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XXXII. women as household decorators.

It once happened to me to spend a day or two in a country-house where the different rooms gave unconscious object-lessons to show the gradual change of taste in household decoration. One room-the sitting-room of an elderly invalid-represented what might be called the iron age of furnishing; everything was dark mahogany and hair-cloth; there was not a chair or a sofa on which you could retain your seat without a struggle, so polished and so slippery were they all. The walls were hung with dark portraits in dark frames, or smaller daguerreotypes in circles of black walnut; the only spots of color were found in one faded sampler, and in the gilded circular frame of a very small mirror hung too high for use. It was curious to pass from this sombre abode into the bedroom I occupied, which had been fitted up by an elder sister, long since married, and whose girlhood fell in what might be called the glacial period of thirty years ago. Here everything was white instead of dark-white Parian statuettes, white fluffy embroideries, a white cross cut [162] in complicated fashion out of paper, surrounded with white flowers and hung in a white frame against a white wall. On the mantle-piece stood a pair of cut-glass vases, bearing great clusters of dried grasses, bleached almost colorless by time. The furniture was of straw, and the counterpane was of white damask. If the room of the iron age was depressing, this was even more so; it was like passing from an underground cave into a chilly world of ice. But a third experience was offered on proceeding to the parlor, which had been given over to the charge of the youngest daughter, fresh from an art school. From this room every article of pure white or jet black had been banished; the eye wandered from one half tint to another, or if any bit of positive color arrested the gaze, it was some unexpected stroke of bold yellow or regal red. No two chairs were alike; nothing was paired; the carved marble mantle-piece was concealed by a lambrequin; there were screens, fans, a knot of some Oriental stuff at the back of every chair, three various vases of bulrushes, and seven seltzer-water jars painted by the young lady herself. This room did not belong to the iron age, nor yet to the glacial, but to the recent or Japanese formation. Considered as a step forward from the earlier stages represented in that house, it indicated a great advance; regarded as a finality, it was something to appall the human heart. [163]

Now all these successive transformations were the work of women, and they suggest the question, If woman is thus the born and appointed decorator of the home, why should she not be trained to do it artistically and professionally? It is not truly artistic to plunge at once into the most exclusive extreme of the present fashion, whether it lead to black, or white, or a multiplicity of hue, but to take what is truly the best of each period and adapt it gracefully to modern use and to the needs of each separate family. In many houses this is now exquisitely done; no one can deny the great improvement in our “interiors” within twenty years. But if it is to be done systematically for the community, it is impossible to leave it wholly to amateurs. The modern decoration implies architects, designers, and artificers of its own. In the foreman of an art-blacksmith's shop I found the other day one whom I had previously known as a working jeweller; he had simply transferred his energy and skill from gold and silver to brass and iron, and was laboring with hands harder than before, yet no less cunning, upon graceful gas-fixtures and in-door ornamentations of his own designing. It must be the same with women; they must undergo professional training to do their best. Here is this whole continent waiting to be made graceful and beautiful in its in-door homes. It is said by dealers that, outside of a few large [164] cities, there is absolutely no arrangement to supply this demand — no one who can give to a young couple setting up their house-keeping more than that amount of information possessed by the average furniture dealer, which is very little. For want of this, many a young pair, as their wedding-day approaches, sit down and ponder helplessly over some book on “The house beautiful,” or “In-door decoration,” until their souls are filled with despair. Where are they to find these charming portieres, these aesthetic wall-papers, these delightful Russian wash-bowls that are lighter and prettier and cheaper and more durable than any china? And the dealers receive unavailing letters from a thousand miles away, asking for the wrong things or under the wrong names, and ending in failure? What is the remedy?

The remedy is for a few women first, and then a good many women, after training themselves properly, to take up decoration as a profession. Let any two bright and capable girls who have wearied themselves in painting water-colors that people do not want, or Christmas-cards for which the market is waning, try another experiment. Let them, after studying in the art schools of New York or Boston or Cincinnati, make also a careful study of the markets and workshops of those cities, so far as they relate to decoration; and then go, armed with circulars, [165] price-lists, plans, and patterns, to establish themselves as household decorators in some interior city where the wave of modern improvement has thus far come only as a matter of intelligent interest, not of systematic supply. They will have to wait a while, no doubt, to command public confidence, or even to make their mission understood; but they will not have to wait so long as their brothers will wait for clients or for patients. They will need to be very practical, very accurate, very efficient, and very patient. The great dealers in the larger cities will gladly make them their agents, give them letters of introduction, and pay them a commission on sales. With a little tact they can learn to co-operate with the local dealers, to whom they will naturally leave the coarser supplies, devoting themselves to the finer touches. If they succeed at all, their circle of clients or correspondents may extend through whole States, and they will help to refine the life and thought of the nation. By all means let us see women take up household decoration as an educated profession.

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