“Seven Ages” Of Furniture by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

The progress through life of active-minded Americans is apt to be a series of transformations. At each succeeding phase of mental development, an old skin drops from their growing intelligence, and they assimilate the ideas and tastes of their new condition, with a facility and completeness unknown to other nations.

One series of metamorphoses particularly amusing to watch is, that of an observant, receptive daughter of Uncle Sam who, aided and followed (at a distance) by an adoring husband, gradually develops her excellent brain, and rises through fathoms of self-culture and purblind experiment, to the surface of dilettantism and connoisseurship. One can generally detect the exact stage of evolution such a lady has reached by the bent of her conversation, the books she is reading, and, last but not least, by her material surroundings; no outward and visible signs reflecting inward and spiritual grace so clearly as the objects people collect around them for the adornment of their rooms, or the way in which those rooms are decorated.

A few years ago, when a young man and his bride set up housekeeping on their own account, the “old people” of both families seized the opportunity to unload on the beginners (under the pretence of helping them along) a quantity of furniture and belongings that had (as the shopkeepers say) “ceased to please” their original owners. The narrow quarters of the tyros are encumbered by ungainly sofas and arm-chairs, most probably of carved rosewood. Etageres of the same lugubrious material grace the corners of their tiny drawing-room, the bits of mirror inserted between the shelves distorting the image of the owners into headless or limbless phantoms. Half of their little dining-room is filled with a black-walnut sideboard, ingeniously contrived to take up as much space as possible and hold nothing, its graceless top adorned with a stag’s head carved in wood and imitation antlers.

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The novices in their innocence live contented amid their hideous surroundings for a year or two, when the wife enters her second epoch, which, for want of a better word, we will call the Japanese period. The grim furniture gradually disappears under a layer of silk and gauze draperies, the bare walls blossom with paper umbrellas, fans are nailed in groups promiscuously, wherever an empty space offends her eye. Bows of ribbon are attached to every possible protuberance of the furniture. Even the table service is not spared. I remember dining at a house in this stage of its artistic development, where the marrow bones that formed one course of the dinner appeared each with a coquettish little bow-knot of pink ribbon around its neck.

Once launched on this sea of adornment, the housewife soon loses her bearings and decorates indiscriminately. Her old evening dresses serve to drape the mantelpieces, and she passes every spare hour embroidering, braiding, or fringing some material to adorn her rooms. At Christmas her friends contribute specimens of their handiwork to the collection.

The view of other houses and other decorations before long introduces the worm of discontent into the blossom of our friend’s contentment. The fruit of her labors becomes tasteless on her lips. As the finances of the family are satisfactory, the re-arrangement of the parlor floor is (at her suggestion) confided to a firm of upholsterers, who make a clean sweep of the rosewood and the bow-knots, and retire, after some months of labor, leaving the delighted wife in possession of a suite of rooms glittering with every monstrosity that an imaginative tradesman, spurred on by unlimited credit, could devise.

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The wood work of the doors and mantels is an intricate puzzle of inlaid woods, the ceilings are panelled and painted in complicated designs. The “parlor” is provided with a complete set of neat, old-gold satin furniture, puffed at its angles with peacock-colored plush.

The monumental folding doors between the long, narrow rooms are draped with the same chaste combination of stuffs.

The dining-room blazes with a gold and purple wall paper, set off by ebonized wood work and furniture. The conscientious contractor has neglected no corner. Every square inch of the ceilings, walls, and floors has been carved, embossed, stencilled, or gilded into a bewildering monotony.

The husband, whose affairs are rapidly increasing on his hands, has no time to attend to such insignificant details as house decoration, the wife has perfect confidence in the taste of the firm employed. So at the suggestion of the latter, and in order to complete the beauty of the rooms, a Bouguereau, a Toulmouche and a couple of Schreyers are bought, and a number of modern French bronzes scattered about on the multicolored cabinets. Then, at last, the happy owners of all this splendor open their doors to the admiration of their friends.

About the time the peacock plush and the gilding begin to show signs of wear and tear, rumors of a fresh fashion in decoration float across from England, and the new gospel of the beautiful according to Clarence Cook is first preached to an astonished nation.

The fortune of our couple continuing to develop with pleasing rapidity, the building of a country house is next decided upon. A friend of the husband, who has recently started out as an architect, designs them a picturesque residence without a straight line on its exterior or a square room inside. This house is done up in strict obedience to the teachings of the new sect. The dining-room is made about as cheerful as the entrance to a family vault. The rest of the house bears a close resemblance to an ecclesiastical junk shop. The entrance hall is filled with what appears to be a communion table in solid oak, and the massive chairs and settees of the parlor suggest the withdrawing room of Rowena, aesthetic shades of momie-cloth drape deep-set windows, where anaemic and disjointed females in stained glass pluck conventional roses.

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To each of these successive transitions the husband has remained obediently and tranquilly indifferent. He has in his heart considered them all equally unfitting and uncomfortable and sighed in regretful memory of a deep, old-fashioned arm-chair that sheltered his after-dinner naps in the early rosewood period. So far he has been as clay in the hands of his beloved wife, but the anaemic ladies and the communion table are the last drop that causes his cup to overflow. He revolts and begins to take matters into his own hands with the result that the household enters its fifth incarnation under his guidance, during which everything is painted white and all the wall-papers are a vivid scarlet. The family sit on bogus Chippendale and eat off blue and white china.

With the building of their grand new house near the park the couple rise together into the sixth cycle of their development. Having travelled and studied the epochs by this time, they can tell a Louis XIV. from a Louis XV. room, and recognize that mahogany and brass sphinxes denote furniture of the Empire. This newly acquired knowledge is, however, vague and hazy. They have no confidence in themselves, so give over the fitting of their principal floors to the New York branch of a great French house. Little is talked of now but periods, plans, and elevations. Under the guidance of the French firm, they acquire at vast expense, faked reproductions as historic furniture.

The spacious rooms are sticky with new gilding, and the flowered brocades of the hangings and furniture crackle to the touch. The rooms were not designed by the architect to receive any special kind of “treatment.” Immense folding-doors unite the salons, and windows open anywhere. The decorations of the walls have been applied like a poultice, regardless of the proportions of the rooms and the distribution of the spaces.

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Building and decorating are, however, the best of educations. The husband, freed at last from his business occupations, finds in this new study an interest and a charm unknown to him before. He and his wife are both vaguely disappointed when their resplendent mansion is finished, having already outgrown it, and recognize that in spite of correct detail, their costly apartments no more resemble the stately and simple salons seen abroad than the cabin of a Fall River boat resembles the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles. The humiliating knowledge that they are all wrong breaks upon them, as it is doing on hundreds of others, at the same time as the desire to know more and appreciate better the perfect productions of this art.

A seventh and last step is before them but they know not how to make it. A surer guide than the upholsterer is, they know, essential, but their library contains nothing to help them. Others possess the information they need, yet they are ignorant where to turn for what they require.

With singular appropriateness a volume treating of this delightful “art” has this season appeared at Scribner’s. “The Decoration of Houses” is the result of a woman’s faultless taste collaborating with a man’s technical knowledge. Its mission is to reveal to the hundreds who have advanced just far enough to find that they can go no farther alone, truths lying concealed beneath the surface. It teaches that consummate taste is satisfied only with a perfected simplicity; that the facades of a house must be the envelope of the rooms within and adapted to them, as the rooms are to the habits and requirements of them “that dwell therein;” that proportion is the backbone of the decorator’s art and that supreme elegance is fitness and moderation; and, above all, that an attention to architectural principles can alone lead decoration to a perfect development.

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