Grand Rapids Michigan
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I KNOW a man whose wife is famous for her cooking. That is a strange thing for a prosperous and charming woman to be famous for today, but it is true. When they wish to give their friends an especial treat, the wife prepares the dinner; and it is a treat, from "pigs in blankets" to strawberry shortcake.
The husband is proud of his wife's cooking, but I have often noticed, and not without a mild amusement, that when we praise it past a certain point he begins to protest that there are lots of other things that she can do. You might think then, if you did not understand him, that he was belittling her talent as a cook.
"Oh, yes," he says, in. what he intends to be a casual tone, "she can cook very well. But that 's not all. She 's the best mother I ever saw—sees right into the children, just as though she were one of them. She makes most of their clothes, too. And in spite of all that, she keeps up her playing—both piano and harp. We 'll get her to play the harp after dinner."
People are like that about the cities that they live in. They are like that in Detroit. They are afraid that in considering the vastness of the automobile industry, you 'll overlook the fact that Detroit has a lot of other business. And in Grand Rapids they 're the same; only there, of course, it 's furniture.
"Yes," they say almost with reluctance, "we do make a good deal of furniture, but we also have big printing plants and plaster mills, and a large business in automobile accessories, and the metal trades."
They talked that way to me. But I kept right on asking about furniture, just as, when the young husband talks to me about his wife's harp playing, I keep right on eating shortcake. That is no reflection on her mu-sic (or her arms!) ; it is simply a tribute to her cooking.
Grand Rapids is one of those exceedingly agreeable, homelike American cities, which has not yet grown to the unwieldy size. It is the kind of city of which they say : "Every one here knows every one else"—meaning, of course, that members of the older and more prosperous families enjoy all the advantages and disadvantages of a considerable intimacy.
To the visitor—especially the visitor from New York, where a close friend may be bedridden a month without one's knowing it—this sort of thing makes a strong appeal at first. You feel that these people see one another every day; that they know all about one another, and like one another in spite of that. It is nice to see them troop down to the station, fifteen strong, to see somebody off, and it must be nice to be seen off like that; it must make you feel sure that you have friends—a point upon which the New Yorker, in his heart, has the gravest doubts.
Consider, for example, my own case. In the course of my residence in New York, I have lived in four different. apartment houses. In only two of these have I had even the slightest acquaintance with any of the other tenants. Once I called upon some disagreeable people on the floor below who had complained about the noise; once I had summoned a doctor who lived on the ground floor. In the other two buildings I knew absolutely no one. I used to see occasionally, in the elevator of one building, a man with whom I was acquainted years ago, but he had either forgotten me in the interim, or he elected to do as I did; that is, to pretend he had forgotten. I had nothing against him; he had nothing against me. We were simply bored at the idea of talking with each other because we had nothing in common.
Any New Yorker who is. honest will admit to you that he has had that same experience. He passes people on the street—and sometimes they are people he has known quite well in times gone by—yet he refrains from bowing to them, and they refrain from bowing to him, by a sort of tacit understanding that bowing, even, is a bore.
That is a sad sort of situation. But sadder yet is the fact that in New York we lose sight of so many people whom we should like to see—friends of whom we are genuinely fond, but whose evolutions in the whirl-pool of the city's life are such that we don't chance to come in contact with them. At first we try. We paddle toward them now and then. But the very act of paddling is fatiguing, so by and by we give it up, and either never see them any more, or, running across them, once in a year or two, on the street or in a shop, lament at the broken intimacy, and make new resolves, only to see them melt away again in the flux and flow of New York life.
I thought of all this at a Sunday evening supper party in Grand Rapids—a neighborhood supper party at which a dozen or more people of assorted ages sat around a hospitable table, arguing, explaining, laughing, and chaffing each other like members of one great glorious family. It made me want to go and live there, too. Then I began to wonder how long I 'd really want to live there. Would I always want to? Or would I grow tired of that, just as I grow tired of the contrasting coldness of New York? In short, I wondered to myself which is the worst : to know your neighbors with a wonderful, terrible, all-revealing intimacy, or—not to know them at all. I have thought about it often, and still I am not sure.
The Grand Rapids "Press" fearing that I might fail to notice certain underlying features of Grand Rapids life, printed an editorial at the time of my visit, in which attention was called to certain things. Said the "Press":
It is n't immediately revealed to the stranger that this is one of the clearest-thinking communities in the country. The records of the public library show the local demand for books on sociology, on political economy, on the relations of labor and capital, on taxation, on art, on the literature that has some chance of permanency. The topics discussed in the lecture halls, in the social centers, and in the Sunday gatherings, which are so pronounced a feature of church life here, add to the testimony. Ida M. Tarbell noticed that on her first visit. Her impression deepened on her second. . . . Without tossing any bouquets at ourselves it can be said that we are thinking some thoughts which only the elect in other cities dream of thinking.
I should like to make some intelligent comment on this. I feel, indeed, that something very ponderous, and solemn, and authoritative, and learned, and wise, and owlish, and erudite, ought to be said.
But the trouble is that I am utterly unqualified to speak in that way. I am not one of the elect. If some one called me that, I would knock him down if I could, and kick him full of holes. That is because I think that the elect almost invariably elect themselves. They are intellectual Huertas, and as such I generally detest them. I merely print the "Press's" statement because I think it is interesting, sometimes, to see what a city thinks about itself. For my own part, I should think more of Grand Rapids if, instead of sitting tight and thinking these extraordinary thoughts, it had done more to carry out the plan it had for its own beautification.
That is not to say that it is not a pretty city. It is. But its beauty is of that unconscious kind which comes from hills, and pleasant homes, and lawns, and trees.
The kind of beauty that it lacks is conscious beauty, the creation of which requires the expenditure of thought, money, and effort. And if it does nothing else to indicate its intellectual and esthetic soarings, I should say that it might do well to discard the reading lamp in favor of the crowbar, if only for long enough to take the latter instrument, go down to the park, and see what can be done about that chimney which rises so absurdly there.
The lack of coherent municipal taste is all the more a reproach to Grand Rapids for the reason that taste, perhaps above all other qualities, is the essential characteristic of the city's leading industry.
I used to have an idea that "cheap" furniture came from Grand Rapids. Perhaps it did. Perhaps it still does. I do not know. But I do know that the tour I made through the five acres, more or less, of rooms which make up the show house of Berkey & Gay, afforded me the best single bit of concrete proof I met, in all my travels, of the positive growth of good taste in this country..
Just as the whole face of things has changed architecturally in the last ten or fifteen years, furnishings have also changed. The improved appreciation which makes people build sightly homes makes them fill those homes with furniture of respectable design. People are beginning to know about the history of furniture, to recognize the characteristics of the great English furniture designers and to appreciate the beauty which they handed down.
We went through the warerooms with Mr. Gay, and as I feasted my eyes upon piece after piece, set after set, of Chippendale, Sheraton, Heppelwhite, and Adam, I asked Mr. Gay about the renaissance which is upon us. One thing I was particularly curious about : I wanted to know whether the improvement in furniture sprang from popular demand or whether it had been in some measure forced upon the public by the manufacturers.
Mr. Gay told me that the change was something which originated with the people. "We have always wanted to make beautiful furniture," he said, "and we have helped all we could, but a manufacturer of furniture cannot force either good taste or bad taste upon those who buy. He has to offer them what they are willing to take, for they will not buy anything else. I know that, because sometimes we have tried to press matters a little. Now and then we have indulged our-selves to the extent of turning out some fine pieces, of one design or another, a little in advance of public appreciation, but there has never been any considerable sale for such things." He indicated a fine Jacobean library table of oak. "Take that piece for instance. We made some furniture like that twenty or twenty-five years ago, but could sell very little of it.. People were n't ready fa. it then. Or this Adam set—as recently as five years ago we could n't have hoped for any thing more than a few nibbles on that kind of thing, but there 's a big market for it now."
I asked Mr. Gay if he had any theories as to what had caused the development in popular appreciation.
"It is a great big subject," he said. "I think the magazines have done some of it. There have been quantities of publications on house furnishing. And the manufacturers' catalogues have helped, too. And as wealth and leisure have increased, people have had more time to give to the study of such things."
On the train going to Chicago I fell into conversation with a man whom I presently discerned to be a furniture manufacturer. I don't know who he was but he told me about the furniture exposition which is held in Grand Rapids in January and July each year. There are large buildings with many acres of floor space which stand idle and empty all the year around, excepting at the time of these great shows. Last year more than two hundred and fifty separate manufacturers had exhibitions, a large number of them being manufacturers whose factories were not located in Grand Rapids, but who nevertheless found it profitable to ship samples there and rent space in the exhibition buildings in order to place their wares before the buyers who gather there from all over the country:
Before we parted, this gentleman told me a story which, though he said it was an old one, I had never heard before.
According to this story, there was, in Grand Rapids, a very inquisitive furniture manufacturer, who was always trying to find out about the business done by other manufacturers. When he would meet them he would question them in a way they found exceedingly annoying.
One day, encountering a rival manufacturer upon the street, he stopped him and began the usual line of questions. The other answered several, becoming more and more irritated. But finally his inquisitor asked one too many.
"How many men are working in your factory now?" he demanded.
"Oh," said the other, as he turned away, "about two-thirds of them."