This section is from the book "Homes And Their Decoration", by Lillie Hamilton French. Also available from Amazon: Homes and their decoration.
I HAVE often referred to apartment-house life as a series of makeshifts and compromises which must go endlessly on, now demanding the sacrifice of a sentiment, now the immolation of a comfort on the altar of some propriety. But the makeshifts and compromises of apartment life are as nothing compared to those which the single room or the studio force upon the individual. Studios, in the very nature of things, are susceptible of a treatment that yields generous returns in effect and charm. They are larger than the rooms found in ordinary dwelling-places, more can be done with them; moreover the artist is generally a master of color, understanding harmonies and combinations, possessing, besides, an accumulation of materials chosen for their beauty, possessions which in themselves are decorative and interesting. My sympathies do not go out to the dwellers in them; my enthusiasms do. All my pity is for the single woman, or the man and wife of narrow means who must live in a furnished room. The world is full of these unfortunates. One stumbles over them in unexpected ways. The bed and the bureau are always in evidence, the washstand too. Every effort made to improve the situation but adds misery to the general result, as when wedding silver-pieces and lamps are displayed on a table by themselves, but a few feet away from the bed or the bureau, as a kind of hopeless proclamation of past splendors, - a silent protest against a present condition.
If such a room is to be made a permanent dwelling-place, - and by permanent I mean a tenure lasting through a season, - no one should yield too readily to a situation which might be bettered with a little thought and a very little money. When I was a child I knew a woman with a restless, nervous husband, always at an hour's notice dragging her from place to place, to this hotel and that, this ugly rented cottage by the sea, and then two weeks later to another just as bad - and not at all because he was poor, but because he was queer. I learned more from her in my girlhood than from any other woman I knew. She taught me what it was to yield gracefully to a situation, and yet to maintain one's principles and tact. She was like the stem of a water-plant, I used to think, swayed by every counter-current, yet never losing a hold on the earth below.
Her plan was always to keep certain possessions easily carried from place to place. She had, I remember, a set of pretty table covers, trimmed with heavy lace and embroidery, one or two of damask, some photographs, a few candlesticks, three or four sofa cushions, and some vases for flowers. I have seen her arrive at her destination at six in the evening, and by seven have her room take on the air of having been lived in for months. She would do this even when she knew she must leave again in twenty-four hours. Out would come the table covers, the cushions, and the pictures; her maid was always sent out to buy flowers. The candles were lighted. If she felt annoyed or worried by her husband's whims, he never knew it, nor did her friends. Nothing in her surroundings betrayed it, nor did she ever yield to the slightest discouragement. I used to think her a saint. I think now that she was something more, since the saints that I have read about always ignored their obligations to the world, whereas I believe that a real saint should respect them - never neglecting that tribute which we have been enjoined to render unto Caesar.
Every other woman, it seems to me, might do as much if she tried. Candlesticks cost little. There are those of glass which are good in design and which can be had almost anywhere for less than one dollar a pair. Linen table covers are always being made and embroidered by women, and sofa cushions are a drug in the market. These cushions need not all be covered with a stuff. A heavy linen embroidered or inlaid with lace is excellent. The cheap wools, and the cheap, highly colored, elaborately designed silks, must always be avoided.
For a few dollars more, dotted-muslin curtains can be made, or those of a cheap flowered material.
Such a pair of curtains will transform the dingiest room and lift it off the plane of rented by the month to any transient applicant. I can, in my mind's eye, see many a gloomy room transformed with these simple touches, and so can any one who remembers that the horror of most of them comes from musty woollen hangings, fringed woollen table covers over marble-topped tables, - woollen covers that have done service through a long line of ever-changing tenants. Of course a screen should be purchased to hide the washstand, but these can be bought for a dollar and a half.
A man will not put up with as many makeshifts as a woman. Besides all this, he goes out to pay his visits. A woman receives all hers at home. He therefore does not object to a display of his brushes and his combs, and his shaving utensils. I sometimes think he rather glories in a parade of his shoes. The rows and rows of them that he sets out on his shelves! The exposed-to-the-dust-closets that he has built to receive them! A woman is more fastidious, and if she be a young girl forced to live in one room and to receive her visitors there, she shrinks, or she should, from displaying the appointments of her toilet, however elaborate in detail.
Upon such a young woman I should strongly urge the purchase of a desk rather than that of a bureau - an old-fashioned desk, with four drawers below, and a series of small drawers and pigeon-holes above, enclosed by a slanting cover of wood which folds back and down. In this desk she can keep all her toilet articles, her silver-backed brushes if she has them, because in a room in which she receives visitors nothing of this character should be shown. The drawers may be filled with her linen. It should go without saying that the desk should always be kept closed and fastened. Her writing-table could be arranged elsewhere, or she could have a writing-board, to use on her lap. This board could be covered with cretonne, and filled with her paper and writing utensils fastened down by strips of silk elastic, with brass-headed nails.