In The Dining Room
( Originally Published 1907 )
IN the ancient Pennsylvania Bethlehem, beside the Lehigh, a town intimately connected with the romance and tragedy of early settlement, there still stand houses built by Moravians of the olden time. And on Easter morning, long before dawn and preceding the sunrise service, a score of trombone players wake the sleeping people, playing first up in the white-pillared dome of the old Moravian church, and then at point after point throughout the town-in front of the building in which Lafayette lay wounded and where Washington visited him, and beside the ancient structure where Pulaski was presented with a banner by the Moravian maidens, and at many another spot.
A town, this, in which a lover of old furniture would especially like to obtain some examples of the old; but our stay there was but during Easter Day.
But mark, again, how Providence watches over collectors! In an aggressively modern New Jersey town, a year or so afterward, a friend said:
"I wonder if you want to buy a piece of old furniture-a corner-cupboard. A family have moved back to their old home, leaving their furniture to be sold. Most of it was modern and sold readily. All that 's left is their corner-cupboard, and it's too old for anybody's taste here. They want to sell it for five dollars. They brought it when they came here from their old home, Bethlehem."
And that is how it comes that this memento of the ancient Pennsylvania town stands in a corner of our dining-room-and for only five dollars and freight!
An adequate, capacious, good-looking old cup-board it is, made to lift apart in two pieces, as was customary in making tall articles of furniture. The upper half is fronted with a swinging glass door, and the lower half with swinging doors of wood. By a strange perverseness, the cupboard had been given a coat of red varnish stain, but this was easily taken off by scraping.
In this corner-cupboard, and in a cabinet on an adjoining wall, there are china and glass and silver, a little Lowestoft, a little Wedgwood, a little old Sevres, a huge old English soup tureen, a huge blue platter, with bowls and pitchers and cups and plates.
It seems a contradiction; but most old American china was of English make. It was a comparatively advanced period before there was much made on this side of the ocean, and even the greater portion of those old dishes which show pictures of American scenery were made in Staffordshire.
The study of china is one all by itself, requiring long and patient research and application; and after one has examined the work of the great potteries of the world and supplemented this by a study of the examples in museums, there comes a wide humbleness of judgment, so difficult, often, is differentiation of the various makes because the different periods and factories so frequently overlap and resemble one another in style and appearance. As a rule, it is those who have acquired but a surface knowledge who are able to be most offhandedly positive as to age and make.
But there is much that may positively be learned. There are marks and signs and surfaces to consider. There are times when one may feel certainty. As, when a friend shows some china, insisting and believing (such is often the effect of mistaken family tradition) that it is "over two hundred and fifty years old," it may perhaps be of a kind that you know was not made until the early part of the nineteenth century.
The prices of china vary, not alone from age, or from beauty of design or color, but also from rarity. As to this, there is a great arbitrariness of assumed value. At a sale, a blue plate of fair appearance, with an old Albany picture upon it, was about to be knocked down to us for fifty cents, when two men, who at that moment happened to notice it, eagerly joined the bidding, and one of them finally obtained it for twenty-eight dollars. This was solely because it was one of an historical series, now hard to find.
Pennsylvania had quite a share in the outfitting of our old dining-room; although it might more naturally have been New York from the number of distinguished men of that State who, like Washington Irving, have in past generations dined within it!
It was from Pennsylvania that even the dining-table came; a table of fine Sheraton design, with delicately fluted legs. It is of mahogany, and is made in two pieces, each semi-circular in shape, with the leaves dropping against each other in the middle. When the leaves are down the table is a circle; but it may, if desired, be used as two separate side-tables, each standing against the wall with curved front.
It was obtained direct from a family, themselves lovers of the antique, who had long possessed it, and is one of our treasures in appearance. It cost us twenty-four dollars; not a special "bargain," and yet much less than we should have had to pay for a well-made modern table of similar size.
The buyer of the antique is liable to lose sight of the essential dearness or cheapness of a thing. He is liable to compare prices, not with ordinary prices of to-day, but with what he paid for special "finds." The collector who thinks a beautiful old mahogany table, in good condition, dear at twenty dollars, forgets that for a modern table, of some inferior wood, he would expect to pay at least over forty. The col-lector who thinks a superb old chair dear at five dollars, forgets that in a modern shop, for what he would consider a common chair, he would be asked at the very least eight or twelve. Often, as we have found in our own experience, charming old pieces are offered at delightfully low prices-but one must not expect to furnish his entire house at such prices!
From to-day's paper let us quote, from advertisements of modern furniture, probably all machine-made, a few prices that are expected to seem highly attractive to purchasers. Hall clocks, in the style we call "grandfather's," with mahogany cases, are two hundred and sixty-three to three hundred and ninety-six dollars, and with cherry and oak cases ninety-eight dollars and upward. A mahogany arm-chair, a "veritable gem set with a superb silk damask seat in choice colorings," is nineteen dollars. An "aristocratic, quarter-sawed oak dresser" is offered for forty-eight dollars. A chiffonier (what a word to use, when we have the good old "chest of drawers," or, if French be preferred, "bureau"-for "chiffonier" means a rag-picker or a receptacle for rags, or, when applied to furniture, should be used, as with the French themselves, in the cognate sense of describing a work-box for small pieces) -well, a chiffonier is offered for thirty-seven dollars. When you pick up a fine old-time chest of drawers for ten dollars and pay the repairer and polisher another ten, you have a piece incomparably beyond this..
And yet, as we read the advertisements farther, we see that this new century has something distinctively and strikingly its own to offer! For sixty-two dollars and a half you may have, combined in one single piece of furniture, "a smart mirror, a handsome tall clock, hooks for your hat, and a restful seat!"
With this, we may well return to the dining-room. An important part of its lighting is a reminder, again, of Pennsylvania, for around the walls are placed half a dozen brass candelabra which we found thrown away under the stairs of a little old Quaker meeting-house, in that State. Each of the candelabra holds a single candle. Only the curving pieces of brass, with the candle holders, could be found, but we were able to supply, in mounting them, small Empire torches, of metal, with formal ribbons, in the same metal, at either side. The candles are placed at the same height as those upon the mantel, and with these, and a few candles upon the side table, the room is amply and softly lighted.
The prevailing color is yellow, but there is also much of blue in the room. The wall paper is yellow, and the large rug in the centre of the room is blue, with a braided hearth rug of blue and white in front of the fireplace. Between this room and the next hang woven curtains which may be drawn together, to separate the rooms, when it is not desired to draw the sliding doors. There are two sets of these curtains, those in the dining-room being blue. These blue curtains are a pair of coverlets, of old-time design, of white linen and indigo blue wool, hand woven in beautiful and intricate pattern, purchased from a Connecticut housewife who wanted but three dollars for them. And only those who know such coverlets know what tedious and lengthy work they represent. In their present position they look not in the least like coverlets, but as if they had always been hangings.
No provision having been made, by the builder of this house, for curtain rods at these doors, the want was filled with lengths of gas pipe. They make admirable rods, in appearance and serviceableness, and are painted white and sunk in the door frames.
In a window-recess is a little kettle-stand whose acquisition was of droll unexpectedness. It is square-topped, and has a raised rim and snake feet, and its appearance shows it to be of about 1775. It belonged to a neighbor who traced its possession back ancestrally into the eighteenth century. He was a man who could never think of such a thing as selling a household belonging; but he coveted a certain unpedigreed white hen, and for the possession of that fowl, termed by him a "Brammy," he gladly bartered this table.
On the mantel there is a yellow brass jar, besides the brass candlesticks, and behind them, in a dignified line, stand on edge a row of large old plates, a set of half a dozen, in a deep blue.
Within the fireplace is a pair of old brass and-irons. These we found, several years ago, in the granary of a tumble-down, gambrel-roofed old house, on a road in New York near the Connecticut line. When the first fire was blazing on them, out came angry wasps who had built mud cells in the concealed hollows of the pillars, giving quite a Whittier-like effect of being "hissing hot" between "the andirons' straggling feet."
Beside the fireplace is a pair of bellows, brass studded, picked up on a Naples street for half a lira, ten cents.
There is a trivet, too. There was a time when we were not quite sure of the meaning of the word, and when asked, "Do you have trivets in your part of the country?" we could almost have answered, as did the woman of the Tennessee Mountains when asked by the missionary if there were many Presbyterians thereabouts, that we did not know them by that name, but that the inquirer might look over the skins nailed on the barn door.
But we soon learned what a trivet is, and we have one, a simple three-legged fireside crane; and when we read in Lamb, as we chanced to shortly after acquiring it, of the man who assisted at the cooking by removing the trivet from the fire, we knew just what was meant. There is some latitude in shape, but the general purpose is always the same-and a very helpful purpose it is.
Upon the trivet hangs the old brass kettle, flattish and rounding and ebony-handled, that was among the very earliest of our acquisitions.
In telling of what is in these rooms it is only that the experiences may arouse suggestions; it is not in the least as if the methods were offered as models. If we were writing anything didactic, it would only be some such advice as not to overcrowd your home with articles as if it were a museum; not to lose effectiveness of appearance and comfort by overfilling your rooms and cabinets and mantelpieces. It is your own home, and the principal object is to make the home attractive and comfortable.
A tea-table, quaintly square topped and square fronted, is in one wall space beside the fire, and upon it stands, against the wall, one of the oval wooden tea-boards. We like the fine old name, tea-board, rather than its substitute, tea-tray, which somehow suggests something not at all like it; if it is only a tray call it a tray, but we ought not to take away from the dignity of the really charming old articles. The great Wedgwood loved them. In his show-rooms, he displayed his exquisite tea-sets upon mahogany tea-boards.
Against one of the walls stands a side-table, of San Domingo mahogany, of really noble fire and color. And, with the chairs, the room seems to have enough in it, save only for the lack of the missing sideboard.
The question of what pictures to hang in a dining room is an important one. It is a room in which people spend a considerable portion of their time and in which none but pleasurable and comfortable thoughts should be evoked. For our own part, we have no love for pictured quail hanging by their toes, neither do varnished tarpon or fuzzy caribou seem agreeable dinner companions. Conversation and thoughts, at dinner, are supposed to range through a wide and agreeable field, and there is no reason why pictures should not be equally agreeable.
And so, we hung a few etchings of subjects which strike no jarring note, and in one corner is a large pastel, which, as if the artist knew that we needed a picture distinctly blue, has that color in domination.
The chairs for a dining-room ought, of course, to be of one set, and often do we think with envy of the Sheratons found by our friend in Delaware. Still, our own chairs are very satisfactory-six chairs and two armchairs, in dark leather-and they have an unusual history.
They were purchased, far back in the fifties, by those from whom we inherited them. At the time of their purchase the prevailing styles were grievous mid-Victorian.
But the buyers did not want mid-Victorian, and they described what it was they sought.
"But they don't make that kind nowadays!" pro-tested the dealer, the proprietor of one of the largest furniture shops of the Middle West.
"Then we 'll wait till they do," was the reply.
It was quite a time afterward, so the story was long ago told us, that the dealer one day sent word to them that he had a set which they would surely like.
They went, and he showed them these. They were of good wood, of the form known as "steeple-back," high and narrow, with an oval, upholstered panel and a rather pointed top, and of comfortable and dignified mien, as befits the chairs of a dining-room.
"Yes; those will do very well ;" and they were at once purchased. They looked new; there was no thought of their being anything else; there was nothing said as to being old or new, but the shop was one that handled new goods only.
Not till forty years afterward did the secret come out, and then it came through a reupholstering. And the secret was, that these fine strong chairs had all been old at the time of their sale in the fifties! Here and there were telltale shreds and portents, unquestionably pointing out the fact that they were, as their shape had all along implied, of early in the century!