On Putting Up a Shelf

I HAVE of late been putting up a shelf — a simple matter of domestic carpentry requiring four iron brackets, as I think carpenters call them, and a superimposed board, the complete shelf being intended to support books. It is really too trivial a job to upset the whole house by calling in a carpenter. When one has discovered places in the wall where a screw, rapidly plunging through plaster, will meet and reluctantly overcome the sturdier resistance of wood, the rest is easy, and the only remaining difficulty is to get the shelf reasonably horizontal.

The difference between a man and a carpenter is that the carpenter will work quicker, get his shelf horizontal the first time up, and make no superfluous holes in the wall. Tapping with a hammer (taptap-tap-tap), his sensitive ear wall detect wood (tup-tup-tup-tup) as unerringly as a gentleman criminologist will detect secret chambers by the same method. I have no such ear. When I tap with the hammer all taps (tap-tap-tap-tap or tup-tup-tup-tup or tap-tap-tup-tap or tup-tup-tap-tup) sound alike to me. Seeking wood, I make peepholes, through which, however, nothing is visible. But there is wood somewhere, and the useless aperture can be expeditiously closed with a bit of wallpaper, the surplus having been wisely saved when the wall was papered, neatly cut to synchronize with the design — a leaf perhaps here, a rose petal there. In such artistry the man rises above the carpenter, who, if he had shamed himself by making a peephole, would find no other expedient than to send for a mason first and a paperhanger afterward. Nor is it necessary that the shelf should be absolutely horizontal. Well enough is enough.

Robinson Crusoe on a similar occasion had to make the board. ‘I was full two and forty days,’ he remembered, ‘making me a board for a long shelf, which I wanted in my cave.’

An old and still familiar proverb—‘A place for everything, and everything in its place’ — indicates the need, and I think the genesis, of the shelf. Lexicographers have come to differentiate by associating a shelf with a wall; but practically all articles of furniture are essentially shelves. When a man sits down or goes to bed he, in effect, puts himself on a shelf. If his bookcase, an assemblage of shelves, becomes filled with books, other articles of furniture in the room gradually become bookshelves. As time goes on he may hardly find place to shelve himself if he thinks to sit, and no place to shelve a visitor until he empties a chair on a floor, which thus also becomes a shelf. There may even be other things on the chair beside books. This, of course, is one of the embarrassing results of his own evolution and superiority to the lower animals, whose personal possessions are few and who have no furniture. Man was once like that himself. He had so few possessions that he needed no shelf. When or wherever he thought to sit — he sat. And so did a visitor.

I wonder why this convenient custom (still practised by Arabs) was given up. Who first thought of anything else? Professor Tozzer, in his Social Origins, says that ‘from the point of view of human culture we can eliminate almost everything but those characteristics of man which he learns from his fellow man’ — but this copycatting, which we still see going on everywhere, must have begun somewhere. What started fellow man? One can only assume that fellow man found it, by chance sitting, more to his satisfaction to sit on a rock, and that man imitated him and so eventually became a rock-sitting animal wherever rocks were available. The progenitors of the Arabs were not affected. One thing follows another, and the next advance in human culture would have been the invention of a rude portable wooden rock. Shelves — or, as we should now say, stools — to sit on, with a higher shelf, or stool, for the pottage, would have become common.

Obviously, too, this first home furniture would have long crumbled to dust before evolution produced archœologists, ethnologists, or anthropologists.