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Trinkets and Nineteenth-Century Conduct Manuals

I’ve really come to appreciate smallnotebook.org, especially for its articles on how apartment dwellers (like my husband and me) can make our small apartment feel more “homey.”  I love apartment life for its simplicity; and yet I could do without the shag carpet that came with our (I call it “70s inspired”) unit.  Less space equals  less opportunity to stuff it with junk–I’m grateful for that.  But less space also means a little less room to breathe.

A few months after our wedding and big move out west, we decided that one dog wasn’t enough.  And so we trucked it over to the Humane Society and (oh, very intelligently) came home with a sixty-pound bundle of canine joy named Petey.  Our apartment never seemed so small.  Slowly, though, as we set up boundaries for the dogs (and finally housetrained the new one), our living space took on a more streamlined shape, maybe even a more relaxed ambience.  This process of reconstructing and reviving our living space forced me to confront how complex and dynamic a living space, or “home,” actually is. I say all of this to preface the idea of “home-space,” the notion that the space we create for ourselves within the home is–at its core–influential, creative, and perhaps even sacred.

I love trinkets.  I love little teapots.  I love the funky, useless stuff at Ikea that no one else ever buys.  I especially love throw pillows, but I suspect I’m not alone on that one.  So many sentimental attachments flood my mind when I take inventory of this “stuff.”  Teapots from Thailand, scarves from last spring, pillows from our wedding shower, and my favorite lamp–I love the memories that accompany these objects.

Although most of it is just for decoration, sometimes for the cultivation of a particular aesthetic, my emotional attachment to these things is more akin to my husband’s attachment to his comic books.  I’m wondering if that strange, child-like relationship I have with these household trinkets is really fostering a particular feeling of home-space, or if it’s just linking me to my belongings in an unhealthy, materialistic way.  Can a space really be considered sacred if it so easily encourages me to meditate on  my little thing-a-ma-bobs instead of my family?

I found a great counter to my thoughts about “stuff” this morning in the last place you’d expect: a nineteenth-century conduct manual for homemaking.

Google Books is a treasure trove of old, recovered tomes.  Since Google digitizes the books through what seems like a high-tech Xerox machine, you can look at the smears and type-setting of the pages as if you were flipping through them in a rare books library (although it’s certainly not an identical experience!).  The nineteenth-century–with the decline of homespun and the cultural emphasis on separate spheres–gave birth to a multitude of books and pamphlets all about the art of homemaking.  These guidebooks cover almost anything you can imagine, from molding yourself into the “ideal wife” to picture-perfect flower arrangements.  Courtship and Marriage: and the gentle art of homemaking was written by Annie S. Swan in 1894.  Swan takes her readers (presumably young women) through the process of engagement, marriage, and then finally homemaking–all with a highly stylized, albeit approachable, literary voice.  Although Annie Swan’s “ideal wife” is different from my own vision of marriage, her discussion of the “first principle” of homemaking is something I can commit to:

[T]he very first principle to be learned in this art of home-making must be love.  Without it the other virtues act but feebly.  There may be patience, skill, tact, forbearance, but without true love the home cannot reach its perfect state. It may well be a comfortable abode, a place where creature comforts abound, and where there is much quiet peace of mind; but those who dwell in such an atmosphere the hidden sweetness of home will never touch.  There will be heart-hunger and vague discontents, which puzzle and irritate, and which only the sunshine of love can dispel. (Swan 58-59)

I’m not sure what Swan had in mind for this “perfect state,” but I think that the heart of her passage here–this deep emphasis on love–is valuable, maybe even liberating.  My little trinkets don’t make our home-space welcoming and sacred; it’s the love that (hopefully) gravitates from our presence within that space.  People aren’t noticing my teapots; they’re noticing whether or not our home is a safe place for them to be themselves.  In this sense, a home-space which aligns itself with an others-oriented mentality not only welcomes friends and strangers, but helps to cultivate individuality and identity in others outside of their own “home-spaces.”  There’s a community emphasis here that I think gets overlooked in the grand scheme of homemaking philosophy, and its grounded in an inveterate appreciation of individual identity.

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