IN the following pages I have made no attempt to discuss architectural periods or problems. My purpose has been to help the bewildered householder to see clearly what results she has been striving for, and how to go to work to obtain them. I have discussed the question of decoration from this point of view only, quoting examples of successful interiors whenever they have seemed helpful. An experience of some years in answering letters from all over this country, from Canada, and from our colonists abroad, - letters written by women of wealth, of limited means, by the schoolgirl and the bride, - has enabled me to know something of the needs of a portion of my country-women. By means of this correspondence I discovered that for the most part these women were harassed by a sense of their own limitations, and confused by a medley of suggestions, and by various proclamations relating to infallible standards in household decoration, - standards which might have been infallible for somebody else in some other condition, perhaps, but which were altogether inappropriate for them in theirs.
Because of the needs of these women, therefore, I have begun with this question of requirements. There is no escape from it, when a human habitation comes under discussion, - whether this habitation take the form of a palace, a barrack, or a camp; whether whole houses are to be consecrated to the use of single families, or whole families are to be housed on a single floor; whether the home is to be a tenement, a studio-building, a hut in the wilderness, or cottage in a country town; whether it is to be in a hot climate or a cold one; whether its owners are rich or poor, important or obscure, single or married. To make the home successful, we must know the needs of those who are to dwell in it, their circumstances, and the relation they bear to the community in which they live.
To put it briefly, these requirements are not only individual but communal. They are distinct in each instance, yet certain universal laws govern them all. A man's duties to himself must guide him on one side; his obligations to his neighbor, on the other. These he must balance.
Take, by way of illustration, the executive mansion of a capital, a domicile bearing to the community in which it stands a distinct and recognized relationship, the conduct of its inmates toward the public governed by certain fixed and arbitrary rules. Yet, in spite of the limitations prescribed by custom, how different the atmosphere which successive tenants create in the solemn chambers! One performs the duties of a station so gracefully as to become a tradition, another in a way never to be forgotten for its frigidity and its lack of charm. We, who look on, may praise in one instance and decry in another, yet we concede always to each individual the right to his own manner of expression.
The responsibility of comprehending and respecting the domestic and social requirements rests for the most part upon woman. To be successful as their interpreter she must make them a particular study. She must first of all understand what the position of her husband, her father, or her own place in the world makes obligatory in the conduct of her affairs. This understanding gained, she must endeavor to adopt the best and most approved methods of meeting all the demands which may be made upon her and upon her house. Until she has done this she can never hope to understand any question of household decoration; because, after all, the decoration of a house implies, primarily, making provision for special needs. The degree of felicity with which these provisions are made, of course, marks the excellence of one decorator over another.
To be more specific, suppose that a woman has been brought up in a quiet village, or a college town where life was simple, where entertaining was done on a small scale; where dinner-giving was not an art, not a part of a complicated social machinery, but an expression of hospitality, a dropping in of neighbors, or at best, the entertainment of some distinguished professor from another town; a village in which there was much visiting of an evening, and a going home of everybody, with lights out, at ten o'clock; where costumes were not elaborate, and where, since the streets were quiet and travelled principally by friends and acquaintances, she could go afoot in her best clothes, requiring no carriage for special functions in the afternoon, and none, unless of choice, for a party at night.
Suppose next that she marry a man of wealth, and move to a town where she is called upon to preside over a large establishment; or that she marry a politician and move to a capital, perhaps Washington, where receptions and dinners are the order of the day; where she has to be plunged more or less into public life; where her duties are not alone to her children, nor to her husband as the head of his house, but to the position which he holds before the world, to the office to which his constituents have elected him. Is it not easy to see that her whole knowledge of living and entertaining will need altering, that she will have to learn how to appoint and run a house on an altogether different scale? to furnish it after a manner that would never have been tolerated in her native village, bringing quite another point of view to bear upon the question of appointments, equipages, menus, costumes? In other words, she will have to be educated to fill a new position, to follow a social order to which nothing at the old home has accustomed her. She will have to appoint her house not only in a way acceptable to herself, the woman in it, but to the community in which she moves as a conspicuous figure. The decoration of the home then presents itself to her as quite a new problem.
On the other hand, suppose that she had been reared in affluence and had then married a poor clergyman whose parish lay in some remote county; or a lawyer who had his way to make; or an officer in the army without a settled home. She might have to begin her new life in a parsonage, an apartment, or an army post. How different the requirements of each case would be! How differently she would have to consider them!