Paying for Plush
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
To serene-faced people whose placidity is due to the large waist-measure of their pocket-books this little article can but seem another variation on the dissonant and monotonous theme entitled ‘The High Cost of Living’; and since people of that brand are not convinced or even discomposed by contradiction, I shall waste no words in attempting to convince them that I myself am not of the proletariat, and that my complaint is not against the high cost of the things I want to buy. The cause of my outcry is the idiocy of a world which professes to wish to sell me what I want, but which will only let me have it inextricably tied up with other things which I would not choose as a gift.
Observation among my acquaintances, and frequent discussions with them of this burning theme, convince me that I am one of a numerous class of would-be purchasers, and I intend this article to break the too-patient silence in which we have suffered, and perhaps to reach the alert ear of the ‘ American Business-Man,’ who, we are so often informed in admirably written advertisements, is one flame of fervent endeavor to supply the wants of his customers. Let him, therefore, after this general statement of my theme, listen to specific details.
The railroads claim to sell me comfortable transportation, but in order to buy this commodity I must pay for bevel-edged plate-glass mirrors, unsanitary carpets, contorted wood-carvings, and plush-covered seats which my hygienic soul abhors. I not only do not wish to pay money for these articles,— I would willingly pay to travel free from them; but they are united with a Siamese indissolubility to the act of proceeding from one city of my native country to another; they are all as costly as they are ugly and unsuitable, and I have studied enough political economy to be aware that nobody pays for them but my fellow travelers and myself.
Another thing I would like to buy is that indeterminate collection of objects known picturesquely as ‘dry goods.’ Can I? No, along with my tape and shoe-string, towels and stockings, I must pay for a luxurious palace in which these articles are arranged; I must pay for expert shop-window decorators who spend their blood and brains in making ‘tasty’ combinations of undershirts, umbrellas, and neckties, and in evolving a weird and execrable art of ‘window-display,’ which I not only dislike personally, but which I deplore as a direct incentive to extravagance; I must pay for an auditorum where highly-paid singers perform to the accompaniment of music-machines; I must pay for tons of cotton-batting used in Christmas decorations, for miles of ribbon for Easter fêtes, for carloads of bunting for Fourth of July adornment. For well do I know that the shopkeeper is no misguided philanthropist, forcing these horrors upon me out of the benevolent bad taste of his heart. I pay for them—not he. And I do not want them.
To rouse to life another old complaint of mine, I have only to look through the huge plate-glass windows of an automobile show-room at the mirror-varnished, nickel-plated, leather-upholstered, padded machines, the real function of which is to convey people from one place to another. I cannot afford to own an automobile because nobody will make one reliable as to machinery and at the same time severely plain as to fittings. If I take this remark to manufacturers of motor-cars, they laugh at my ignorance of the psychology of my compatriots. ‘Nobody would buy one if it did n’t look as expensive and shiny as everybody else’s,’ they tell me inelegantly.
I am convinced that they lie. That is what I am writing this article about. I know they lie.
When I take my family back to the city after a summer outdoors, I would like to buy, along with my roof, some sunshine and clean air. These desirable commodities are to be had, but invariably connected, a study of apartment-houses proves, with pseudomagnificent entrance-halls, with mockonyx and imitation palms, as though I should wish to buy a bar of soap or a loaf of bread and be able to purchase it only on condition of buying also an assortment of pinchbeck jewelry. Worse, for at least I could throw the paste diamonds into the river, whereas I must not only pay for my imitation palms, but walk past them every day of my life. It is true that there are apartment-houses where the onyx is genuine and the palms rooted in real earth, but there the prices soar beyond any but Pittsburgian purses. Besides, the point is that I do not want to buy a gorgeous entrance-hall, real or imitatation. I want sunshine and clean air.
And I am convinced — hence this plea — that I am not the only American who would like to buy the real essentials of life without paying for highly undesirable non-essentials — to be able to see a good play, for instance, without paying for a costly foyer, particularly since its costliness is apt to be due to an elaborate decoration, the rococo style of which scarcely solaces me for the drain on my finances.
The purveyors to the public evidently do not agree with me. A short time ago, when there was a great cry against high fares on a certain railway line, one of the directors said conclusively: ‘Put on a plain car with rattan seats and no carpets, mark it, in letters three feet high, “SECOND CLASS,” and we could afford to offer half-a-centa-mile rates on it. The only expense would be to run it empty for a while.'
I do not believe him. I think he and hundreds of business-men are overestimating the vanity and childishness of the public to which they cater. I cannot speak with certainty for all parts of the country, but I can answer for my own section that there would be such a rush for rattan seats and clean floors that the plush and carpets of the ‘first class’ would be left to the proverbial ‘ princes and fools’ who monopolize those unsavory luxuries in Europe.
I am not stating an air-rooted orchid of a theory. It has been proved true in so many branches of industry that there is no doubt about it. People who buy lead-pipe or threshing-machines are not forced to pay for velvet curtains and silver fixtures. Why should I be? To my mind such things have no more legitimate connection with my purchases of clothes or transportation or food or sunshine or furniture.
I am not parsimonious; I am not poor — not being from Connecticut I have no more than the ordinary human reluctance to being done out of my money; but when I take a mental stand in the midst of our over-padded, over-mirrored, over-luxurious, overheated ‘civilization,’ and look about me, I am tempted to imitate the action of a shrewd business friend of mine — owner of a superb department-store — when he visited Monte Carlo. He entered the gorgeous golden salons of the Casino, and casting one lightninglike glance at the splendors about him, clapped his hands to his pockets and fled with the rapidity of panic fear.
He knew! He had turned that trick himself.