Monday, May 2, 2016

Nice Things

For close to a year, a mail box across the street from a local junior high school has sported a tag that reads "Can't have nice things". It's hard to imagine a more demoralizing message.

Several younger housekeepers of my acquaintance are not patient with the details of early and even mid-twentieth century gracious living. More than one of my contemporaries has sighed when a potential heir has declined a significant piece of the family inventory. In my youth, I discovered that admitting an appreciation for and willingness to maintain old things provoked whoops of joy and relief as elders headed for their storage areas. A lifetime of using and editing family surplus, embellished with casual reading in design and the history of domestic architecture has taught me that nice thing is a definition that can be finessed. One person's nice is another's prissy. Nice, on its own, is a useless term.

Fitness for use is a phrase I remember from a discussion of design that probably included remarks about William Morris. Much older design depends on time-consuming maintenance procedures to keep it at its best. Dampening and ironing an embroidered linen tablecloth, for example, is an exercise best performed for holidays and weddings. The silver tableware that is of so little interest to so many was originally a store of bride wealth before women were permitted to own real estate. Silver was valued for food service because it has anti-bacterial properties. The culture did not know of bacteria at the time, but it must have been aware of health concerns nonetheless. Alternative materials were wood and iron, with its high-maintenance propensity to rust. High-end stainless steel flatware is an elegant alternative. Even big box chain patterns are appealing, but less likely to be replaceable. I have a bias toward copies of eighteenth century English silver.

It's worth the trouble to scout flatware, since well-designed stuff fosters fine motor skills. Pretend to eat with a pattern and be aware of how your wrists and fingers behave. Careful eating habits are not pretentious: they're an alternative to fighting over a carcass, enable sitting side by side in limited space, and protect clothing from stains. Stains are not trivial: in the field, they attract rodents that carry disease that causes high blood pressure. Excess laundry affects blood pressure, too. Grandmother knew what she was doing, although she may not have known exactly why.

Discussing dishes and their virtues can fill a day. The bone china that was so meaningful to twentieth century brides had solid reasons behind its appeal. Until the Japanese revolutionized ceramic production after World War Two, a housekeeper had two choices for the table: pottery that cracked, chipped, crazed, and bred microorganisms, and bone china that cost five or ten times as much and lasted far longer. Heavy metal contamination in glazes was ordinary. A prudent housekeeper chose ware from a reputable manufacturer. It is still wise to look at the potter's mark and check a glaze with a testing pencil. That said, there's a world of choice out there for next to nothing. Thin, elegant dishes store many place settings in few cubic inches and place little strain on the fine muscles of the hand and wrist. When her ladyship had to sew all the clothing for the family by hand, light weight mattered.

Dainty is a word that can be applied to much of late nineteenth and early twentieth century domestic design. I've inherited my share of paper-thin teacups, gossamer tablecloths, cut-glass wine goblets, and handmade lace. My share was not all that large, and living with this stuff has taught me that it's a display of labor. It's a treat to deploy it now and then for a special occasion. Now the special occasion is the opportunity to pass it along to a willing younger relative.

The labor that's on display these days is the labor demonstrated by housekeepers tapping at their keyboards. That's just as genuine a display of life skills, and the housewares that support those efforts are as valid as hand-painted stuff from Dresden.  The screen supplies a rich stream of visual information formerly fed by framed works of art, painted tableware, patterned textiles, and illustrated books. The "nice things" that really engage me are simple, well-designed artifacts that have served their purpose across generations of technical innovation and social change.

An iron fork from an 1870 carving set has seen nearly daily use since it arrived in the family. Its companion nickel steel frying pan is still at it, too. Vases hold their value over the ages. The ancestral salt shaker is now serving my son's table, as is treen ware generations old. I have not found a substitute for a well-made white linen napkin, that need not be ironed for daily use. Simple Japanese chop sticks in tapered black may be new, but the design is surely ancient.

Search Flickr's dinner table and potluck images to discover your preferences. Then scout The World of Interiors and local museums. The professional food community has informed choices with its durable, efficient, and intelligent designs, but remember the origins of the restaurant as we know it. After the revolution in France, owners of great houses transformed those private hospitality facilities to offer meals to the public. Private is the tail that wags the food service dog.    

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