The Simple Home Living
( Originally Published 1904 )
It is not in the Fifth Avenue palace, any more than in its antithesis in that nether world known vaguely as the slums, that we find the simple and elegant methods of living which people of limited means cultivate as a solace for what are generally believed to be the higher amenities.
If one only knew how often opportunities are missed by those whose means, though insufficient for luxury, are ample for that simple elegance which consists rather in-form than in display, we should have a revolution of the system of living in many of our middle-class homes.
Primarily human beings ate in caves, tearing the flesh, which was consumed raw, in pieces with their fingers. At the Feast of the Loaves and Fishes there is nothing to suggest that table napkins or finger basins played a part in the arrangements, and we know that even our Anglo-Saxon ancestors were in the times of Here-ward the Wake, and other gentlemen of his ilk, prone to the use of the time-honored apothegm " fingers before forks."
Whenever or wherever that first germ of cul ture came among us is a difficult matter to empiricise upon,. but its birth might be looked for among those select Roman villas with which Great Britain was at one time dotted, and whither patrician taste had probably brought from Rome (whence it had spread from Athens and Pompeii) the subtle accompaniment, to gastronomical development known as table etiquette.
It is not precisely table etiquette that is the keynote of dignified home-living, but rather an ensemble of which -a delicate and always correct taste is the inevitable keynote, and which rules in the home made beautiful by -the observance of those unwritten laws of taste translatable only by and to those capable of enjoying them.
The class of persons who have Sunday clothes, Sunday manners, and who use their best rooms, silverware, and china on Sundays or other specific occasions, scarcely ever reach the habit of every-day' elegance of living. The paraphernalia which they preserve so sedulously from vulgar, every-day use is often the " outward and visible sign of this inward and spiritual grace," and when for it are substituted the every-day cup and saucer, the pewter spoons, the dowdy table cover, and the tawdry etceteras, " a different effect seems to come over the spirit of the dream."
One will easily recall families which they have visited where such rules prevailed. The best rooms were curtained up, only to be opened on rare occasions, and the best of everything was-reserved for those occasions upon which social rivalry made it imperative for appearances to be made. In this establishment the meals were served with less decorousness, the courses were rushed through as if the eating of the meal was a business to be gotten through with with the same amount of celerity one would dispose of a task of any other kind. The conversation, if any was indulged in, was of a snappy, disconnected character, and only blurted out between the swallowing of huge mouthfuls of food. The actions of the servants were on a par with those of the persons seated at the table. Dishes were rushed on in a noisy manner, and collected as soon as emptied, to be carried away after the fashion that waiters pursue in very cheap restaurants. To many persons this mode of eating is preferable. They live in a rush, passing from one thing to another in a jerky, disconnected way, which nevertheless they, prefer' to the older-fashioned methods of living. Wives, daughters, sons, and servants unconsciously catch this feverish spirit, and everything moves according to the whirlwind schedule.
Such persons lose half the joy of living. In other households, where no more plentiful means exist for providing the table with a luxurious feast, each meal is so arranged and par-taken of that one feels like rising from a properly arranged service when it is over. In addition to a feeling that one has dined like the gods there is also a knowledge that hygienic- laws have not been violated by the hurried and barbarous habit of bolting enormous quantities of food, according to a given schedule for getting down the largest amount of material in the smallest space of time.
Here I cannot but recall the delight with which I used to receive invitations to dine with two Southern ladies, whose fortunes (destroyed by the war) compelled them to utilize their pens to improvise an income in New York sufficient to support a small menage.
Although, at best, the income from their work must have been small, and part of it was de-voted religiously to matters connected with the old homestead in Kentucky, yet the elegance which radiated from the fourth-story flat occupied by those two descendants of the old Kentucky regime was something never to be forgotten. To begin with, the table was always arranged with a rarely exquisite, taste, and this was so, whether or not a guest was expected, for many a time have I, compelled to call in the vicinity of the dinner hour, been compelled to " make myself one of the family " and remain to the meal. Whenever possible, there were both flowers and fruit on the table, and the pleasant colors contrasted charmingly with the snowy cloth, the delicate china, the glittering cut-glass, and the polished silverware.
By whose hand the daintiest of dishes ever enjoyed were concocted was a secret which I never ventured 'to solve, but I have often thought that, as well as handling their pens skilfully, these two gentlewomen also knew much of the mysteries which are supposed to be the sole prerogative of the high-grade chef.
It is possible that they were the product of the industry of the one domestic whom ,they managed to retain upon breaking up their Southern home—an old woman who was called
Nursie " by every one, and who had in by--gone years acted in the capacity of nursery-maid to the daughter. It was to " Nursie's " careful service at the table that the delightful smoothness of everything was attributable. Her trained eye missed nothing and left few opportunities for the hostesses to supply for their well-watched guest. But dainty as were service and viands, the charm of the dinner was the conversation, touching all points of social life, and whatever was of interest at the moment. Through the different courses this conversation 'was strained like so much additional sweetness. There were quips and jests, satirical touches, and comedy points to excite the risibles and aid digestion, and it was with a rare reluctance that one finally, after dallying some. two hours over that hospitable board, left it for the drawing-room beyond.
The instances quoted are simply given to illustrate the difference between " eating to live, and living to eat," or upon a broader plane, living life in a civilized way, or living it in the fashion of the under-world, hardly and unsociably; taking out of it none of the sweetness which belongs to it when the higher instincts of the being are considered and cultivated, and the touch which brightens, uplifts, galvanizes into the spiritual from the sensual is given.
It is a mistake to imagine that wealth is the sine qua non of culture, for the reverse is often the case. A vulgar display of what money can buy has no effect in conveying the distinguishing mark of good breeding. One often observes in the street a man or a woman clad in the shabbiest clothes, yet so immaculately neat that there is the hall-mark of gentility upon them beyond the peradventure of a doubt.
Unfortunately the tendency of this age, is not for these things. Delicacy of manners is for-gotten in the rush and hurry of what passes for living. Vulgar ostentation suffices for innate good breeding, overburdened tables take the place of that assiduous personal courtesy which costs so much more effort. Hotel, restaurant, and apartment life, and various travelling and outing engagements, which interfere so materially with the unity of the home circle, are responsible for the decay of culture in the American home.
A certain roughness of manners has" become common, even with well-bred women. This brusqueness imperceptibly eliminates the more delicate manners distinctively 'feminine, and is far more destructive of the graces than would suggest itself at the outset. Much of this roughness, although emanating from the smart set and carrying the approval of a certain class of people who move in the best society, is sheer vulgarity, and if indulged in by persons of the middle class, would be frowned upon immediately. Unfortunately there are so many women who copy bonnets, hats, and everything, to a twist of the hair, that is' copyable from Mayfair that this-style spreads imperceptibly, and in coarser soil degenerates into downright vulgarity. By the time this slang and indifference to form of Mayfair and Park Lane have filtered through Tottenham Court Road, or the Hotel Cecil, to the United States it has assumed a distinctly Brummagen brand, as repulsive as could be expected.
It is the mistress of the household, the young matron particularly, who holds in her hand the power to preserve the old and best order of things, the politeness, the gentilhonnmerie, the chivalry which are the spice of existence and which, once lost, cannot be compensated for by any modern substitutes. It is the cultivation of these homely but delightful ideals which will serve to fill up the vacant spaces in time, which seem to hang so heavily on the hands of the modern. society woman. The lessons cannot be learned in any school but that in which one spends all one's days, but there they are, always awaiting the attention and emulation of those who really comprehend and pursue the selection of the fittest.