Monday, December 5, 2016

Tea Cups

Bethany stopped by for morning therapy after losing a mutual friend. We consoled ourselves with a pot of tea and my grandmother's hand-painted dishes and cut-work napkins. Much solace is to be had from heirlooms that have been offering comfort ["that which generates courage"] for generations.

Bethany remarked that another mutual friend is as ready as I to rattle off details about a little vessel that's in hand. Beth is the fastest take I have known about quality and good design. She assessed her cup and commented that the handle was agreeable and that she'd suffered unusable handles on other tea cups. Whether to discuss possessions at all is a subtle point of etiquette.

The conversation could be summed up as what is it about dishes, anyway? a question that can be answered over a convenient number of hours or days. My short take on the Western Washington version of the topic is that dishes from a reputable manufacturer, generally English, back in the day could be counted on not to contain poisonous glazes. It is only recently that government regulation has more or less protected the general public from the heavy metals that produce such alluring color. Careful consideration of table top design is the consumer feedback mechanism for the ceramics industry.

Victoria, B.C., was the nearest shopping destination for quality goods when Seattle was young. It was routine to take the ferry up for an overnight visit that qualified one for a free pass on the way back through customs. Victoria is still the destination of choice for fine table linens, tweed jackets, and discreetly designed travel clothing. High-end items are the most serviceable and cheapest per use, and English goods most suited to the local climate.

In the late nineteenth century, local tribes were still the dominant presence. European occupation of the area was brand new. It was a major statement to be able to present a meal according to the best traditions of the old world by the open hearth of the family log cabin. At the time, there were no restaurants, and private hospitality was literally a matter of life and death. The Victorian etiquette of the period survives still in this westernmost outpost of Anglo culture, as old school Spanish etiquette lingered on in Puerto Rico long after the region changed hands. Victoria's oldest house museum represents a domestic tradition that prevailed on both sides of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, when ownership of the Oregon Territory had not been determined. Tacoma's Fort Nisqually restoration presents telling details about living at the end of a supply chain that stretched halfway around the world. Being able to claim blanket space at the foot of the stairs in the blockhouse was a privilege, and being able to eat off blue willow pottery a stunning achievement. 

I believe simple hygiene is the key to understanding fine tabletop furnishings: silver is anti-bacterial and does not generate carcinogenic rust, fine ceramics are durable, non-toxic, and do not harbor what my grandmother called wigglers in discoloring  cracks. The waterproof imagery of fine dishes must have been very welcome in rustic areas. Highly polished metal and glazes amplify ambient light in a low-tech room illuminated by candles and fire. Light is a nutrient desperately needed over a Northwest winter.

Fine home furnishings were a reservoir of wealth that was untaxed until the collectibles regulation of the Eighties. That period and the late Seventies were ones of ravenous acquisition of old things that had not previously been fashionable. The economic pressures that drove women into the outside work force generated the simplification and outsourcing of many domestic procedures. I comprehend the household as having been transformed from an end to a means.

Norma Skurka's New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration is a reliable survey of the period of transition. Faith and Edward Deming Andrews' Shaker Furniture is the benchmark guide to an alternative vision. The owner of a Seventies New York deli, whose name I do not remember, set the course of the future by using chrome-plated commercial wire kitchen shelving and white coffee shop china in her domicile.

The straightforward good sense of white restaurant china echoes the so-called casual living style that migrated north from California during the Fifties. The difference is who is setting the table. Experience in commercial food service reinforces direct, no-nonsense presentation rather than the borderline ceremonial ritual that can be traced back to groaning medieval boards -30-

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