Comforts of Home


4. No Stairs!--No Attic

ATTICS are done for! Listen to the words of the man who has built, and written about, what he calls a Servantless Cottage:--

'Climbing stairs is ofttimes too strenuous for the happy housewife, so there must be no stairs.'

Shades of our grandmothers! If we can believe this enthusiastic designer and builder, only a few more decades at most will miserable women, unhappy housewives, and, by inference, undesirable mothers, continue to drag up and down stairs their pitiful existences in houses of more than one story.

'No stairs! No stairs!' the young wife cried,
And clapped her hands to see
A house as like a little flat
As any house could be!

And observe also, not only the vanishing of stairs and attics, but the disappearance of the servant-problem. 'For in this Servantless Cottage,' says the satisfied man, 'milady need fear no drudgery. A very few hours will suffice for housekeeping and cookery. Work becomes a pleasure and a maid undesirable.'

Well, well! There have been a good many proposed solutions of the domestic service question--but to solve it by giving it up seems no very crowning triumph of domestic mathematics. The experience of innumerable young married couples with kitchenettes goes to show that life can be conducted under that solution, especially when the couples are young and but recently married. Then, indeed, they need neither an attic in the top of the house nor a general--that brave girl capable of turning a quick efficient hand to everything from dusting to doughnuts--all over it. But why not, for that matter, admit that 'climbing is ofttimes too strenuous for a happy general.' She, too is human--has legs--gets tired--

This designer of servantless cottages was, I imagine, an atticless child: he climbed no stairs to that room of pleasing mystery, rich in dusty and discarded things that had once been living and important in the life of his family, where the sunbeams streamed like a ladder down through the skylight, or, on other days, the drops of water pelted its narrow panes and added their orchestral voices to the symphony of rain on the roof. His grandparents had died when he was a baby; their house had been sold or torn down, their attic accumulations scattered, and his family lived in a new house where the attic had as yet taken on no more attraction to juvenile adventure than the spare bedroom. He was, probably, a thoughtful child who brooded over his mother's troubles in securing and keeping satisfactory 'help.' The house in which he passed those young years was very likely built in the time of high ceilings and long flights of stairs,--how often, through the banisters, had the little fellow seen his mother's tired ankles lagging on the ascent as he sat in the library poring over some volume of architecture!--and he took a childish oath that when he married--how little he knew about that!--his wife should not have to climb stairs, his wife should not have to worry about servants. Yet for a long time it seemed as if he would never marry, for it did not occur to him to put in an escalator. And then one day, in his maturity, spurred perhaps by a more understanding and ardent desire, and driven harder by the unselfish thought that, even while he dreamed, SHE might marry somebody else and be doomed for life to climbing stairs and engaging new servants, he saw the solution. He would build a house of only one story and let HER do the work.

Now, as a matter of fact, a bungalow is a pretty good thing. If this student of architecture and domestic economics had contented himself with a plain and simple description of his servantless cottage, I dare say I should have read it in the most friendly spirit imaginable: and certainly with no desire to criticize his conclusions. It was that silly remark about 'milady' that aroused opposition. We live in a republic and we are most of us reasonably self-respecting men and women, not a milady among us, unless she happens to be making a visit--in which case, one place she is not visiting is a servantless cottage. And so, in a word, the servantless cottage ceases to be an honest, more or less successful effort to provide a home in which the housewife can most conveniently do her own work, and appears a neat little example of snobbish absurdity. Work becomes a pleasure to the happy housewife for whom climbing a flight of stairs is ofttimes all too strenuous--so keen and persistent a pleasure that domestic service is 'undesirable!' Is anybody really expected to believe it? Or is domestic service itself a phase of domesticity that can be so cheerfully eliminated? Has the servant--and, bless you! the word has often enough been a term of honor--no really fine and enduring place in the scheme of gracious and cultivated domestic management?

For many generations, stairs and service have been inseparable from the amenities of domestic living. One has only to imagine these two essentials suddenly eliminated from literature, to experience a pained sensation at the care-free way in which the man of the servantless cottage gets rid of them. And one has only to look about the world as it stands at present, servant-problem and all, to realize that it is the value of good domestic service which actually creates and keeps alive the problem itself. For even if the happy housewife enjoys every single item of housekeeping and cookery, there are times when her personal attention to them is obviously undesirable.

Imagine our servantless cottage as an example. Milady sings at her work. The portable vacuum cleaner--milord keeps up with all the latest improvements--gratefully eats up its daily dust. The fireless cooker prepares the meals 'with a perfection and deliciousness unrealized in the old days.' À bas mother and the way she used to cook! But in serving these meals of a hitherto unrealized perfection and deliciousness, milord and milady must needs chase each other between kitchen and dining-room. The guest at dinner, if he is luckily accustomed to picnics, carries his own plate and washes it afterward. I have myself entertained many a guest in this fashion, and he has carried his own plate, and, being that kind of a guest or I wouldn't have invited him, he has cheerfully helped wash the dishes, wearing a borrowed apron. But it would be absurd to claim that this performance, indefinitely repeated, is an improvement upon an orderly, efficiently served dinner-party. Conversation at dinner is more desirable than a foot-race between the courses; nor do I believe that life under such conditions can possibly 'become so alluring that one day the great majority of us will choose it first of all.'

Concerning stairs: I perhaps have more feeling for them than most; but I am quite sure that I speak at least for a large minority. It is the flatness of the flat, its very condensed and restricted cosiness, its very lack of upstairs and downstairs, which prevents it from ever attaining completely the atmosphere of a home. The feet which cross the floor above your head are those of another family; the sounds which reach you from below are the noises of strangers; the life horizontal of the flat serves its convenient use but only emphasizes the independence and self-respect of the life vertical, master of the floor above, master likewise of the basement. I, who have lived happily in a flat, nevertheless feel more human, less like some ingeniously constructed doll, when I can take my candle in hand and go upstairs to sleep. Because I have lived happily in a flat, I want no bungalow. There is something fine in going to sleep even one flight nearer the stars--and away from the dining-room.

And no stairs--no attic. My conviction increases that this man was an atticless child, without grandparents himself, and without thought of his own possible grandchildren. Or is the stairless, servantless, atticless cottage--'truly the little house is the house of the future'--meant also to be childless? An examination of the plan shows a so-called bedroom marked 'guest or children,' which indicates that the happy housewife must exercise her own judgment. There are accommodations for one guest or two children, but it seems fairly evident that guest and children exclude each other. Milord and milady must decide between hospitality and race-suicide, or two children and no week-end visitor. Some will choose guest; some will choose children. Personally I hope they will all choose children; for, even without an attic, there is plenty of playground. 'People with tiny incomes' must always be careful not to purchase too small a lot; and so we find that the servantless cottage has paths, and a lawn, and flowers, and shrubbery, and a sun-dial, and an American elm, and a 'toadstool canopy' between the poplars and the white birches, and an ivy-covered 'cache' to store the trunks in. I am glad there is going to be such a domestic convenience as a sun-dial; and perhaps, when there is a guest, the trunks can be taken out on the lawn and the children put to bed in the 'cache.'

But I guess that, after all, stairs will survive, and attics, and the servant-problem. Innumerable families are already living in servantless houses, with stairs, and it doesn't even occur to them that they are solving any problem whatsoever. Innumerable housewives are about as happy under these conditions as most of us get to be under any conditions. The servant-problem itself is not the young and tender problem that many of us imagine. An examination of old newspapers will show anybody who is sufficiently patient and curious that a hundred years ago there was much indignant wonder that young women, visibly suited for domestic service, preferred to be seamstresses! What is more modern is the grave enthusiasm with which so many persons are trying to decide how the rest of us shall live with the maximum amount of comfort and culture for the minimum expenditure. And one interesting similarity between many of these suggestions is their passive opposition to another important group of critics.

'Have large families or perish as a nation!' shriek our advisers on one hand. 'Have small families or perish as individuals!' proclaim our advisers on the other.

For this servantless cottage is typical of a good many other housing suggestions in which the essential element is the small family; and even the possibility that the children may live to grow up seems to have been left out of consideration. Milord and milady, I imagine, have chosen children instead of a guest. These children (a boy and girl, as I like to picture them) grow up; marry; settle in their own servantless cottages, and have two children apiece. There are now a grandfather and a grandmother, a son and a daughter, a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren. In each servantless cottage there is that one bedroom marked 'guest or children.' Granting all the possibilities of the ivy-covered 'cache,'--and now the trunks will simply have to be taken out and stood on the lawn even if the snow does fall on them,--milord and milady, come Christmas or other anniversary, can entertain a visit from all their children and grandchildren, one family taking the 'guest or children' bedroom, and the other the 'cache.' Later, as the children grow older, each family will come back to the old home on alternate Christmases: and by utilizing the 'cache,' a son or daughter can receive a short visit from the aged parents, not too long, of course, or it would ruin the trunks. As for any of the hearty, old-fashioned, up-and-down-stairs hospitality--I may be an old fogey myself, but the servantless cottage shocks me.

'Our bedroom resembles a cosy state-room on board ship.' Oh! la-la-la-la-la! Why doesn't somebody solve the problem of domestic living by suggesting that we all live in house-boats?