The Economy Of The Beautiful by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Story type: Essay

Talking to you in this way once a month, O my confidential reader, there seems to be danger, as in all intervals of friendship, that we shall not readily be able to take up our strain of conversation just where we left off. Suffer me, therefore, to remind you that the month past left us seated at the fireside, just as we had finished reading of what a home was, and how to make one.

The fire had burned low, and great, solid hickory coals were winking dreamily at us from out their fluffy coats of white ashes,–just as if some household sprite there were opening now one eye and then the other, and looking in a sleepy, comfortable way at us.

The close of my piece about the good house mother had seemed to tell on my little audience. Marianne had nestled close to her mother, and laid her head on her knee; and though Jenny sat up straight as a pin, yet her ever busy knitting was dropped in her lap, and I saw the glint of a tear in her quick, sparkling eye,–yes, actually a little bright bead fell upon her work; whereupon she started up actively, and declared that the fire wanted just one more stick to make a blaze before bedtime; and then there was such a raking among the coals, such an adjusting of the andirons, such vigorous arrangement of the wood, and such a brisk whisking of the hearth-brush, that it was evident Jenny had something on her mind. When all was done, she sat down again and looked straight into the blaze, which went dancing and crackling up, casting glances and flecks of light on our pictures and books, and making all the old, familiar furniture seem full of life and motion.

“I think that’s a good piece,” she said decisively. “I think those are things that should be thought about.”

Now Jenny was the youngest of our flock, and therefore, in a certain way, regarded by my wife and me as perennially “the baby;” and these little, old-fashioned, decisive ways of announcing her opinions seemed so much a part of her nature, so peculiarly “Jennyish,” as I used to say, that my wife and I only exchanged amused glances over her head when they occurred.

In a general way, Jenny, standing in the full orb of her feminine instincts like Diana in the moon, rather looked down on all masculine views of women’s matters as tolerabiles ineptioe; but towards her papa she had gracious turns of being patronizing to the last degree; and one of these turns was evidently at its flood-tide, as she proceeded to say,–

I think papa is right,–that keeping house and having a home, and all that, is a very serious thing, and that people go into it with very little thought about it. I really think those things papa has been saying there ought to be thought about.”

“Papa,” said Marianne, “I wish you would tell me exactly how you would spend that money you gave me for house-furnishing. I should like just your views.”

“Precisely,” said Jenny with eagerness; “because it is just as papa says,–a sensible man, who has thought and had experience, can’t help having some ideas, even about women’s affairs, that are worth attending to. I think so, decidedly.”

I acknowledged the compliment for my sex and myself with my best bow.

“But then, papa,” said Marianne, “I can’t help feeling sorry that one can’t live in such a way as to have beautiful things around one. I’m sorry they must cost so much, and take so much care, for I am made so that I really want them. I do so like to see pretty things! I do like rich carpets and elegant carved furniture, and fine china and cut-glass and silver. I can’t bear mean, common-looking rooms. I should so like to have my house look beautiful!”

“Your house ought not to look mean and common,–your house ought to look beautiful,” I replied. “It would be a sin and a shame to have it otherwise. No house ought to be fitted up for a future home without a strong and a leading reference to beauty in all its arrangements. If I were a Greek, I should say that the first household libation should be made to beauty; but, being an old-fashioned Christian, I would say that he who prepares a home with no eye to beauty neglects the example of the great Father who has filled our earth home with such elaborate ornament.”

“But then, papa, there’s the money!” said Jenny, shaking her little head wisely. “You men don’t think of that. You want us girls, for instance, to be patterns of economy, but we must always be wearing fresh, nice things; you abhor soiled gloves and worn shoes; and yet how is all this to be done without money? And it’s just so in housekeeping. You sit in your armchairs, and conjure up visions of all sorts of impossible things to be done; but when mamma there takes out that little account-book, and figures away on the cost of things, where do the visions go?”

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“You are mistaken, my little dear, and you talk just like a woman,”–this was my only way of revenging myself; “that is to say, you jump to conclusions, without sufficient knowledge. I maintain that in house-furnishing, as well as woman-furnishing, there’s nothing so economical as beauty.”

“There’s one of papa’s paradoxes!” said Jenny.

“Yes,” said I, “that is my thesis, which I shall nail up over the mantelpiece there, as Luther nailed his to the church door. It is time to rake up the fire now; but to-morrow night I will give you a paper on the Economy of the Beautiful.”

* * * * *

“Come, now we are to have papa’s paradox,” said Jenny, as soon as the tea-things had been carried out.

Entre nous, I must tell you that insensibly we had fallen into the habit of taking our tea by my study fire. Tea, you know, is a mere nothing in itself, its only merit being its social and poetic associations, its warmth and fragrance; and the more socially and informally it can be dispensed, the more in keeping with its airy and cheerful nature.

Our circle was enlightened this evening by the cheery visage of Bob Stephens, seated, as of right, close to Marianne’s work-basket.

“You see, Bob,” said Jenny, “papa has undertaken to prove that the most beautiful things are always the cheapest.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” said Bob; “for there’s a carved antique bookcase and study-table that I have my eye on, and if this can in any way be made to appear”–

“Oh, it won’t be made to appear,” said Jenny, settling herself at her knitting, “only in some transcendental, poetic sense, such as papa can always make out. Papa is more than half a poet, and his truths turn out to be figures of rhetoric when one comes to apply them to matters of fact.”

“Now, Miss Jenny, please remember my subject and thesis,” I replied,–“that in house-furnishing there is nothing so economical as beauty; and I will make it good against all comers, not by figures of rhetoric, but by figures of arithmetic. I am going to be very matter-of-fact and commonplace in my details, and keep ever in view the addition table. I will instance a case which has occurred under my own observation.”


Two of the houses lately built on the new land in Boston were bought by two friends, Philip and John. Philip had plenty of money, and paid the cash down for his house, without feeling the slightest vacancy in his pocket. John, who was an active, rising young man, just entering on a flourishing business, had expended all his moderate savings for years in the purchase of his dwelling, and still had a mortgage remaining, which he hoped to clear off by his future successes. Philip begins the work of furnishing as people do with whom money is abundant, and who have simply to go from shop to shop and order all that suits their fancy and is considered “the thing” in good society. John begins to furnish with very little money. He has a wife and two little ones, and he wisely deems that to insure to them a well-built house, in an open, airy situation, with conveniences for warming, bathing, and healthy living, is a wise beginning in life; but it leaves him little or nothing beyond.

Behold, then, Philip and his wife, well pleased, going the rounds of shops and stores in fitting up their new dwelling, and let us follow step by step. To begin with the wall-paper. Imagine a front and back parlor, with folding-doors, with two south windows on the front, and two looking on a back court, after the general manner of city houses. We will suppose they require about thirty rolls of wall-paper. Philip buys the heaviest French velvet, with gildings and traceries, at four dollars a roll. This, by the time it has been put on, with gold mouldings, according to the most established taste of the best paper-hangers, will bring the wall-paper of the two rooms to a figure something like two hundred dollars. Now they proceed to the carpet stores, and there are thrown at their feet by obsequious clerks velvets and Axminsters, with flowery convolutions and medallion centres, as if the flower gardens of the tropics were whirling in waltzes, with graceful lines of arabesque,–roses, callas, lilies, knotted, wreathed, twined, with blue and crimson and golden ribbons, dazzling marvels of color and tracery. There is no restraint in price,–four or six dollars a yard, it is all the same to them,–and soon a magic flower garden blooms on the floors, at a cost of five hundred dollars. A pair of elegant rugs, at fifty dollars apiece, complete the inventory, and bring our rooms to the mark of eight hundred dollars for papering and carpeting alone. Now come the great mantel-mirrors for four hundred more, and our rooms progress. Then comes the upholsterer, and measures our four windows, that he may skillfully barricade them from air and sunshine. The fortifications against heaven, thus prepared, cost, in the shape of damask, cord, tassels, shades, laces, and cornices, about two hundred dollars per window. To be sure, they make the rooms close and sombre as the grave, but they are of the most splendid stuffs; and if the sun would only reflect, he would see, himself, how foolish it was for him to try to force himself into a window guarded by his betters. If there is anything cheap and plebeian, it is sunshine and fresh air! Behold us, then, with our two rooms papered, carpeted, and curtained for two thousand dollars; and now are to be put in them sofas, lounges, etageres, centre-tables, screens, chairs of every pattern and device, for which it is but moderate to allow a thousand more. We have now two parlors furnished at an outlay of three thousand dollars, without a single picture, a single article of statuary, a single object of art of any kind, and without any light to see them by if they were there. We must say for our Boston upholsterers and furniture-makers that such good taste generally reigns in their establishments that rooms furnished at haphazard from them cannot fail of a certain air of good taste, so far as the individual things are concerned. But the different articles we have supposed, having been ordered without reference to one another or the rooms, have, when brought together, no unity of effect, and the general result is scattering and confused. If asked how Philip’s parlors look, your reply is, “Oh, the usual way of such parlors,–everything that such people usually get,–medallion carpets, carved furniture, great mirrors, bronze mantel ornaments, and so on.” The only impression a stranger receives, while waiting in the dim twilight of these rooms, is that their owner is rich, and able to get good, handsome things, such as all other rich people get.

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Now our friend John, as often happens in America, is moving in the same social circle with Philip, visiting the same people,–his house is the twin of the one Philip has been furnishing,–and how shall he, with a few hundred dollars, make his rooms even presentable beside those which Philip has fitted up elegantly at three thousand?

Now for the economy of beauty. Our friend must make his prayer to the Graces,–for, if they cannot save him, nobody can. One thing John has to begin with, that rare gift to man, a wife with the magic cestus of Venus,–not around her waist, but, if such a thing could be, in her finger-ends. All that she touches falls at once into harmony and proportion. Her eye for color and form is intuitive: let her arrange a garret, with nothing but boxes, barrels, and cast-off furniture in it, and ten to one she makes it seem the most attractive place in the house. It is a veritable “gift of good faerie,” this tact of beautifying and arranging, that some women have; and, on the present occasion, it has a real, material value, that can be estimated in dollars and cents. Come with us and you can see the pair taking their survey of the yet unfurnished parlors, as busy and happy as a couple of bluebirds picking up the first sticks and straws for their nest.

“There are two sunny windows to begin with,” says the good fairy, with an appreciative glance. “That insures flowers all winter.”

“Yes,” says John; “I never would look at a house without a good sunny exposure. Sunshine is the best ornament of a house, and worth an extra thousand a year.”

“Now for our wall-paper,” says she. “Have you looked at wall-papers, John?”

“Yes; we shall get very pretty ones for thirty-seven cents a roll; all you want of a paper, you know, is to make a ground-tint to throw out your pictures and other matters, and to reflect a pleasant tone of light.”

“Well, John, you know Uncle James says that a stone color is the best, but I can’t bear those cold blue grays.”

“Nor I,” says John. “If we must have gray, let it at least be a gray suffused with gold or rose color, such as you see at evening in the clouds.”

“So I think,” responds she; “but, better, I should like a paper with a tone of buff,–something that produces warm yellowish reflections, and will almost make you think the sun is shining in cold gray weather; and then there is nothing that lights up so cheerfully in the evening. In short, John, I think the color of a zafferano rose will be just about the shade we want.”

“Well, I can find that, in good American paper, as I said before, at from thirty-seven to forty cents a roll. Then our bordering: there’s an important question, for that must determine the carpet, the chairs, and everything else. Now what shall be the ground-tint of our rooms?”

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“There are only two to choose between,” says the lady,–“green and maroon: which is the best for the picture?”

“I think,” says John, looking above the mantelpiece, as if he saw a picture there,–“I think a border of maroon velvet, with maroon furniture, is the best for the picture.”

“I think so, too,” said she; “and then we will have that lovely maroon and crimson carpet that I saw at Lowe’s; it is an ingrain, to be sure, but has a Brussels pattern, a mossy, mixed figure, of different shades of crimson; it has a good warm, strong color, and when I come to cover the lounges and our two old armchairs with maroon rep, it will make such a pretty effect.”

“Yes,” said John; “and then, you know, our picture is so bright, it will light up the whole. Everything depends on the picture.”

Now as to “the picture,” it has a story which must be told. John, having been all his life a worshiper and adorer of beauty and beautiful things, had never passed to or from his business without stopping at the print-shop windows, and seeing a little of what was there.

On one of these occasions he was smitten to the heart with the beauty of an autumn landscape, where the red maples and sumachs, the purple and crimson oaks, all stood swathed and harmonized together in the hazy Indian summer atmosphere. There was a great yellow chestnut tree, on a distant hill, which stood out so naturally that John instinctively felt his fingers tingling for a basket, and his heels alive with a desire to bound over on to the rustling hillside and pick up the glossy brown nuts. Everything was there of autumn, even to the goldenrod and purple asters and scarlet creepers in the foreground.

John went in and inquired. It was by an unknown French artist, without name or patrons, who had just come to our shores to study our scenery, and this was the first picture he had exposed for sale. John had just been paid a quarter’s salary; he bethought him of board-bill and washerwoman, sighed, and faintly offered fifty dollars.

To his surprise he was taken up at once, and the picture became his. John thought himself dreaming. He examined his treasure over and over, and felt sure that it was the work of no amateur beginner, but of a trained hand and a true artist soul. So he found his way to the studio of the stranger, and apologized for having got such a gem for so much less than its worth. “It was all I could give, though,” he said; “and one who paid four times as much could not value it more.” And so John took one and another of his friends, with longer purses than his own, to the studio of the modest stranger; and now his pieces command their full worth in the market, and he works with orders far ahead of his ability to execute, giving to the canvas the trails of American scenery as appreciated and felt by the subtile delicacy of the French mind,–our rural summer views, our autumn glories, and the dreamy, misty delicacy of our snowy winter landscapes. Whoso would know the truth of the same, let him inquire for the modest studio of Morvillier, at Maiden, scarce a bowshot from our Boston.

This picture had always been the ruling star of John’s house, his main dependence for brightening up his bachelor apartments; and when he came to the task of furbishing those same rooms for a fair occupant, the picture was still his mine of gold. For a picture painted by a real artist, who studies Nature minutely and conscientiously, has something of the charm of the good Mother herself,–something of her faculty of putting on different aspects under different lights. John and his wife had studied their picture at all hours of the day: they had seen how it looked when the morning sun came aslant the scarlet maples and made a golden shimmer over the blue mountains, how it looked toned down in the cool shadows of afternoon, and how it warmed up in the sunset and died off mysteriously into the twilight; and now, when larger parlors were to be furnished, the picture was still the tower of strength, the rallying-point of their hopes.

“Do you know, John,” said the wife, hesitating, “I am really in doubt whether we shall not have to get at least a few new chairs and a sofa for our parlors? They are putting in such splendid things at the other door that I am positively ashamed of ours; the fact is, they look almost disreputable,–like a heap of rubbish.”

“Well,” said John, laughing, “I don’t suppose all together sent to an auction-room would bring us fifty dollars, and yet, such as they are, they answer the place of better things for us; and the fact is, Mary, the hard impassable barrier in the case is that there really is no money to get any more.”

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“Ah, well, then, if there isn’t, we must see what we can do with these, and summon all the good fairies to our aid,” said Mary. “There’s your little cabinet-maker, John, will look over the things and furbish them up; there’s that broken arm of the chair must be mended, and everything re-varnished; then I have found such a lovely rep, of just the richest shade of maroon, inclining to crimson, and when we come to cover the lounges and armchairs and sofas and ottomans all alike, you know they will be quite another thing.”

“Trust you for that, Mary! By the bye, I’ve found a nice little woman, who has worked on upholstery, who will come in by the day, and be the hands that shall execute the decrees of your taste.”

“Yes, I am sure we shall get on capitally. Do you know that I’m almost glad we can’t get new things? It’s a sort of enterprise to see what we can do with old ones.”

“Now, you see, Mary,” said John, seating himself on a lime-cask which the plasterers had left, and taking out his memorandum-book,–“you see, I’ve calculated this thing all over; I’ve found a way by which I can make our rooms beautiful and attractive without a cent expended on new furniture.”

“Well, let’s hear.”

“Well, my way is short and simple. We must put things into our rooms that people will look at, so that they will forget to look at the furniture, and never once trouble their heads about it. People never look at furniture so long as there is anything else to look at; just as Napoleon, when away on one of his expeditions, being told that the French populace were getting disaffected, wrote back, ‘Gild the dome des Invalides,’ and so they gilded it, and the people, looking at that, forgot everything else.”

“But I’m not clear yet,” said Mary, “what is coming of this rhetoric.”

“Well, then, Mary, I’ll tell you. A suit of new carved black-walnut furniture, severe in taste and perfect in style, such as I should choose at David & Saul’s, could not be got under three hundred dollars, and I haven’t the three hundred to give. What, then, shall we do? We must fall back on our resources; we must look over our treasures. We have our proof cast of the great glorious head of the Venus di Milo; we have those six beautiful photographs of Rome, that Brown brought to us; we have the great German lithograph of the San Sisto Mother and Child, and we have the two angel heads, from the same; we have that lovely golden twilight sketch of Heade’s; we have some sea photographs of Bradford’s; we have an original pen-and-ink sketch by Billings; and then, as before, we have ‘our picture.’ What has been the use of our watching at the gates and waiting at the doors of Beauty all our lives, if she hasn’t thrown us out a crust now and then, so that we might have it for time of need? Now, you see, Mary, we must make the toilet of our rooms just as a pretty woman makes hers when money runs low, and she sorts and freshens her ribbons, and matches them to her hair and eyes, and, with a bow here and a bit of fringe there, and a button somewhere else, dazzles us into thinking that she has an infinity of beautiful attire. Our rooms are new and pretty of themselves, to begin with; the tint of the paper, and the rich coloring of the border, corresponding with the furniture and carpets, will make them seem prettier. And now for arrangement. Take this front room. I propose to fill those two recesses each side of the fireplace with my books, in their plain pine cases, just breast-high from the floor: they are stained a good dark color, and nobody need stick a pin in them to find out that they are not rosewood. The top of these shelves on either side to be covered with the same stuff as the furniture, finished with a crimson fringe. On top of the shelves on one side of the fireplace I shall set our noble Venus di Milo, and I shall buy at Cicci’s the lovely Clytie, and put it the other side. Then I shall get of Williams & Everett two of their chromo lithographs, which give you all the style and charm of the best English watercolor school. I will have the lovely Bay of Amalfi over my Venus, because she came from those suns and skies of southern Italy, and I will hang Lake Como over my Clytie. Then, in the middle, over the fireplace, shall be ‘our picture.’ Over each door shall hang one of the lithographed angel heads of the San Sisto, to watch our going out and coming in; and the glorious Mother and Child shall hang opposite the Venus di Milo, to show how Greek and Christian unite in giving the noblest type to womanhood. And then, when we have all our sketches and lithographs framed and hung here and there, and your flowers blooming as they always do, and your ivies wandering and rambling as they used to, and hanging in the most graceful ways and places, and all those little shells and ferns and vases, which you are always conjuring with, tastefully arranged, I’ll venture to say that our rooms will be not only pleasant, but beautiful, and that people will oftener say, ‘How beautiful!’ when they enter, than if we spent three times the money on new furniture.”

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In the course of a year after this conversation, one and another of my acquaintances were often heard speaking of John Morton’s house. “Such beautiful rooms,–so charmingly furnished,–you must go and see them. What does make them so much pleasanter than those rooms in the other house, which have everything in them that money can buy?” So said the folk; for nine people out of ten only feel the effect of a room, and never analyze the causes from which it flows: they know that certain rooms seem dull and heavy and confused, but they don’t know why; that certain others seem cheerful, airy, and beautiful, but they know not why. The first exclamation, on entering John’s parlors, was so often “How beautiful!” that it became rather a byword in the family. Estimated by their mere money value, the articles in the rooms were of very trifling worth; but, as they stood arranged and combined, they had all the effect of a lovely picture. Although the statuary was only plaster, and the photographs and lithographs such as were all within the compass of limited means, yet every one of them was a good thing of its own kind, or a good reminder of some of the greatest works of art. A good plaster cast is a daguerreotype, so to speak, of a great statue, though it may be bought for five or six dollars, while its original is not to be had for any namable sum. A chromo lithograph of the best sort gives all the style and manner and effect of Turner or Stanfield, or any of the best of modern artists, though you buy it for five or ten dollars, and though the original would command a thousand guineas. The lithographs from Raphael’s immortal picture give you the results of a whole age of artistic culture, in a form within the compass of very humble means. There is now selling for five dollars at Williams & Everett’s a photograph of Cheney’s crayon drawing of the San Sisto Madonna and Child, which has the very spirit of the glorious original. Such a picture, hung against the wall of a child’s room, would train its eye from infancy; and yet how many will freely spend five dollars in embroidery on its dress, that say they cannot afford works of art!

There was one advantage which John and his wife found, in the way in which they furnished their house, that I have hinted at before: it gave freedom to their children. Though their rooms were beautiful, it was not with the tantalizing beauty of expensive and frail knick-knacks. Pictures hung against the wall, and statuary safely lodged on brackets, speak constantly to the childish eye, but are out of the reach of childish fingers, and are not upset by childish romps. They are not, like china and crystal, liable to be used and abused by servants; they do not wear out; they are not spoiled by dust, nor consumed by moths. The beauty once there is always there; though the mother be ill and in her chamber, she has no fears that she shall find it all wrecked and shattered. And this style of beauty, inexpensive as it is, compared with luxurious furniture, is a means of cultivation. No child is ever stimulated to draw or to read by an Axminster carpet or a carved centre-table; but a room surrounded with photographs and pictures and fine casts suggests a thousand inquiries, stimulates the little eye and hand. The child is found with its pencil, drawing, or he asks for a book on Venice, or wants to hear the history of the Roman Forum.

But I have made my article too long. I will write another on the moral and intellectual effects of house-furnishing.

“I have proved my point, Miss Jenny, have I not? In house-furnishing nothing is more economical than beauty.”

“Yes, papa,” said Jenny; “I give it up.”

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