by Patricia Marian Cove
Several years ago, while foraging through a stack of books at a local antique fair, I came across a set of “Godey’s Lady’s Books.” For those of you not familiar with this precursor to magazines such as Harpers Bazaar and Architectural Digest, “Godey’s Lady’s Book” was published in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1878, and was considered THE harbinger of good taste read by well-bred women of the 19th century.
Being over 100 years old, the set was not in pristine condition, but I could not resist leafing through the first few copies. Each one was an amalgamation of features ranging from fashion to poetry and short stories. There were articles under broad headings such as “Household Department,” “Home Topics” and “Our Arm Chair.”
One of the highlights of each issue was a series of hand-tinted fashion plates, which provided a record of the progression of women’s dress through the mid to late 1800s. Almost every issue also included detailed illustrations and patterns with measurements for a specific garment that could be sewn at home.
A sheet of music for the piano provided the latest waltz, polka or gallop. Edgar Allan Poe had one of his earliest short stories printed in Godey’s The issues not only detailed how people dressed and spent their leisure time, but also went into great detail describing the homes of the day, and how families lived in them and enjoyed them.
After purchasing the set of “Godey’s Lady’s Books,” I perused them, enjoying the beautiful engravings, poems and tinted fashion plates, and was also thoroughly entranced by the articles on home design — so different from the splashy photo spreads common in the shelter magazines of today.
In fact, the articles themselves had no photographs. The descriptions of the rooms relied solely on the written material, describing the space in detail, far less embellished than the descriptions of how the rooms were used.
I read an article by Augusta Solesbury Prescott, entitled “Our Spare Room,” recounted the days leading up to a visit by a great aunt. It tells of the laborious preparations in detail, the precise activities that needed to be done to make the room most comfortable. Several paragraphs described the furniture needed to serve multiple purposes — a dressing table, a bureau and a looking glass, all at one time. But much more attention would be paid to the bureau cover. It was a beautiful piece of linen and silk fabric that was hand embroidered with water-colored threads. There was much concern about how anyone could dare to brush their hair over such a piece of delicate cloth.
Lengthy discussion discussed how the guest room should be appointed — simple and unadorned for the convenience of the guest or fastidiously appointed for the enjoyment of the guest. I couldn’t help but smile at the vast chasm between the guest room preparations of 1850 and the guest room preparations of today. Who under the age of 50 today would even know what a bureau cover is, let along ever use one.
In the same issue, another article under “Household Department,” delved into the subject of the dining room. You remember that room? It was a single space just used for eating meals. The table was also covered with pressed linens, and set with fine china, in a matching pattern, of course. And every member would enjoy each meal and converse on the topics of the day.
This particular article also concentrated on the décor as well as the comfort and care of the various accoutrements within a dining room of the 19th century. Should a dining room have a carpet? Without a carpet, chairs may need to have rubber pads attached to their feet to reduce scratching noises. Where should the silver service and cruets be stored? If you had gas, “which is one of the ablest assistants in tarnishing silver,” your silver service should be stored in the dark, and if tarnish should appear, a few drops of borax missed with ammonia should get rid of the unwanted markings. But, the article warned; do not use flannel to store silver as it is manufactured with sulphur. The article concludes with several recipes such at Napolitaine Pudding and Molasses Cake.
I’m not sure why the customs of the past intrigue me so. Perhaps because it seemed a less complicated and gracious time, when the preparations of a guest room or family meal were loving rituals. Today other activities have taken their place. Still, it’s nice to think about these things and times as we continue working to make our homes livable in the styles of the 21st century.
Patricia Cove is principal of Patricia Marian Cove, Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill. She serves as vice president for Preservation of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.