ONLY those who have had to grope their way alone through the errors and the agonies of furnishing a house can understand the difference between the problems presented by the parlor and the dining-room. The problem of one is Protean; the solution of the other, comparatively simple.
Utility alone, the silver and china used on the table, may be represented in the decoration of the dining-room without the violation of any law or the suggestion of a limited mental horizon. But a parlor is a place of recreation, and in it we must gather certain possessions which represent our way of being refreshed. I may find my recreation in books and pictures; another may find it in pictures and flowers; some one else may find it in music; a fourth person, in collecting beautiful porcelains; a fifth, in games in which the children join. Without these evidences of individual tastes the parlor of a house might as well be the parlor of a steamboat. A dining-room is not dependent upon them for its excellence. We may be musical, literary, or artistic without having to betray that fact in the decoration of our dining-rooms.
There is another curious difference between dining-rooms and parlors and in what they suggest of the mental and social habits of a family. The dining-room may be perfect in all its appointments. It may bear everywhere about it a certain stamp of authority. You may recognize at once that for generations its owners have dined well, that they have understood what all the niceties and observances of the table should be. The parlor, however, may disenchant you at once; prove to you, in the choice of the pictures, the hangings, and in the arrangement of the furniture, that whatever its owners may have mastered about the art of eating, they have bothered themselves little about the cultivation of other arts. Their parlor is used only as a gathering place between meals. You see this difference sometimes in the houses and apartments of bachelors and people who know a good table but know nothing about a good book.
Sometimes, it must with sorrow be confessed, those who do know a good book know nothing of a good dinner, nor of how it should be served. They are unconscious of the need of finer observances about a table; ignorant of the fact that the success of a dinner bears any relation to the surroundings in which it is eaten. Although the parlors and the living-rooms of these people may have convinced you of their intellectual and moral attainments, their dining-rooms, when you see them, will give you an uncomfortable shock.
My first perception of this truth came with a visit to a house newly bought, without regard to cost, and exhibited with pride by its owners. It was intelligently planned, filled with the best of old mahogany, with books in choice bindings, and superbly finished throughout. But in passing through the dining-room I saw on the dinner-table a rumpled white cloth.
Had the table been well set in the beginning, and but recently abandoned, the effect would not have been so disastrous - few things are more interesting than a table with the chairs of the departed dinner guests pushed back, the open napkins, the half-filled wine-glasses, the fruits, the flowers, and the lights - but no stiffly starched tablecloth would have been used; certainly none that was rumpled.
Perhaps the ugliest dining-room to be found the world over is that of the small rented apartment or flat, with an oak "chair rail," a gilt paper, and an over-done oak mantel. Its dreariness cannot be realized except by those who have suffered from it. Added to the general wretchedness of color and design, is the fact that it is often the only passageway from the kitchen to the front door.
The first thing to be done by way of improvement is to tear down the gilt paper. And what a sigh of relief will follow its departure. The over-mantel must come down, too, and be confided to the janitor's care. If that is out of the question, and the monstrosity is really part of the construction, regard it as a dispensation sent by Providence to afflict you. For a sore affliction it will prove itself, always insistent and obtrusive. The only way of meeting the situation gracefully is to ignore it. Never draw attention to it by placing a single article in its neighborhood, hoping, perhaps, to better the case. You would only make matters worse. Ornaments are not meant to conceal deficiencies. They add a false note when so employed. Cover the ugly mantel if you can. Enclose it with pine boards, covered with some good tapestry of commerce. Then a mirror and shelf can be placed on it, the shelf adorned with candlesticks. When this has been done, choose your wall-paper.
Golden browns are particularly happy with oak wood-work. Green or yellow may be used; never red in stripes. Red stripes and oak belong to cheap country-clubs and seaside hotels. Manufactured tapestry, or tapestry papers, are excellent. Blue would be delightful were a sure, keen eye to guide one in selecting a tone. The impecunious amateur, inclined to a choice of blue on the walls of an oak-trimmed dining-room, is advised to feel a careful way among different tones and shades. When a well-known woman was quoted as the best-dressed person in town, a poor relation exclaimed, "That is because she never has to wear one of her failures." The amateur decorator, who cannot afford to discard failures, should be careful before deciding finally upon a blue for her walls.
When you have the privilege of painting or coloring your wood-work you have unlimited scope. One of the prettiest small apartment dining-rooms was treated in this manner. The wood-work and ceiling were white. A blue cotton-jean turned wrong side out to show the lighter tone, and put on with tacks, was used on the floor, for the walls, and in the curtains. White dotted muslin went next the panes. A white shelf running around the room some sixteen inches below the ceiling held a row of blue and white Canton china plates. Nothing but blue and white china was used on the table, or allowed in the room.