Chapter XVII, "Everyman's House" book, by Caroline Bartlett Crane Creator
Crane, Caroline Bartlett, 1858-1935, author Institution
Western Michigan University Subject
Architecture, Domestic Subject
Better Homes in America Item Number
Part of Caroline Bartlett Crane "Everyman's House" Collection Type
collection, text Format
YOU AND YOUR HOUSE
THINGS last longer than people,' we say. Especially do houses last longer than people. We talk of heredity and environment. We have, too, a heredity of environment. The house survives, not only as an individual, but as a type.
In the town where I was born, I used to look with wonder upon a neighbouring frame house with a stone basement which contained, in addition to storage for vegetables and fruit, the family dining room and kitchen. I remember my mother explaining that these people had come from Vermont, where it was held economical to let the ubiquitous hillsides partially wall the cellar, and put a couple of rooms on the lower slope, making the house an affair of one story in front and two in the rear.
But why, on a Wisconsin lot as flat as a
pancake had they built, as nearly as they could, that kind of a house? Because the man was born in that kind of a house. It had for him the flavour of 'home.'
And because houses last longer than people, some certain house, or type of house, speaks to us, not only of home, but of our parents and our childhood. We are naturally, and forgivably, more conservative here than in most other compartments of our mind. Yet the old oaken bucket has had to give way to the kitchen faucet, and even the sacred parlour has been all but laughed out of existence.
Now the great majority of us are living in--and expect to continue living in--houses built by a previous generation. Perhaps your parents lived in this house; possibly, their parents, also. Your house has shared deeply your life's experience; has worn with you the sombre garb of funerals and the wreaths and ribbons of ecstatic wedding days. Baby's first steps went wavering across this floor.
You love it. And yet our homes, to which we are so intimately related, have a way of getting into our 'blind spot.' They are like
YOU AND YOUR HOUSE
the members of our immediate family: a mere acquaintance may perceive both their faults and their innate capabilities better than we can.
Or, does your house lack all these dear and glamorous associations? You bought it, some years ago, from a stranger. And have you gradually come to feel yourself enclosed in an unsympathetic, unyielding structure which refuses to give an inch to changed family needs? Your choice limited to which shall have which bedrooms, and where to dispose the various pieces of furniture?
Now it is probably not half so bad as that.
It was at this point in the chapter that my husband came home to lunch, and I read to him what I had just written. I may as well state that he says I show him each chapter, after the manner of a proud mother bear exhibiting a new cub, but that if he tries to do anything but stroke it the right way, he has to be prepared, not only to dodge, but to run!
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came to the sentence about the 'sacred parlour' and he said, with shocked disapproval, 'Oh, don't knock the parlour! All doctors approve
of parlours. They've saved the lives of so many people. There was Mrs. B--, for instance, killing herself by inches, taking care of her sick husband up a long, steep flight of stairs. By ?doctor's orders,' her husband and his bed and belongings were brought down to the parlour. It almost killed the poor woman to sacrifice a room she seldom entered except to dust and hadn't expected to use ?until the funeral.' But there was no funeral. The parlour helped save Mr. B--'s life, and may have saved his wife's life, too, for that matter.'
'That's exactly in the line of what I was going to say next,' I declared. 'Mrs. B-- had that asset in her house--a sickroom below stairs--and she never realized it! People don't know what they've got! Couldn't tell blindfolded, to save them, what pictures are hanging on their own walls. ?The interpreter can't interpret his own house--''
'Apparently not,' laughed the doctor. 'That must be the reason you are able to explain so lucidly about the Mother's Suite in Everyman's House, but haven't noticed, apparently, that you have a Mother's Suite--
YOU AND YOUR HOUSE
which is much better than a parlour--right here at home.'
'But I haven't,' I exclaimed. 'Where have I?'
'Well!' said the doctor, 'suppose the children were babies again, and suppose (with a subtle emphasis which seemed to place it well beyond supposition) you were an overworked housewife--what could you do about it in this house?'
Casting my eyes about my domain, I said at last, doubtfully: 'Why, if we cut a door there--'
'Exactly!' said the doctor; adding, in gallant afterthought: 'I dare say you'd have thought of that yourself, if you'd needed a Mother's Suite.' But honesty compels me to say I probably wouldn't have.
Which leads me to remark, dear reader, that possibly you aren't any brighter than I am. You, too, may have a much more adaptable house than you think.
Why, I dare say that many an intelligent family, moving into Everyman's House without instruction or 'key' to their surroundings, could remain oblivious to many of its
advantages. Its merits come to light only in connection with the art of living in it. It requires 'woman's wits.' Any house, in fact, requires to be met halfway. A misunderstood house is as bad as an unloved house.
What we sorely need--we who live in old houses--is a revaluation, from time to time, of the material elements of 'home.' We go stale to both their assets and their liabilities. Then, perhaps, we lose all enthusiasm for our house. If we really cannot manage to recover our enthusiasm, it would be a good plan to sell, and let someone else make the best of our old house, and build a new home. But--
There was once a woman in that frame of mind. Then she reflected that the property would doubtless sell for a good deal more if the house and grounds were fixed up. (Never forget the grounds as an integral part of 'home.') To make a long story short, in the process of 'fixing up,' she fell in love with her old house all over again, and wouldn't part with it at any price!
It is truly wonderful how small the improvement which may jog us out of our domestic rut and start an avalanche of ideas and
YOU AND YOUR HOUSE
enthusiasms in behalf of a 'better home.' Then, perhaps, we will find ourselves able to make a fresh valuation of the house and its contents.
What is the original cost, the upkeep, the overhead, and the actual profit of some of these things we've always thought we must have because others have them? Can they be truly called an 'investment'? Do they even earn their salt? Are they 'worth dusting'? Or, on the other hand, are our houses cluttered with disguised liabilities--rooms we don't effectually use, pictures we don't see (and likely, are not worth seeing), useless furniture and bric-a-brac we haven't the courage to get rid of, which make us more or less of a slave to burdensome possessions that 'last longer than people'--the dear people we love and want to give our best selves to.
We are certainly not left in the dark in this effort at home-orientation. The women's magazines, the household experiment stations, and the Home Economics Bureau of the Federal Government, are at the service of all of us, begging that we take and apply selectively the wealth of suggestions they offer.
So, let us all try to look at our house and its contents with new eyes. Begin with the things nearest you, touching some daily item of home activity. In the face of the constant bombardment of suggestions from household experts, I hesitate to offer any concrete example. Nevertheless, to make my point clear: Any kitchen, without adding materially to its equipment, can assemble permanently at one point the essential tools and ingredients of certain unit operations--bread-making and pastry-making, for example--and cut out a substantial amount of labour and confusion. And have you happened to realize that two sets of sugar and salt jars in a kitchen can save miles of steps in a year? The price of a single moving picture would provide them. A family 'self-denial week' will purchase an electric iron. Any bright family can make a first-class ice box or fireless cooker out of an old trunk and some excelsior and a few odds and ends, besides. And anybody can paint.
And what of the bigger things that may need doing to your house? 'Oh, but we can't afford it!' I hear people say. If we actually cannot afford it in cash, perhaps we
YOU AND YOUR HOUSE
can afford it in wholesome and rewarding labour.
Why, here are my friends, the Professor and his wife,[footnote 1] and two slips of girls, and a boy of eighteen, who have actually built with their own hands a lovely summer home of six or seven rooms that would have cost them at least $6,000 if they had had it built by a contractor. Yes, they built it all--foundation, chimney, carpenter work, plumbing, furnace setting, electric lighting. The children did all the plumbing and wired the house. They had to learn by experience and their own mistakes. But they did learn; and they have their summer home, which, presumably, they wouldn't have had except by their own joint effort.
Now, what is the matter with us and with our estimate of a home, and with our system of education, that a whole family has to be helpless and irresponsible about even small things; that, on the plea of 'can't afford it,' a mother should spend her life working with dull, broken, inadequate tools, as it were, with
[footnote 1] Professor and Mrs. John P. Everett of Kalamazoo. The cottage is at Elk Lake, Michigan.
bunkers in front of every stroke she makes?
If a mere boy can whisk together and install a radio set, or rush up a respectable abode for a horse he wants to keep, why can't he interpolate a new window in that gloomy kitchen and wire it up for side lights?
And furthermore, often it isn't a matter of expensive kitchen equipment nearly so much as it is a matter of routes travelled in doing one's work. Every now and then we learn of a railway company spending a million dollars or so to straighten out a curve in the road. Perhaps it is only a matter of a few miles in distance. But the company finds that, figured over a long period of years, the time lost, the side thrusts on gears and mechanisms of all the cars, and the extra rack and tear in the engine itself in having to go around that curve, justify the great trouble and expense of eliminating it.
Now, a woman who negotiates an unnecessary curve around a table, will, in time, walk needlessly the distance from New York to Chicago. And the routing of many a woman's kitchen tasks, if you sum up the
YOU AND YOUR HOUSE
steps of a lifetime, is like going from New York to Chicago by way of Hudson Bay and San Antonio. It may cost money; or it may cost only a little thought and imagination, to straighten out that curve.
And once again, about the Mother's Suite. It is my conviction that a great many little houses can accomplish a fairly good adaptation to this motif; and at a cost which is cheap, compared to the benefit accruing to the whole family.
Everyman's House is a concrete example of a little house built outright to this motif. But we cannot all fall to and build brand new houses--or even new kitchens. Everyman's House was meant, also, to help you who are looking for ways and means of improving the little house you already have. I should be wary about advising wholesale changes in an old house. It is hard to estimate in advance either the cost or the net results. But adapting, improving, tactfully converting an old house to new ideas is another matter.
Reformed husbands may be questionable assets. But reformed houses seem to fill
people with a peculiar joy and pride of achievement. 'I did this in spite of the stupidity of my predecessor!' Or, 'Behold how the house I built in my youth has profited by the wisdom of my riper years!'