Wednesday, May 29, 2013

OT: A Vanished World

We've been spending the last few days working on the house, primarily rearranging furniture -- which is becoming more and more difficult as we get older -- and while taking a break, I came across the picture above, an illustration for an Armstrong Linoleum ad from a December, 1921,  Delineator magazine (available online from the ever-popular Google Books.)

A big part of the project currently underway is trying to find room in the house for more of the books... so far, no luck. We have so many books in the house as it is, and there are probably as many books again still in storage -- even though I made a point of donating hundreds and hundreds of books before we moved last fall.

When I came across the illustration above, I had a surprisingly visceral response, almost as if I had once been in that room ages ago when I was a child. It's not unlike rooms that friends of the family might have lived in -- even in the early 1950s. My parents were old when I came along, after all, and though my father was into modern stuff, my mother and most of her friends were very traditionalist. A room like the one above would suit them to a tee.

I noticed there are only a handful of books visible in the picture. While some people had a lot of books in their homes, most didn't. One borrowed from a library if one wanted a book to read -- far more than one purchased books -- not so much because books were so costly (they weren't, not really), but because they were such a burden and bother to store and take care of, not to mention what a problem they were to lug around.

Out in the studio, we have a bookshelf which came from one of my childhood homes, probably one of the earlier ones in California. We moved a lot when I was little, so I can't be sure which house it was originally purchased for, but I can recall it standing tall next to the Philco console radio in the living room of the house on Mill St. in Santa Maria, so it must have been purchased before 1953 before I started kindergarten.

The bottom shelf had the encyclopedia volumes purchased at about the same time, the rest of the shelves contained book club novels and a handful of children's volumes (Little Golden Books). I would say that altogether there were no more than 25 books in the whole case. The rest of the space had knick knacks . I remember there were a number of "Oriental" things, wood carvings and porcelain, and a scent bottle that had cotton stuffed in it, cotton that smelled exactly like the heady camphor or cedar wood incense smell of a Chinese merchant's store.

So far as I can recall, it was the only bookcase and those were the only "real" books we had in the house. There were magazines and assorted paperbacks, but they didn't stick around very long; paperbacks in those days had a tendency to fall apart (either the book paper would start disintegrating or the glue holding the book together would dry out and the volume would spontaneously disassemble...). Magazines were considered temporary and weren't generally saved unless there was something important in them. Of course, now I wish I still had some of them (and yes, in addition to many books, we have a plethora of magazines, some of them quite old, that have been collected over the years.)

I started collecting books on my own in high school, and I still have quite a few I acquired then -- though I gave many of them away. I still have a couple of Little Golden Books and one or two volumes of the New Standard Encyclopedia that I had when I was a child. Most of these and the rest of the books we have are of no particular monetary value, though some, I'm told, may fetch a few hundred dollars if a buyer were handy. I can't recall ever selling any of the books I've ever owned, though I'm sure I've given away or donated thousands of them.

What I notice about the room above -- in addition to the minimal number of books -- is the relative lack of furniture and lighting fixtures, the surprising color coordination, and the remarkable filtered sunlight coming through the lightly curtained and shaded windows.

The time of day must be early morning or late afternoon when the slanting rays of the sun could reach all the way into the house beyond the porches and roof overhangs. I'm guessing the house faces east or west, though it is possible that similar sunlighting effects can be generated in the winter near midday in a south facing room.

At any event, the sunlighting and the whole atmosphere of the room are highly evocative to me, evocative of memories partially formed, from a time when I was very young, perhaps only two or three, and I went with my mother to visit an elder lady who lived down the street in a tidy bungalow with a wide front porch, a low picket fence, a flagstone path,  and a brown painted screen door. The front door was multi-panes of glass.

I think I even remember her name now. It was Mrs. Fawcett, and I remember her as compact, gray-haired, wearing a print dress with a white apron. Sensible shoes. The kind of Oxfords old ladies wore back in the day.

It seems that I can remember her lilting voice, easy laugh, and the slight smell of linament and flour that came off her clothes. She was cooking in the kitchen, getting something ready for the oven, perhaps a cake, when we arrived. She ushered us into the living room -- a room not unlike the one above -- and went back to her labors in the kitchen, joining us a few minutes later.

I thought the room -- and her whole house, for that matter -- was a wonderland. Apart from being neat and clean and rather sparely furnished, there were so many things to catch my eye. The pictures on the walls, the candlesticks on the mantle, the books and magazines scattered about, and though I don't recall there being so many drawers in her room as there are in the picture, if there had been drawers, I'd want to know what was in them. And I loved the feeling of comfort from the sunlight...

It's not that we lacked these things in our own house. We might not have had a fireplace, though some of the houses we lived in did have one. We had the usual furnishings, though in our house, it was all maple "Early American," purchased new in the late 40's or early 50's. There was that console radio of course. No TV. Not that early, though we got one by 1954, a big (it seemed to me) Packard Bell in a blonde wood cabinet. It was put in the den while the radio stayed in the living room. There was an assortment of braided rugs on the (typically) oak floors, some of the rugs were made by my mother and sister.

The pictures on the walls were a series of framed Currier and Ives prints that my mother was inordinately proud of. I think there were six of them. Over the couch (that's what it was called, not a sofa, divan or davenport) hung a large mirror in a gilt curvilinear frame, probably something salvaged from the Art Nouveau era and painted gold, but I really don't know where it came from. I know it was a beast to handle when we moved. Heavy and awkward. There were brass lamps with dark green paper shades on the tables, and a floor lamp to read by. The curtains were plain muslin; ruffled criss-cross priscillas or cafe style depending on the room. The upholstery on our furniture was a fairly bold plaid or dark green tweed.

Practically everywhere we lived, though, the main room faced north, so the sunlight came into the bedrooms or the kitchen, not the living room -- which typically stayed fairly dark all the live long day, even when, as in one house I can remember very clearly, there was a large picture window to let in the light.

Rooms in the houses where we lived were painted gray or beige or they had wildly flowered wall papers, such as you might have seen in the 1940's. Nobody painted rooms white in those days.

Some of the places where we lived were fairly old, but none were Victorian or Craftsman bungalow style. Most, I would say, were built in the 1940's and were fairly standardized "modern," though not "moderne."

Mrs. Fawcett, on the other hand, lived in a genuine stick-style bungalow, and she'd probably lived there since the house was new, thirty or more years before. That, I think, was part of the charm of the place to me. She'd lived there forever, while we were always moving -- which meant living relatively lightly and easily packed.  In a place like Mrs. Fawcett's, nothing was ever packed for moving. It was always there. Her stuff was old, much older than anything we had, and the wood was dark, not maple. Her pictures were landscapes, portraits and flowers, probably prints or even pages from magazines which people collected and framed and hung with pride especially during the Depression.

Her rugs were woven, not braided, though I can't imagine they were actually Persian or anything like that. Her floors were wood like ours, not linoleum -- which simply didn't appear outside of kitchens and baths. I can only recall one house I've ever been in where linoleum was used outside those rooms (in fact, all the rooms in that particular house had linoleum floors) and the less said about it, the better.

[A side note on linoleum: When we had our house in New Mexico renovated, the contractor and I went round and round about "linoleum." When I told him I wanted (genuine) linoleum in the kitchen and bath, he asked what pattern... I knew that these days linoleum comes in colors, but you can only get one pattern: speckled. The fancy prints and patterns of yore are long gone. I said I wanted green in the kitchen and sort of terra cotta in the bathroom. But what pattern he wanted to know. I said you can only get speckled linoleum nowadays. Your only choice is color. He said, "Oh no, you can get any kind of pattern you want. Just go to Armstrong's website and pick something out." I said, "I want linoleum." "Yeah, I know." Of course, he meant vinyl flooring, I meant linoleum. They are very different animals. No matter how I tried to explain it to him, he didn't get it. Vinyl flooring was "linoleum" as far as he was concerned, and the genuine article -- which is still obtainable though at a steep price -- didn't even figure in his thinking. When I finally got him to recognize there was a difference and that genuine linoleum was what I wanted, he put up one roadblock to using it after another. The price was double that of vinyl (actually more than that) and it would blow the budget, it wasn't available, couldn't even special order, would take too long, it was too difficult to work with, etc., etc. The real problem, I realized, was that he didn't have workers who were familiar enough with it to do a proper job, and it was winter when it is difficult/impossible to handle linoleum in an unheated house. Because we are going to have to re-renovate the kitchen and bath anyway (it's a long story), I settled on vinyl as a temporary solution. It's fine. For now. But I still want linoleum.]

Only recently I came to realize that my mother grew up in houses that resembled the illustration at the top of the page, whereas my father grew up in a relatively high Victorian atmosphere with parlors and servants and all the rest of it. The lifestyle is completely different, of course.

My mother would remain a traditionalist (though she preferred everything "new") whereas my father would become quite a modernist and prefer "new and lean". The differences in their approaches were stark.

As we make all the adjustments in the house here in New Mexico, trying to find room for more books (!) I'm imagining how various pieces of memory have become part of this house. There are a few pieces of furniture that have been with me or with my wife since we were children, but most of what we have now is what we have accumulated over the years, most of it purchased when it was already old. There is very, very little in this house that we purchased new -- and that's mostly electronics and appliances. New furnishings have never really appealed to me, whereas the old stuff has "character." Some of what we have now resembles what appears in the illustration at the top of the page, but a lot of it comes from a different time/space altogether. There are distinct eras: Victoriana, Craftsman/Mission Oak, 1930's (even some Moderne, though I got rid of most of the chrome stuff), 1940's (the Mahogany Era), and so on. We've also managed to pick up a few "New Mexico" pieces that are made from recycled materials to look old.

The room in the illustration above is clearly 1920's and the style is unified in a sort of pseudo-Colonial effect (that's still very '20s) in a coordinated red/brown/tan color scheme. There is no real style unity in our house these days, though we've tried for color unity -- our bedroom is The Blue Room; the guest room is The Red Room, though both bedrooms' walls are painted yellow; the living room furniture and rugs are in browns and tans, though the paintings are mostly in greens and blues and the walls are "Navajo White" (a somewhat difficult to explain color that is not white but vaguely tan; on the other hand, in florescent light, it's typically quite yellow; the kitchen and dining area are yellow and green. We have wide-board pine floors in some rooms;  narrower maple (or possibly poplar) floors in the bedrooms.

We use a wide variety of rugs on the wood floors, some of the smaller ones are handwoven Persian, the larger ones are mostly Couristan/Karastan (and similar), as well as carved Chinese rugs in halls and our bedroom.

I know where we are going to find most of the room we need for more books: the Jesus Room. Right now it's being used to store all sorts of miscellaneous stuff which needs sorting. Once that's done, there will be quite a bit more room for book shelves and books. (Smile.) I've recently learned, too, that the santo shrine that gives the room its name, the shrine I've been calling the room's "nicho," is actually called an alacena or cupboard. The one we have filled with santos was probably used as a winter refrigerator (there is a blocked up window and room for shelves). There's another one as well, under the window, that may also have been used as a cooler. Both go all the way through the adobe wall and have thin barriers to the outside. 

Meanwhile, the dust has been rising again, rising in great billowing clouds. They seem to pass by fairly quickly, but there's surely another one ready to blow in from the west. The word is, the dust will be rising for the next couple of days thanks to a low pressure system over Colorado.

Time to move the living room couch and ponder more memories...

No comments:

Post a Comment