The Lack of Privacy in the American Home

July 1 1911

The Lack of Privacy in the American Home

July 1 1911

The Lack of Privacy in the American Home


ANOTHER man’s point of view is always interesting and when an English person writes of American homes—and Canadian homes are somewhat like those to the south—it is interesting to pause and examine the essay. Mary Mortimer Maxwell writes charmingly on this subject in the National Review, as follows:

The typical American home has every comfort, every convenience, almost every charm except one. This one thing lacking, according to the English point of view, is privacy.

No visitor from England, especially if she be a housewife, can fail to experience

a certain pang of discontent with the oldtime inconveniences and certain discomforts of English housekeeping when she notes her American cousins living in the midst of such contrivances as almost make it possible to keep house by machinery and the turning of a crank. The first American “pulley-line” which I saw fasted to a New York kitchen window filled me with awe as well as admiration, especially when I found a pretty, young married college graduate standing at the end of the pulley-line hanging her family wash on it as she stood behind her sweet lace kitchen curtain, where she herself could not be seen from the outside, giving

a twist to a little hinge and then seeing all those clothes swung out into space to dry in the sun while the charming young washerwoman took off her apron and went with me to a matinee. That experience gave me a feeling of indignation against the London landlord who failed to provide pulley-lines and all the other things which the New York landlord “threw in” with the rent when one hired a flat or a house over there.

Bless me! A goodly number of English landlords have allowed me to supply my own door-knobs and fireplaces, while as for giving me a medicine chest with plate-glass mirror door in the bathroom, a quaint set of stationary wash-tubs with lids in the kitchen enclosing hot and cold water taps and all such things—well, we are all quite aware that such things are never done in England, except upon the payment of a weirdly high premium. There is, however, a certain amount of lavishness upon the part of the London landlord when it comes to the matter of doors; doors which shut one room off entirely from another room and from the passage or landing, thus giving to the occupant of each room a certain amount of privacy and opportunity for the development of individuality. The American landlord is correspondingly stingy in the matter of doors. Yet “stingy” is not the word, either, for I am sure that the prettily ornamented archways, with their carving and fretwork, which lead from one room into another, must cost more than our ordinary English doors on hinges. Sometimes one finds these archways, especially in the modern flats of the large American cities, connecting five rooms, one after the other, and ^ sometimes the effect is as pretty as possible, it gives such an air of space and grandeur.

In an English home occupied by persons^ of moderate means one is alwavs coming up against a door which seems to warn one off approaching the premises. It is very uncompromising, that English door, and even though your own sister, your own mother, your own wife, or your own husband is on the other side of it, you would not dream of turning the knob without first knocking. The fact is that the nearer the tie which unites you to the person behind that door, the less likely

you are to intrude your presence when you are not sure of a welcome. So you knock, and you wait to hear a voice you love say, “Do come in !” or “No, dear, not now. Don’t disturb me. I want to be alone.” “What! that formality between husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and son !” the American woman exclaims, and she puts down the English as being “stiff in home relations.” But we know it is not “stiffness” nor even real “formality.” It is but delicacy and courtesy.

I cannot fancy a well-bred English child entering a mother’s room in the hearty, bouncing, familiar manner of the average American boy and girl, who, having no privacy of their own, have never been taught that other persons want privacy, and know nothing of the real significance of the knock and the answering “Come in !” Scores of times I have visited American mothers whose children have bounded, unannounced, into bed-room or dressing-room every afternoon as soon as they returned from school. The mothers took it as a matter of course. So did the children. These same little boys and girls, too, have a way of going to mother’s dressing-table drawer when they happen to want a handkerchief or a collar; they pick up her toilet soap and use it; they comb their hair with her comb, brush their clothes 'with her bonnet-whisk. Their father’s toilet accessories they pick up and use with the same lack of respect for individual rights. They are little socialists of the worst kind, living in the belief that all family things are held in common by every member of it. Indeed, very frequently in really nice, well-to-do families the children are not supplied with all the requisites of a proper toilet. Mother brushes and combs their hair with her own comb and brush, wipes their faces with her own towel, allows them to go to her manicure case and use her file and scissors.

“Will you please lend me your brush?” asked a little boy of me one afternoon. I was the guest of his mother for a week-end visit in a beautiful suburb of Chicago, and he stood in my bedroom doorway. “Brush?” I said interrogatively. “What kind of brush, mv dear?” “Hair-brush !” he answered. “Mother’s sick with a headache, and so I can’t go in her room to get it.” “How did you lose your own

hair-brush?” I asked. “Of course, you have had a nice one of your own?” “Haven’t got any brush. Never had one of my own, I guess !” was his answer. He was eight years old, and his father was a professional man with at least eight hundred pounds a year income, and his mother was a gentlewoman and a university graduate with a degree. In England I have never been brought into contact with a child who made a practice of using his mother’s hair-brush, except among the poorest classes.

This little American boy who had no hair-brush had a wonderful mechanical bear which played antics all over the drawing-room floor, and must, I am sure, have cost at least four pounds. He had expensive clothes, attractively made. He had a silver watch. His father often gave him three or four shillings to go and spend as he saw fit. The same little boy slept in a room connected with that of his parents by an archway and no door— a room which he had no means of entering or leaving except by passing through their bedroom. The house had several rooms unoccupied. There was no need of crowding; yet this little boy had no proper bedroom, no play-room of his own, no nurserv, no chest of drawers in which to keep his own clothes entirely by themselves. His playthings were kept in the hall, or the dining-room, or the drawingroom, or out in the back yard, or in the coal-shed, or in the kitchen—the kitchen from which dozens of cooks departed during a year, and small wonder ! What servant wants a child’s toys underfoot when she is making that most delicious of American dainties, a chocolate layer-cake? If this little boy had a sister, she, too, would be a part of the time in the kitchen, trying to wash her dollie’s clothes; wanting to help cook stir the pudding batter when poor cook was beside herself preparing the dinner; demanding to be allowed to put a caterpillar under a kitchen tumbler and see it turn into a butterfly, or put a bulb in a cut-glass pickle-jar and watch it develop into a plant. And one could not blame the little girl. She would have rights in the matter of preparing her doll’s toilet and the study of natural history and horticulture. But her American parents might not think of providing her with a play-room of her own.

This same little boy and his imaginary sister ought to be invited occasionally to have tea with their mother in the drawing-room, and even to see visitors when they were asked for. I think they might very reasonably have their breakfast and luncheon in the dining-room with mother; but as for a seven-thirty o’clock night dinner, certainly never that for many a long year. But the American child at the night dinner-table is such a frequency that it might almost be said to be the rule. The average American child knows nothing of a good, wholesome six o’clock supper of bread-and-milk or one of those wonderfully nourishing American cereals with some fruit.

But the member of the American family to whom my thoughts turn in greatest sympathy in regard to the lack of privacy and the denial of an opportunity for the cultivation of individuality is the father—he who pays for everything, buys the house with his own earnings or hires it, and yet generally has not so much as a corner that is his very own. It is called “his house.” It has many rooms. There are the drawing-room, the living-room, the dining-room, the library. There are numerous bedrooms and dressing-rooms; but if he really desires solitude, there would seem to be nothing for him but to lock himself up in the bathroom. Sometimes you hear the members of an American family speak of “father’s den,” to be sure. Why, just before I left America a New York friend, when she was showing me through her new house, said to me, “This is my husband’s den,” showing me into the sunniest and brightest room in the house. My eyes rested upon antimacassars and tea-cosies, a copy of “Poems of Passion,” an embroidery frame, a train of “choo-choo cars,” and a box of such American confections as my soul delights in and which no manly man could possibly be seen eating. I looked about for rows of curious pipes, for a horribly dusty and disordered writingtable, a lounging jacket—out at elbows, but, oh! so comfortable after the workaday coat—a copy or two of a sporting paper; but not a sign of such mute witnesses to masculine ownership of that room did I see. “It’s the sunniest room in the house,” went on that wickedly selfish little American woman, “so the chil-

dren and I spend a great deal of time here,”

I have been shown through other American homes where the husbands had their “own” dressing-rooms, their “own” hanging cupboards, and have noted with surprise the complexion balms, bodkins with pink bebe ribbon ready for running through lace, bonnet-whisks, and cutglass powder-boxes lying upon the chiffonnières along with military brushes and safety razors. “I do believe in separate dressing-rooms and separate dressingtables, don’t you?” the fond wife would gush, and then she would show .me her husband’s “own hanging cupboard,” which, being fitted up with a new kind of patent trousers-stretcher which she found exactly the thing for keeping her skirts in nicest order, she had taken possession of up to the farthest and darkest corner, where a pathetic and lonely greatcoat might hang on a solitary peg.

There was a time when I thought that perhaps the American man liked all this, or that, at least, he did not mind it ; that perhaps the sight of his wife’s petticoats hanging among his belongings in his “own cupboard” appealed in some way to his sentimental nature and his sense of romance. But finally I discovered that he permitted himself to be “put upon” merely for the sake of peace and familv tranquillity. I found that he really would like his den to himself, just like an Englishman, in all the masculine glory of dust and disorder; that though he loved his wife, there were times when he would prefer to spend his evenings alone in his den without her company ; that though he loved his children, he would rather have them safely in bed before seven o’clock than have an evening with them climbing over his tired legs. In short, I found him very like the average English husband and father in this respect. He merely differed in the inability or the lack of determination to set his large foot down squarely and warn intruders off from the invasion of the privacy of his soul.

They have wonderfully comfortable and convenient bath-rooms in the American cities, even in homes of the most moderate rentals. In England people paying rentals of this sort are still using the tin tubs of the grandfather’s-chair shape, brought to their bedrooms every

morning, and in which they may splash up all the wall-paper. People of this class have not the tiled floor, the porcelain tub, the up-to date plumbing that one finds in the cheapest flats and houses in American cities. But some of those lovely bathrooms were to me pathetic witnesses to the lack of privacy of the various members of the family. There would be rows of toothbrushes hanging along the walls, rows of towels, rows of other things, showing that it was the family wash-room. Such homes usually have no individual wash-hand stands in each bedroom. They take up room and make work. Or, even if their bedrooms are thus fitted up, the members of the family have formed a habit of running into the bathroom for a wash-up because it easier and quicker. Of course, I do not now refer to those more luxurious houses where in each bedroom there is a fitted basin with hot and cold running water, but to the more humble homes. To the average outsider who is at all observant the first thought upon visiting the average American home is, “Oh, you have so many delightful things, so many conveniences, so many comforts, how is it you have just this one thing lacking— privacy?”

In America they know little of the oldfashioned “mother’s room,” the room which has mother’s individuality so stamped upon it that all through life the children remember it as being a very part of mother. And father’s room? Ás I have said, he has no room, though there be twenty rooms in the house. All day long, at business, he is in the midst of noisy, hurrying people, clerks and stenograph ers, and at home there is no diminution of the number of persons who may disturb him. Let him try to get off by himself and lock a door—if he can find a door—and he will be suspected of having a secret sorrow, or, mayhap, a secret sin.

Certainly the American middle-class homes in many ways are more tastefully arranged than the English homes of the same class. Take the American bedroom and the English bedroom, for instance. Who could hesitate between the two for prettiness and convenience? The English idea of a bedroom is a place to sleep in, bathe in, and get out of as soon as possible. You feel that as soon as you look at it. Its draperies are few. its rugs are sim-

pie, its walls are often almost bare, and in the window the dressing-table stands, its ugly wooden back facing the street, flat up against the window, adding nothing to the attractiveness of the house or the street. In America the bedrooms are pretty. Indeed, there seems to be a general desire to make them look as little like bedrooms as possible. Sometimes I think that Americans, down in their hearts, consider a bed an improper piece of furniture, to be hidden away, when possible, in the form of writing-desk, a wardrobe, or a Turkish divan, and only exhibited for what it really is—a bed—at the lasts moment before getting into it. But certainly the bedrooms are pretty, and, in a general way of speaking, they seem to belong to nobody in particular.

I have a fancy that after a while the American home may develop into one immense room separated into compartments only by screens—there seems to be such an objection to doors! The American architects plan for a few enough doors in all conscience, but even those they do put up are often taken down off the hinges, stored in the cellar, and replaced with draperies. Once, a few years ago, moving into a beautiful New York flat, I found the previous tenants had done this, and when I asked the janitor to bring the doors from the cellar and rehang them, he viewed me with suspicion, and asked, “An’ so ye be goin’ to take boarders, ma’am?” “Boarders!” I exclaimed. “Certainly not!” “Then why do ye want the doors, when draperies is so much more stylish?” he asked.

From the doorlessness of the flat and house of the large American cities is but a step to the fenceless state of the pretty village homes, into whose lawns and gardens stray chickens, cats, and dogs wander and scratch at will. They make a beautiful sight, these quaintly built houses, one after another, without fence or hedge, the well-kept lawns coming down and joining the pavement along which grow those rows of trees which will ever be the delight of all foreigners who visit the American

villages. Truly they are prettier than the hedged-off houses of the English towns, with their garden walls topped with broken bottles to warn away the cats and other marauders. But one wonders how a garden-party could be managed in these very public American village lawns; how a tea-table could be arranged under the trees, and the tea and cakes really be enjoyed with all the rest of the world looking on.

And then the windows with the lights burning! Is there in all America such a ceremony as the “drawing of the blinds,” one wonders? There is in England still that antiquated practice of the housemaid going about at twilight holding a lighted taper in one hand as she draws down the blind with the other before she lights the lamps or gas. There is here the horror of having the passing public witness even the “lighting up” of the home. I would certainly do away with the lighted taper habit—it is so apt to set the lace draperies afire ; but I hope that the ceremony of the “drawing of the blinds” will last as long as the Englishman’s home is his castle. Indeed, it must last just that long. In America sometimes the blinds are drawn, sometimes not—more often not, I think. One may pass dozens of drawing and dining-rooms in the evening, all brilliantly lighted, the members of the family gathered about the piano or the table, minding not that the curious stranger in the street may peep in. Why, even the young lady receiving her fiance in the evening often forgets the drawing of the blinds. Then, even where care is taken to draw the front blinds, there is a shocking amount of thoughtlessness among persons occupying back rooms, in many cases not even the bedroom blinds being drawn when the gas is lighted.

And it all comes back—this lack of privacy in the American home—to a want of doors of one sort or another, doors to shut one’s self in and to shut others out, that one may enjoy, at times, the privacy that is the right of every individual soul.