The Evolution of the Mantel
I LAY in that delightful state, half awake and half asleep, in which one may sometimes indulge in the early morning hours, knowing that one may conscientiously take another nap, or may lie and lazily guide one’s imagination, if that entertainment seems preferable.
My eye traveled across the dainty silken surface of the light eiderdown quilt that covered Cousin Anne’s guestchamber bed, on which I was luxuriously stretched, lingered on the shining rods and railing at the foot of her brass bedstead, and finally rested on the mantel at the opposite side of the room.
The house was a very old one, and the mantel was a plain shelf, with paneling of wood above it, reaching to the low ceiling. The woodwork was painted a delicate shade of gray, and the lines of the paneling were uncommonly restful to the eye. On the shelf there was but one ornament, a large cloisonné vase, containing a single branch of apple-blossoms, showing all their loveliness against the gray background of the panels.
Truly, Cousin Anne is nothing if not up-to-date!
It was several years since I had spent a night at the Old Farm, as we always called it; but at intervals, ever since I could remember, I had paid visits there, and the decorations of that guest-room mantel had always had a great fascination for me.
My mind traveled back to the days of my earliest remembrance, and I amused myself by recalling the steady progression of ideas in mantel furnishings, which had there found expression.
Everything progressed at the Old Farm, but someway I had the feeling that that mantel was a sacred centre, from which influences radiated, and that everything and everybody had to live up to it. In the far-off days of my childhood visits — when, by the way, the bedstead was a four-poster, the bed a feather-bed, and Cousin Anne spelled her name without the final 6 — there stood, at each end of the mantel, tall candlesticks of yellow glass, and in the space between were grouped such wonders as I shall never behold again.
A clove-apple appealed strongly to my sense of the marvelous — a fine large Baldwin or Greening, stuck so full of cloves that no faintest sign of the original fruit remained; a thing to last forever, I think, if fashion and art had not decreed otherwise. I was sometimes allowed to hold it in my hand, to feel its surface, all bristling with tiny, rough points, and to inhale its lingering, spicy odor.
Next to the apple — things had their places on that shelf! — was a tumbler filled with mussel and periwinkle shells, dotted, here and there, with tiny scarlet beans; black-eyed Susans we called them. Then came a set of furniture, two tiny chairs and a sofa, made of cross sections of butternut shells stuck together with glue — one was instructed to handle them with great care! There was also a tea-set, wonderfully fashioned from the round bones of a fish; and a basket, of home manufacture, made of bent wire dipped in red wax, numerous tiny points of wire being added here and there, giving, with its red covering, the effect of a basket of coral, if one could imagine such a thing!
Hung quite high over the mantel, and tipped at an angle of about thirty degrees, was a colored print of a cemetery, with a conspicuous headstone in the foreground, over which drooped a “weeping willow,” and on which leaned a lady in a very large hoop and a very flat hat, holding a lace handkerchief to her eyes, with her extremely pointed fingers. I always wondered how she looked under the handkerchief. Her conventional attitude certainly did not suggest an abandonment of grief.
It was probably several years after that earliest remembered visit, before I spent another night at the Old Farm.
The four-posted bedstead was replaced by a massive structure of black walnut, that someway suggested a coronation chair to me. Cousin Ann was no more, and Cousin Annie reigned in her stead.
The old mantel had undergone a complete metamorphosis.
The weeping lady and the weeping willow had been banished, and a large decalcomania picture of a pink moss rose, planted in the centre of a vast expanse of white cardboard, and framed in a deeply recessed molding of dark wood, hung in its place.
I sighed for the black-eyed Susans and the clove apple, but the mantel held new attractions. The glass candlesticks were replaced by white Parian marble vases, with clusters of grapes in high relief, at either side. The vases held bunches of yellow “straw” flowers and dried everlasting. In the centre of the shelf stood a large oval glass globe, which shielded from the dust a miraculous bouquet of wax flowers. Such red and white fuchsias, such precise japonicas and rosebuds and carnation pinks, and such foliage, of a delicate Paris green, Mother Nature would find it hard to match.
On each side of this stood a tinted bisque figure. On the right was a shepherdess, in a Gainsborough hat and an elaborately draped skirt, a crook in her hand, and high-heeled shoes upon her feet, her head slightly turned toward the left, her gaze evidently seeking the bisque gentleman, who, with a flute in his hand, a round cap above his waving locks, and a faint smile upon his china lips, was turned responsively toward her, on the other side of the globe of flowers.
A cube of marble, purchased at Niagara by some traveler in the family, stood between the flute-player and the vase at the end of the shelf; and this was balanced, on the other side, by a globe of silvered glass, made by glassblowers, surmounted by a wonderful fragile swan, with uplifted wings.
It was probably about the time that Cousin Annie became Cousin Annah, and that the black walnut bedstead gave place to a small wooden affair painted white, that I recall the next stage in the development of the mantel.
Now, heavy vases of peacock-blue glass, decorated with a picture of a lonely stork, standing on one leg, had the places of honor at the end. From these, plumes of pampas grass drooped gracefully toward the centre, where there stood a clock, in a case of intricate workmanship, made by the owner of a “scroll-saw.” The decalcomania rose had been replaced by a motto, “ No cross, no crown,” worked in shaded magenta worsted, on perforated paper, with tin-foil shining through the perforations, from the back.
The mantel was practically given up to photographs of friends. A likeness of a callow youth, framed in old-gold plush, had a place of honor, I remember. Two or three young women with upturned or downcast eyes, — it evidently was n’t the fashion to look straight ahead in those days, — with lace jabots at their throats, and “coronet” braids and masses of curls on their heads, were perched on wire easels; and there was one imposing red plush frame for a “cabinet” photograph, with double doors, through the partial opening of which one caught a glimpse of a copied photograph, absolutely without shading or expression.
A match-box of blue glass, in the form of an inverted hat, completed the shelf furnishings; and, underneath, hung a supposedly humorous cat, mounted on a blue plush placque, with a spray of goldenrod embroidered in Kensington stitch along one side, and the words “Scratch my back,” underneath.
This was, to me, the most depressing stage of mantel decoration.
It was a good many years, I fancy, before my next visit to the Old Farm. Cousin Annah — now Annette — conducted me to the guest chamber, where I found myself in a room resembling a big booth at a bazaar.
The bed had become a couch, draped in a Bagdad cover, and almost hidden under piles of silk cushions — I remembered how long it took to get it ready for occupancy at night! There were rugs and “cozy corners” and miraculous seats of all sorts. My eye sought the mantel, and there beheld a wonderful array of “art” treasures—an old-fashioned teapot, rescued from the attic, a brass candlestick, an onyx clock, three steins of various colors and degrees of thickness, a plaster cast of a Winged Victory, a wooden bear from Berne, a miniature pair of sabots from Holland, a small ivory Chinese god. and a Satsuma bowl! A rosary of carved wood was suspended
from the gilt frame of the picture of St. Mark’s, which had replaced the remembered motto.
I vaguely wondered if the hens and chickens in the barnyard had changed into nonpareils or pheasants, since my last visit. It was a real comfort to hear a rooster crow in the same plain New England dialect in which he (or his ancestors) had crowed when I was a child.
Now, after another interval of several years (during which Cousin Annette had vanished), here I was again, gazing at Cousin Anne’s mantel, over the railing of her brass bedstead.
This Japanese plainness of decoration was certainly a relief. I was lazily wondering, “What next ?” when there came a tap at my door.
“Would I have my coffee in bed?”
Yes, Cousin Anne is certainly progressive, and perhaps it is not a bad habit to get into — this of progression — after all. In the days of the clove apple, we all assembled in the big kitchen, for breakfast, at six o’clock, summer or winter, and, while the buckwheat cakes and maple syrup with which we were rewarded on a cold morning were pretty fair compensation for early rising, still, a cup of coffee in bed — and such coffee as is always served at the Old Farm — is a sign of the advance of civilization, for which one might, on occasion, be distinctly grateful.