When asked to write a paper relating to Village Improvement, I at once thought of a fragment of manuscript upon which I recently happened among the papers of my father, the late Frederick Law Olmsted, written perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago, but applying with more than passing appropriateness to the conditions of to-day.
"Fifty years ago," wrote my father, "I had a long day's walk with two other boys. As the sun passed behind the hills the road widened before us, the footpaths strayed out from the wheelway, stone walls and pasture lands gave place to picket fences, front dooryards, and houses. Gradually the opening way took the character of a narrow common in which there were great trees standing not at regular distances, not in lines quite straight. In the midst ran a narrow and rather dusty track for wheels, from which now and then branched loops and crossways. Near the fences the turf had been trodden out in broad footpaths from which others prim and straight led squarely off to the house doors. The houses were some of one story, none of more than two. They were neither steep nor flat-roofed. They were without verandas, porches, umbras, awnings, hoods, or other outworks. Their gables had no overhang or emphasis, no verge boards, brackets, scroll work, or finials. Neither their windows nor the panes in them would be called large or small. Their glass was neither clear, stained, nor wrinkled. Their wooden walls were thin and weak and had been painted white. There were blinds to the windows painted green, but no sign of interior drapery. Yet with these common characteristics no two were quite alike; each had a certain air of unassertive individuality.
"There were two houses like unto the others in form, roof, windows, and paint but larger and with belfries and spires showing them to be meeting-houses. An 'academy' and schoolhouses, an engine house and a hearse house, two or three small gambrel-roofed stores, were alike crude, simple, and uncouth. In the background there were barns and small outbuildings generally painted red, well—sweeps, martin-boxes on masts, orchards, and glimpses of green fields and distant low mountains. Barefoot boys were driving cows through the streets loiteringly, and most of the grass had been cropped short by these wayfarers.
"There was a graveyard in which an old horse was seeking out such forage as could be found among the abundant asters and goldenrods, burdocks and mulleins, and boys and girls were looking for blackberries in the thickets obscuring the enclosing walls.
"We came to the house where we had been invited to 'pass the Sabbath.' Its occupants were three old maids,—two of them accounted rich. The third, their 'help,' sat with us at the table, and at our repast between meetings the next day made sharp comments on the sermon, starting a little discussion when one of the ladies read the 'actual words of God' in the original Greek; for these ladies were scholars, corresponded with scholars beyond the sea, and had fitted several poor young men for college, aiding them also in their after studies for the ministry.
"When we first came to their home, one was painting the kitchen floor, the other was carrying a basket and trowel, and snipping with garden scissors the straggling shoots of the bushes in the front dooryard. There was no man or boy about the house, yet at night the front door was left unlocked. There were nicely trimmed box borders, and rows of beautiful flowers, as well as tall bushes between the door and the street, and in a similar plat in the rear many more, mingling with current and raspberry bushes, fennel and asparagus.
"No rural cemetery, no village improvement association, no branch of the Art Decorative, no reading club for the art periodicals, no park or parklet, no soldiers' monument, no fountains, no florist's establishment, not a single glass house, no bedding plants, no ribbon gardening, no vases, no lawn mowers, no rustic work, nothing from Japan, in all the long street.
"Since then, I judge, all these things have come; the village is connected with the metropolis by railroad, it is enriched by summer visitors, a large hotel has been built, several retiring men have built very unretiring villas on the street, several of the old houses have been 'fixed up,' many fences have been taken down, tar walks have been laid, and correspondents of the press fill columns with reports of improvements.
"And yet no village abounding in the beauty that has come to us with these is as beautiful to me as was this of which I have described the more prominent objects. None has the attraction for an artist. None so engages the admiration of thoughtful travelers.
"The reason is no doubt a little complicated, but more than in anything else it lies in the fact that there was one consistent expression of character, and that character simple, unsophisticated, respectable.
"I confess that while I am pleased with all these things that have come in of late, and praise the work of architects and gardeners, engineers, and sanitary engineers, decorators, and esthetes, I do not think that the villages which have gained most from them, or from the admirable labors of beauty-organizing women, are likely to impress visitors of the best intuition and the highest culture as pleasingly, gratefully, and hopingly as those of the general character and aspect I have endeavored to recall.
"There were then hundreds of villages of this general description, every one of which would now excite great admiration from men of good taste. They have now, at some points, taken on town airs, killing what remains of their former character; at other points, they have become neglected and slatternly. Lastly, the pursuit of beauty through decoration has set back any character they had, either as a local distinction, or as a class, which if found in Norway or Java would have been known as the beauty of an American village. The beauty, on the other hand, that they have acquired is largely a common, extrinsic beauty, which might as well have been produced anywhere else. Much of it even would have been attainable, and may even be found in greater degree and measure on the outskirts of large commercial towns, and in European or Australian towns, as well as in New England or Maryland.
"What was the ancient beauty of an American village, with its bare, bleak, cheap, utilitarian structures, its cramped dooryards, its meagre and common ornaments, its fences and straightlacedness? The answer may be suggested by another question.
"Let a thing he supposed, of greater bulk than the largest of our fine Fifth Avenue private habitations, to have been made for a mere common purpose of trade by the work of many men, not one of them ranking among artists, not one of liberal education, men not at all delicate, not nicely fingered, not often even clean-handed; muscular, sweaty, and horny-handed; no small part of them rude and clumsy in their ways, tobacco-chewing, given to liquor, slang, and profane swearing. Suppose the thing so produced to have no beauty of carving or color, to be mainly smeared black and white, and any touch of decoration upon it to be more than barbarously childish and clumsy.
"It can hardly be easy for those who best represent what we have been more particularly gaining of late in aesthetic culture to believe that such work can have given the world a thing of supreme beauty. It will be still harder to realize that the coarse, rude, sensual men producing it had in general a deep artistic sense of its characteristic beauty, so that they would protest in stronger terms than Mr. Ruskin ever used, against the putting upon it of anything by which the rare refinement of it might be marred.
"Alas! that I must speak of this as of a lost art, for it is of the Baltimore Clipper of fifty years ago, the like of which will never again be seen, I speak. Will Mr. Peabody's bequest to Baltimore, or Johns Hopkins', lead ever to one thing as beautifully adapted to its special purpose?
"I have seen a high-bred lady and dull, low, degraded, and sodden seafaring laborer animated at the same instant the same impulse of admiration, each exclaiming, ‘The beauty! the beauty!' at the sight of a sailing ship. What is this admirableness, dependent on no single thing done for admiration, no decoration, no ornament, no color of splendor, of a sailing ship?
"Whatever else it may be in the last analysis, it cannot be separated from this fact, that a fine clipper ship, such as we had in America just come to build and rightly sail, when the age of such things passed away, was as ideally perfect for its essential purpose as a Phidian statue for the essential purpose of its sculptor. And it so happened that in much greater degree than it can happen in a steamship, or in the grandest architecture, the ideal means to this purpose were of exceeding grace, not of color, but of form and outline, light and shade, and of the play of light in shadow and of shadow and light. Because of this coincidence was possible to express the purpose of the ship and the relation and contribution to that purpose of every part and article of her, from cleaving stem to fluttering pennant, with exquisite refinement. These qualities, with the natural stateliness of the ship's motion, set off by yjr tuneful accompaniment of the dancing waves, made the sailing ship in its last form the most admirably beautiful thing in the world, not a work of nature nor a work of fine art.
"If any reader doubts the fascination of this seafaring beauty, the grandeur of it, the refinement, the spur it gives to the imagination, let him read the stories of Clark Russell. But no writer, poet, or painter can ever have told in what degree it lay in a thousand matters of choice—choice made in view of ideal refinements of detail, in adaptation to particular services, studied as thoughtfully and as feelingly as ever a modification of tint on painter's palette. One needed but a little understanding of the motives of seamanship to feel how in the hull every shaving had been counted, and how in the complicated work aloft every spar and cloth, block and bull's-eye, line and seam, had been shaped and fined and fitted to do the duty required of it in the most sinewy way. Phidias could not have told the special duty of every curve and line more beautifully. I have seen a boy rope's-ended for leaving on a rope's end a fray of twine that could not have been seen two yards away. Such untidiness was shockingly incongruous with the lovely form and fine array of the Anne McKim, and the mind too indolent to see this needed a stimulant.
"The beauty most to be desired in a chair is not beauty of carving, of penciling, or of weaving; in a house, not of jigsawing, chiseling, or painting; in a lawn, not of shaven grass, of flowers, of twiggage, or of leafage; in a road, not of flagging, curbing, guttering, and paving. The beauty most to be desired in towns and villages is no more the decorative beauty of our present flurry than that of a ship or of a horse.