vitality of the atmosphere; their drooping and failure convey to us information that something is amiss with it. A lady once told me that she could never raise plants in her parlors on account of the gas and anthracite coal. I answered, “Are you not afraid to live and bring up your children in an atmosphere which blights your plants?” If the gas escape from the pipes, and the red-hot anthracite coal or the red-hot air-tight stove burns out all the vital part of the air, so that healthy plants in a few days wither and begin to drop their leaves, it is sign that the air must be looked to and reformed. It is a fatal augury for a room that plants cannot be made to thrive in it. Plants should not turn pale, be long-jointed, long-leaved, and spindling; and where they grow in this way, we may be certain that there is a want of vitality for human beings. But where plants appear as they do in the open air, with vigorous, stocky growth, and short-stemmed, deep-green leaves, we may believe the conditions of that atmosphere are healthy for human lungs.

It is pleasant to see how the custom of plant growing has spread through our country. In how many farmhouse windows do we see petunias and nasturtiums vivid with bloom, while snows are whirling without, and how much brightness have those cheap enjoyments shed on the lives of those who cared for them! We do not believe there is a human being who would not become a passionate lover of plants, if circumstances once made it imperative to tend upon and watch the growth of one. The history of Picciola for substance has been lived over and over by many a man and woman who once did not know that there was a particle of plant-love in their souls. But to the proper care of plants in pots there are many hindrances and drawbacks. The dust chokes the little pores of their green lungs, and they require constant showering; and to carry all one’s plants to a sink or porch for this purpose is a labor which many will not endure. Consequently plants often do not get a showering once a month! We should try to imitate more closely the action of Mother Nature, who washes every green child of hers nightly with dews, which lie glittering on its leaves till morning.

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“Yes, there it is!” said Jenny. “I think I could manage with plants, if it were not for this eternal showering and washing they seem to require to keep them fresh. They are always tempting one to spatter the carpet and surrounding furniture, which are not equally benefited by the libation.”

“It is partly for that very reason,” I replied, “that the plan of ‘our house’ provides for the introduction of Mother Earth, as you will see.”

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A perfect house, according to my idea, should always include in it a little compartment where plants can be kept, can be watered, can be defended from the dust, and have the sunshine and all the conditions of growth.

People have generally supposed a conservatory to be one of the last trappings of wealth,–something not to be thought of for those in modest circumstances. But is this so? You have a bow-window in your parlor. Leave out the flooring, fill the space with rich earth, close it from the parlor by glass doors, and you have room for enough plants and flowers to keep you gay and happy all winter. If on the south side, where the sunbeams have power, it requires no heat but that which warms the parlor; and the comfort of it is incalculable, and the expense a mere trifle greater than that of the bow-window alone.

In larger houses a larger space might be appropriated in this way. We will not call it a conservatory, because that name suggests ideas of gardeners, and mysteries of culture and rare plants, which bring all sorts of care and expense in their train. We would rather call it a greenery, a room floored with earth, with glass sides to admit the sun,–and let it open on as many other rooms of the house as possible.

Why should not the dining-room and parlor be all winter connected by a spot of green and flowers, with plants, mosses, and ferns for the shadowy portions, and such simple blooms as petunias and nasturtiums garlanding the sunny portion near the windows? If near the water-works, this greenery might be enlivened by the play of a fountain, whose constant spray would give that softness to the air which is so often burned away by the dry heat of the furnace.

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“And do you really think, papa, that houses built in this way are a practical result to be aimed at?” said Jenny. “To me it seems like a dream of the Alhambra.”

“Yet I happen to have seen real people in our day living in just such a house,” said I. “I could point you, this very hour, to a cottage, which in style of building is the plainest possible, which unites many of the best ideas of a true house. My dear, can you sketch the ground plan of that house we saw in Brighton?”

“Here it is,” said my wife, after a few dashes with her pencil, “an inexpensive house, yet one of the pleasantest I ever saw.”

“This cottage, which might, at the rate of prices before the war, have been built for five thousand dollars, has many of the requirements which I seek for a house. It has two stories, and a tier of very pleasant attic-rooms, two bathing-rooms, and the water carried into each story. The parlor and dining-room both look into a little bower, where a fountain is ever playing into a little marble basin, and which all the year through has its green and bloom. It is heated simply from the furnace by a register, like any other room of the house, and requires no more care than a delicate woman could easily give. The brightness and cheerfulness it brings during our long, dreary winters is incredible.”

* * * * *

But one caution is necessary in all such appendages. The earth must be thoroughly underdrained to prevent the vapors of stagnant water, and have a large admixture of broken charcoal to obviate the consequences of vegetable decomposition. Great care must be taken that there be no leaves left to fall and decay on the ground, since vegetable exhalations poison the air. With these precautions such a plot will soften and purify the air of a house.

Where the means do not allow even so small a conservatory, a recessed window might be fitted with a deep box, which should have a drain-pipe at the bottom, and a thick layer of broken charcoal and gravel, with a mixture of fine wood-soil and sand, for the top stratum. Here ivies may be planted, which will run and twine and strike their little tendrils here and there, and give the room in time the aspect of a bower; the various greenhouse nasturtiums will make winter gorgeous with blossoms. In windows unblessed by sunshine–and, alas! such are many–one can cultivate ferns and mosses; the winter-growing ferns, of which there are many varieties, can be mixed with mosses and woodland flowers.

Early in February, when the cheerless frosts of winter seem most wearisome, the common blue violet, wood anemone, hepatica, or rock-columbine, if planted in this way, will begin to bloom. The common partridge-berry, with its brilliant scarlet fruit and dark-green leaves, will also grow finely in such situations, and have a beautiful effect. These things require daily showering to keep them fresh, and the moisture arising from them will soften and freshen the too dry air of heated winter rooms.

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Thus I have been through my four essential elements in housebuilding,–air, fire, water, and earth. I would provide for these before anything else. After they are secured, I would gratify my taste and fancy as far as possible in other ways. I quite agree with Bob in hating commonplace houses, and longing for some little bit of architectural effect! and I grieve profoundly that every step in that direction must cost so much. I have also a taste for niceness of finish. I have no objection to silver-plated door-locks and hinges, none to windows which are an entire plate of clear glass. I congratulate neighbors who are so fortunate as to be able to get them; and after I have put all the essentials into a house, I would have these too, if I had the means.

But if all my wood work were to be without groove or moulding, if my mantels were to be of simple wood, if my doors were all to be machine-made, and my lumber of the second quality, I would have my bath-rooms, my conservatory, my sunny bow-windows, and my perfect ventilation; and my house would then be so pleasant, and every one in it in such a cheerful mood, that it would verily seem to be ceiled with cedar.

Speaking of ceiling with cedar, I have one thing more to say. We Americans have a country abounding in beautiful timber, of whose beauties we know nothing, on account of the pernicious and stupid habit of covering it with white paint.

The celebrated zebra wood with its golden stripes cannot exceed in quaint beauty the grain of unpainted chestnut, prepared simply with a coat or two of oil. The butternut has a rich golden brown, the very darling color of painters, a shade so rich, and grain so beautiful, that it is of itself as charming to look at as a rich picture. The black-walnut, with its heavy depth of tone, works in well as an adjunct; and as to oak, what can we say enough of its quaint and many shadings? Even common pine, which has been considered not decent to look upon till hastily shrouded in a friendly blanket of white paint, has, when oiled and varnished, the beauty of satin-wood. The second quality of pine, which has what are called shakes in it, under this mode of treatment often shows clouds and veins equal in beauty to the choicest woods. The cost of such a finish is greatly less than that of the old method; and it saves those days and weeks of cleaning which are demanded by white paint, while its general tone is softer and more harmonious. Experiments in color may be tried in the combinations of these woods, which at small expense produce the most charming effects.

As to paper hangings, we are proud to say that our American manufacturers now furnish all that can be desired. There are some branches of design where artistic, ingenious France must still excel us; but whoso has a house to fit up, let him first look at what his own country has to show, and he will be astonished.

There is one topic in housebuilding on which I would add a few words. The difficulty of procuring and keeping good servants, which must long be one of our chief domestic troubles, warns us so to arrange our houses that we shall need as few as possible. There is the greatest conceivable difference in the planning and building of houses as to the amount of work which will be necessary to keep them in respectable condition. Some houses require a perfect staff of housemaids: there are plated hinges to be rubbed, paint to be cleaned, with intricacies of moulding and carving which daily consume hours of dusting to preserve them from a slovenly look. Simple finish, unpainted wood, a general distribution of water through the dwelling, will enable a very large house to be cared for by one pair of hands, and yet maintain a creditable appearance.

In kitchens one servant may perform the work of two by a close packing of all the conveniences for cooking and such arrangements as shall save time and steps. Washing-day may be divested of its terrors by suitable provisions for water, hot and cold; by wringers, which save at once the strength of the linen and of the laundress; and by drying-closets connected with ranges, where articles can in a few moments be perfectly dried. These, with the use of a small mangle, such as is now common in America, reduce the labors of the laundry one half.

There are many more things which might be said of “our house,” and Christopher may, perhaps, find some other opportunity to say them. For the present his pen is tired and ceaseth.

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