William Morris: Useful Bits of Beauty

Caught by its tail, desperate to escape but unable to avoid the shrieking woman who’s discovered it, the poor creature cowers beneath the kitchen sink, held fast by a slice of plywood and a metal spring. 

Unable to summon the courage to carry the mouse outdoors, unwilling to set it free and even more unwilling to dispatch it in place, the woman – my mother – makes a reasonable decision. Snatching up her white enameled dishpan with the pretty red edge and the unfortunate dent, she slaps it over the mouse.

Closing and latching the doors to the storage space beneath the sink, she turns to look at the only witness to her bravery. “There,” she says. “That’ll hold him until your father comes home.”

Whether the mouse survived, I can’t say, but a clutch of disconnected, early memories remains vibrant – the wash of morning sunlight across worn linoleum, a vinyl tablecloth dotted with blue and yellow windmills, scalloped yellow trim around the kitchen ceiling and glistening, clean white woodwork.  

I suspect it was the summer of 1948 when I watched the unfolding drama from my high chair. Too young by far to tell time, I see the clock’s hands in memory and know the hour – eight-fifteen. The kitchen is filling with light, the breeze stirs through the window, restless and fresh, as I wait for my breakfast.

To my child’s eye, the kitchen was perfect, small, pieced together like a puzzle. The aluminum coffee pot resting on a back burner of the stove matched the aluminum canisters arrayed along the counter – flour and sugar, coffee, tea, spices.  Pushed into a corner but still accessible was my mother’s pride and joy, a modern, two-slice automatic toaster.  It sported a cheerful yellow-and-white gingham cover, the same yellow gingham that fluttered at the windows and decorated the kitchen as hot pads, aprons and trim for hand-embroidered tea towels.

Like plastic-covered furniture, ironed bed linens and crustless sandwiches, toaster covers were de rigueur in the 40s and 50s. Even after tumble-dry replaced weekly ironing and the bridge club’s taste changed to fruit salad and quiche, the toaster cover soldiered on. Years after leaving home, I still was carting one around.

I’d never given it a thought until a much younger friend offered to help me unpack after I moved back to Texas.  Pulling a rectangular bit of fabric from a pile of kitchen towels, she held it up by one corner, obviously mystified. “What’s this?” she said.  “A toaster cover.” “What do you do with it?”  “What do you think I’d do with it?” I said. “I cover the toaster.”  Bemused, she turned the cover this way and that before fluffing it a bit and setting it upright on the table.  “Why would you do that?”

Why? I didn’t have a ready answer. To my knowledge, no one in the whole sweep of human history ever had questioned the practice of toaster-covering.

My first explanation, that the cover was meant to prevent dust, was dismissed out of hand.  “I’ve never had dusty toast in my life,” my friend said.  I tried again. “No, not the toast. The toaster. It keeps the toaster from getting dusty.”  She wasn’t buying it. “Nothing in a kitchen gets dusty, except maybe the top of the refrigerator. Maybe the vent hood. But a toaster? How could a toaster get dusty?”

She had a point, “But that’s not all,” I said. “The cover keeps it from getting splattered when I’m cooking or using the mixer.” “If you get batter or spaghetti sauce all over it, don’t you have to wash it? Doesn’t that end up creating more work?” 

Just slightly miffed, I snatched the cover from the table and tossed it into the corner, mentioning in passing that I didn’t intend to spend the rest of the afternoon defending the honor of toaster covers. She promised to stop giggling her way through a list of household items that could be covered – blender, coffee pot, mixer, sewing machine, vacuum, paper towel holder, broom – and we went back to work. Before long, the unpacking was done.

With the coffee pot re-programmed, the cannisters refilled and the neatly-covered toaster secure in its corner, all was right with my world until the morning I pulled the cover from the toaster and saw it needed washing.  Smudged with jam, it had picked up a coffee stain or two and there were tiny crumbs in the piping. I laid it aside, then noticed one corner had edged into the butter dish. Sighing, I picked it up, wiped off the butter and glanced around for an out-of-the way place to stash it while I finished my breakfast. 

Suddenly, I saw the trash can.

The vertiginous impulse to live with a naked toaster was completely unexpected.  I might as well have developed a sudden hankering for yak milk in my coffee.  On the other hand, looking at my toaster – the gleaming stainless steel surface, the luscious curves, the perfect integration of form and function – I realized that, in any competition with a slightly faded, smudged and edge-worn cover, the toaster was a sure winner. 

It wasn’t the cover’s fabric that was the problem. It wasn’t poor construction or an out-of-date style. It was the concept itself.  “Toaster cover,” I thought, as though hearing the words for the first time. Which bored or obsessive hausfrau had been first to imagine such a thing? Why had we adopted it? What, really, was the point?  Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I’d had my vision. The cover had to go.

Years later, having been introduced to the Arts and Crafts movement with its attendant bungalows, Stickley furniture, exquisite tiles and back issues of Elbert Hubbard’s magazine The Fra, I discovered that textile designer, bookbinder and writer William Morris had provided in the mid-1800s a perfect rule of thumb for 21st century folk nearly overcome by the waves of  “stuff” washing over their lives.  

Never mind toaster covers. Morris had a word for anyone wearied of useless pillows, flimsy furniture, too-cute curtains, rugs on top of rugs, matching plastic bath goods and cheap Chinese imports. Here, I’ve matched his words with a favorite of his designs.

It’s a high standard Morris sets.  What is useful to one may not be considered useful by another, and the definition of beauty varies from person to person.  Still, Morris says, we are the ones responsible for the environment in which we live. We give assent to this and reject that, and to whatever degree possible we should strive for a unity of pleasing design and useful purpose when making our choices.

Unfortunately, perfect combinations of function and form aren’t always possible. And, as proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement learned, while the work of artisans may be superior to mechanized production, artisanal work can be inordinately expensive – a problem that helped bring about the demise of the movement.

On the other hand, when beauty joins with utility to inspire, to delight the eye, to rest the spirit and provide enjoyment, the wisdom of seeking quality over quantity becomes apparent.  The combination of art and craft – an eye for beauty, a skilled hand joined by patience and a hunger for perfection – leads to something far greater than the simple “arts and crafts” projects of our childhood.

Morris was consistent in his beliefs, willing to assert that what holds true for the architect or designer is equally true for the crafter of wood, the potter or painter. Even as a bookbinder, printer and illustrator he was consistent in his approach to form and function, saying:

“I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye…
I found I had to consider chiefly the following things: the paper, the form of the type, the relative spacing of the letters, the words, and the lines; and lastly the position of the printed matter on the page.”

Reading his words today, I can’t help remembering my poor toaster cover. In the end, it landed in the trash because it violated both of  Morris’s criteria – it was neither useful nor beautiful.

On the other hand, nothing delights more than an object which exceeds Morris’s expectations, managing to be at once both beautiful and useful.  I’ve come to think of such objects as “useful bits of beauty”, and in a series of upcoming posts, I’ll be sharing a few examples from my own home. Some are so common I’m certain you have them, too. My hope is that you’ll come to see them in a new way.

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118 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Awesome post! I have never heard of a toaster cover before, although I do remember us having a tea cosy when I was very young. Love how you have tied this in with Morris’s views on ‘use and beauty’. Fantastic.

    • Jayde-Ashe,

      Tea cosies at least have the virtue of a more practical purpose – keeping the tea warm! Mom’s toaster covers were quilted so they were a little more practical, but I’ve seen some that were crocheted. That’s the very height of impracticality!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and hope you enjoy the ones to come. I’ve been toying with this series for some time, and look forward to sharing some “useful bits of beauty”. The more beauty in life, the better.

      Linda

      • I look forward to further posts!

  2. I don’t know much about Wm Morris – thanks for including him in this post. Great tiles!

    • C.C.,

      Morris was such an interesting, accomplished man. Years and years ago, I was introduced to him when I found some large booklets of gift wrap printed with his designs in a bookstore. I bought them, used the wrapping paper, and learned about Morris in the process.

      You’re partly responsible for this series. When I saw your tiles, I began thinking that I ought to do something with the ones I’ve collected. They’ll be in the next post.

      Linda

      • Oh! How we can inspire each other – that’s neat, because this is inspiring me to focus in more on Morris. Our daughter is learning about him as well, as an artist she admires and uses him as influence, too.

  3. I just love vintage in anyway shape or form. I have let go of somethings recently but cannot part with my green wooden ironing board..

    • Roberta,

      Well, I have the iron to go with your board. It’s electric, but barely. My mom got it before she was married, and believe me – it doesn’t do anything but heat up. It’s terrifically heavy, so now I use it as a doorstop to keep my kitty out of the bedroom closet.

      It is interesting what we keep and what we don’t, isn’t it? Everyone has their own criteria – and for Morris, that’s just fine. It’s being aware of what’s around us that’s important.

      Linda

  4. My father was a practical man, an engineer and software developer, a man with little patience for sentiment or messiness in life. This despite his three marriages, each failed in their own way. He was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1988, and after a number of remissions and the end of his last marriage, he moved back to his hometown. When he moved he determined to take only those things he found useful or beautiful, simple enough because he didn’t live with excess anyway.

    After his wife left and prior to moving, he said he missed having someone to hold. At the time my son was about 3, and we (I) decided to buy a teddy bear, someone for Dad to hold.

    At the end of 1997 his health was failing rapidly. No more options existed for beating back the cancer. Jim, Son, and I traveled to see him, weak and alone in his hospital bed. We also spent some time in his home. It was spartan. Art work on the walls, music for his stereo, bicycle parts he hoped to reassemble, bridge books…

    And on his bed was the teddy bear.

    The bear lives with us. I get rid of things easily, too. But the bear will stay.

    Thanks for bringing us your toaster and your resolve. May you always live with beauty, even amongst the tools of daily life.

    • Melanie, you are much like your father. Sorry he passed so soon. It would have been good to see you two interact and share your ideas.

      I enjoyed reading the story tonight. You chose your words and your pictures well.

      • Jim,

        I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I think Morris’s little “rule” can apply to words as well as to other things. I try to chose those that are either useful or beautiful – if I get a few that happen to be both, I’m tickled as can be!

        Linda

        • I worked a few years, after retirement from teaching, for a company that publishes test items for statewide exams. The constraints upon wording were many. There were style issues, number of words, readability, etc. I got to be very aware of quality writers. I put your writing in that category. Be tickled!

    • Melanie,

      The bear was such a perfect, sensitive gift. Morris himself once said that it took him years “to understand that words are as important as experience, because words make experience last.”

      Physical objects can do the same thing, and that’s why we hold on to items that might seem easily disposable to those around us. When objects resonate with memories, they can almost demand to be kept. I still have my mother’s favorite soup bowl. In any flea market or Goodwill store, I’d pass it right by. But when I look at it now, I see not only the bowl, but my mother, sitting in a favorite chair in a particular robe, watching the evening news. The bowl will stay, too.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing your memories.

      Linda

  5. Love this post.

    The first part of your essay brought back memories of my childhood. It brought back memories especially of my grandmother who took care of me when I was a child. I could still see her puttering around the kitchen. Life was slow and easy then, so that she can afford to go the market everyday to buy fresh produce, and cook different dishes for each meal for us!

    Love essays like yours, Linda, which sees beauty in the ordinary objects as well as in the ordinary events of life. It teaches us that we need not go far to find beauty. Also, following William Morris’ advice, it teaches us that we can make our homes (and our lives) beautiful without spending a lot of money.

    –Matt

    • Matt,

      Your memory of your grandmother puttering around the kitchen brought back that wonderful Simon and Garfunkel song that begins, “Slow down, you move too fast…” We are fast movers these days, often to our detriment.

      Beyond that, it occurs to me that even experiences can be embraced or rejected on the basis of Morris’s criteria. Picking up a fast food burger for lunch vs. sitting down to a grandmother-cooked meal? There’s no question which is more “beautiful”. More useful, too. A meal shared at home allows for conversation, gratitude, the sharing of experiences. A burger wolfed down in traffic? Not so much. Sometimes, there isn’t a choice. But when there is, we need to think about our choice.

      And you’re right that Morris’s advice isn’t just for the rich. It’s only a reminder that when we purchase, we should make our selection carefully. And sometimes, all it takes to make our surroundings more pleasing is a little rearranging, a little courage to eliminate possessions that truly are doing nothing more than taking up space.

      Some years ago, there was a slogan popular in this country that went, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”. I think I prefer William Morris’s take on “things”.

      Linda

  6. I like Morris’s criteria, and as I look around our house, most things fit. But there are a few that appear a bit weak in those two categories, but strong in yet another: I remember who made them.

    • montucky,

      I’m not so sure those sentimental items don’t fit perfectly well. My mother had two things she kept until her death. One was my plaster-of-Paris handprint from kindergarten (painted pink, mind you! the boys’ were blue) and the other was a small box of limestone rocks from the driveway. I’d painted them red, yellow and blue with my water colors and given them to her as a gift.

      There’s no question she believed them to be beautiful, and she knew they were useful. As she sometimes put it, “If it weren’t for these reminders (rocks, handprints, photos, Christmas tree decorations, gifts) I’d never remember all those good times.”

      The great thing about Morris’s maxim is that it allows us to decide what’s important to us.

      Linda

  7. What a comfort it always is to admire a William Morris design, so just seeing the title of your post made me anxious to read more!

    I’m way behind on WP – am in Costa Rica and tending to some personal business – not too fun but making the best of it. very little time online.

    Will be heading south to the equator on Tuesday but will be offline more than on for another week or maybe three or more.

    Your post was a great finale to my day.

    z

    • Z,

      Great excitement in CR, I imagine. I saw the country trending on Twitter this morning and went to explore – I see they beat the US in soccer. I’ve heard that soccer fever can bring bureaucracies to a standstill in some countries – best of luck in getting your business tended to!

      Morris is wonderful. The past couple of years, I’ve come to admire him as a writer as well as a designer. As so often happens, there are layers and layers to explore.

      I do remember the first time I heard a reference to Morris. It was either 1963 or 1964. Barbra Streisand had recorded a song called “My Honey’s Loving Arms”, and in the lyrics near the beginning there’s a reference to a Morris chair. The song asks, rhetorically, “what kind of chair is a Morris chair?” It took me a couple of decades to find out, but I finally did.

      Safe travels and hassle-free business to you.

      Linda

  8. This is amazing post dear Linda, and so inspirational too. Thank you, have a nice weekend, love, nia

    • nia,

      Isn’t it fun to be inspired? William Morris’s words often inspire me, and I’m glad to share them with others.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found it inspirational. Happy weekend to you, too!

      Linda

  9. I remember studying Morris at uni. Great post.

    • Julie,

      How lucky you were, to be introduced to him so early and get to actually study him. Thanks for sharing that memory, and for the kind words.

      I thought of you last week. I’ve been working on a boat in a neighborhood with canals. Someone has peacocks – I’ve been hearing them scream. Finally, one came strolling across the lawn. I asked it if it knew Gutsy, but it wasn’t telling.

      Awfully nice to see you!

      Linda

  10. I remember that when I was growing up my mother had a cover not only on the toaster but also on her mixer. And now for a metaphysical question: what if your toaster cover had borne a William Morris design? Would that have shifted the balance in favor of preservation? By coincidence (or telepathy), just before reading your post I glanced at a bookcase containing computer-related books and thought that I need to do some discarding because few things age as quickly as computers.

    I can’t remember if I ever heard of the Fra magazine, and I’ve been unable to find an online explanation of the name. I wonder if it’s the Italian fra that means ‘brother,’ as in Fra Angelico. Do you happen to know?

    • Steve,

      Those covers were everywhere. The one on the mixer always seemed more understandable. No one wants to begin a project by having to wash off beaters and bowls.

      A vestige of the impulse to cover still remains. Some people keep covers over home electronics, particularly printers and scanners. Keyboards, too – although, as one friend noted, her problem is less dust when she’s not using it than the cookie crumbs that fall in while she is.

      Interesting question you pose. If the cover had a Morris design, and I knew nothing of Morris, I think I would have tossed it. If it had a Morris design and I knew Morris’s work, I don’t think I would have had the cover in the first place. If someone gave me a toaster cover printed with a Morris design today, particularly if it had some substance, I think I’d stitch it up across the bottom and use it as a potholder.

      Apparently, in 1908, Hubbard had taken to referring to himself as “Fra Elbert Hubbard.” That’s when he started his new magazine, also called The Fra, although his press had been active for some time.

      Why he adoped “Fra” as a title I can’t say. But it’s a fact that in his personal Credo, he compares Morris to a prophet of God, saying, “I believe John Ruskin, William Morris, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Leo Tolstoy to be Prophets of God, who should rank in mental reach and spiritual insight with Elijah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.”

      He modeled his Roycroft Press after Morris’s Kelmscott Press and eventually, his publications gave rise to the Roycroft community. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he adopted Fra as a personal title as a way of reflecting the unusual nature of Roycroft – almost a secular-monastic artistic community. But that’s only my speculation.

      Linda

      • If he called himself Fra Elbert Hubbard, then it seem likely that he was indeed using the Italian title for ‘brother’ (in the sense of a monk). I imagine he thought of the Roycrofters as a kind of religious community.

  11. Goodness. This certainly brought back a rush of memories.

    Toaster covers, mixer covers, toilet paper roll dolls with skirts, the crocheted whiskey bottle poodles. (In a family of near teatotallers, I always wondered where they got those whiskey bottles!)

    If it could be covered, there was something cross stitched, quilted, tatted, crocheted, knitted or embroidered adorning it.

    I suspect a lot of it had to do with that ‘idle hands’ attitude held by all of my older female relatives. Even in quiet moments of so-called relaxation, rocking or swinging on the porch, their hands were always busy. If it wasn’t needlework, it was shelling peas or snapping beans.

    • Gué,

      Just so you know – some traditions never die. How would you like to have this one on your counter? That toast almost looks good enough to eat!

      I’d forgotten the dolls – and the poodles, too. In our family, it was doilies and antimacassars. I swear every chair had its coverings, and every item on a table or chest had its own personal doily. But here’s the interesting thing – “Doiley” originally was the name of a fabric manufactured by a 17th century London draper named Doiley. And antimacassars truly started out as anti – macassars, that is, as protection against a hair oil that was much favored back in the day. I didn’t have a clue, until the word antimacassar popped out – properly spelled! – and I went looking to see what it really meant.

      My memories and experience are the same as yours. Hands weren’t meant to lie idle. Everyone carried their handwork with them, even into my mother’s generation. She was a knitter, and my dad became accustomed to questions like, “Is this going to be a scarf trip or a sweater trip?”

      Linda

      • LOL – That toaster cover is a hoot! I could see me stumbling into the kitchen, half asleep and grabbing a piece of ‘toast’ !

        I’ve several doilies, table runners and decorative items that my Granny made. She had dozens and dozens of things packed in the spare bedroom’s chest of drawers. I have three of her afghans, as well.

        I don’t think I have any of her antimacassars, though. I do remember seeing plenty of them on chair backs and arms.

        • After Mom died, a good bit of the crochet work and such went to consignment shops or was purchased outright by antique dealers. For one thing, she never enjoyed crocheting or tatting – knitting and needlepoint were her joys, so it was more important to me to keep those things I knew she’d made. Unidentified linens “might” have been made by someone in the family, but there was no way to know, particularly since my folks loved to haunt auctions and would bring home boxes of other peoples’ treasure.

          What I can’t bring myself to get rid of is a hand-crocheted bed cover that came from Paris. It was done in thread, mind you, is about double-bed size and must weigh twenty pounds. It’s beautiful beyond belief, but in storage just now. I don’t think it would combine well with kitty claws.

          • Gasp… Oh, I’ll bet that thing is gorgeous. I’d be hard pressed to let it go, too.

            No. Fine threadwork and kitty claws do not combine well. What you need is a glass topped storage/coffee table.

  12. I like to think everything I surround myself with is either useful or I consider it beautiful to look at. And, beautiful is so completely subjective.

    I have a dried up piece of halimeda algae right here in my den, its vibrant green turning to a calcareous white in places and a carrier shell. I think it is beautiful. I was thinking of incorporating it into a scientific still life photo. I love looking at my carrier shell with appendages of other shells cemented attractively over its own shell. Maybe these are useful but I just think they are beautiful and love looking at them.

    But, beyond beauty or usefulness, where we stumble is on the emotional or sentimental attachments. The things which hold memories are so difficult to part with, as stupid and useless or even ugly as they may be. Sometimes on one pass I can’t throw away a thing. Then a few years later, ok I am ready..so done, so out of here!!

    I remember toaster covers but have no visual reference as to whether our family ever used one. I think that some people just like to hide utility with something pretty that they prefer to look at. Or maybe it is to keep the dust off the heating elements!! :)

    • Judy,

      Unfamiliar with your algae, I went looking for a photo and was amazed by how much like a cactus it appears. In fact, two or three sites call it “cactus algae”. And those carrier shells! I think I may have seen them in shops and just assumed a human hand had glued all that together. Not so – the thought of a shell collecting other shells and attaching them to itself is utterly remarkable.

      Now, here’s the question. Does a carrier shell affix those other bits of shell and coral to itself because the bits are useful, or because the carrier shell finds them beautiful? Inquiring minds want to know!

      As for the sentimental items, see my response to montucky up above. That’s the beauty of Morris’s approach. He doesn’t say, “Get rid of anything that doesn’t meet someone else’s standards of beauty”. He says, “Have nothing in your house which YOU do not believe to be beautiful.” If it’s beautiful to you because it has memories attached, it should be just as welcome as that carrier shell.

      Shedding possessions can be tough. Downsizing my china collection’s been a five-year process. About once a year I make a run though the house to see what I can bear to get rid of, often consigning to a collectors’ auction in Ohio. And every now and then I look at something and realize it no longer pleases me – then, off it goes.

      We do change, that’s for sure, and what makes our home comfortable for us changes, too. Way back when, I was one of those who wanted all-white walls and chrome picture frames. No more. Color and the warmth of wood make me far happier. But these things evolve – looking back over the process is interesting.

      Linda

      • Tis true that tastes change over the years!! Halimeda is segmented and I can see the cactus likeness!!
        Great segue by the way on the carrier shell!

  13. Your writing is like poetry, I’ve said that before, so please excuse the repeat, but it’s so elegant and refined, full of beauty.

    A few months ago I had a feng shui/cleaning attack in the kitchen and came across a potholder we’ve had since before we moved to Texas in 1975. It was once yellow, but I couldn’t tell you what the design was; it’s unrecognizable, extremely worn and shabby. Forty years of domestic use has made it incredibly soft. I wanted to toss it out but for some reason held onto it.

    I’ve shopped for new potholders but they’re too bright and shiny on the eyes; the designs don’t suit. I am used to our dull, velvety soft potholder.

    A few weeks ago I made tea and went to find the potholder but it wasn’t there. I was surprised to find my heart beating faster as I searched, thinking we might have accidentally lost it to the garbage. I realized that there is something about that awful potholder that is important to us, and that throwing it out would be like tossing away a family member. I eventually found it and told my mother that perhaps we should throw it out. She gave me her super-serious French “non”, and that was that.

    I wonder if we will ever throw the thing out. I imagine it will survive in some post-apocalyptic museum of kitchen appliances, perhaps next to a display of toasters, toaster covers, teapots and tea cosies. “Shabby potholder, ca. 1972.”

    Very nice post; I always enjoy the way you tie things together.
    Happy Saturday.

    • Office Diva,

      Clearly, you have a quality potholder. If you were to purchase one of the new models, it wouldn’t hold up for 35 years. It might not hold up for five. Not only that, all those fire retardants they use now probably would keep it stiff and shiny. I have a friend who buys her kitchen linens and such at resale shops precisely in order to get the lovingly-used pieces from years ago. They do just fine, and they’re a pleasure to use.

      It’s also true that some things get better with age and repeated use. Flannel nightgowns. Leather slippers. Quilts. Saddles. Aprons. Towels. One year my mom asked for bath towels for Christmas. She wanted ivory. Hers looked fine, so when stupid me asked why she wanted new ones, she said, “I’ve been trying to wear out those towels for ten years and they won’t die. I’m sick of pink.” Needless to say, Santa got the message.

      That museum you imagine probably already exists. There are toaster-history books and vintage kitchen linens collectors clubs. The museum can’t be far behind.

      I’m so glad you’re back safely from your travels. Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post – and I’m glad you found your potholder!

      Linda

  14. Your first paragraphs made me sit up and take notice! I, too, remember a sunny kitchen and a shrieking mother – a mouse had run over her feet.

    About ten years ago my daughter visited New Zealand. She was very excited about the gift she had bought for me, for she knew it was perfect – and it was. It’s a beautiful blue coffee mug – slightly unusual shape, quite thin, and the perfect balance for my hand. This mug, despite its delicate appearance, is also tough, for it has stood up to daily use and washing for ten years. I was tempted to put it on a shelf and keep it safe, but I’m so glad I decided to use and appreciate it.

    For me, this coffee mug is one of those useful bits of beauty that you describe, and it’s also a warm reminder of my dear daughter. I’ll look forward to your future posts and photos of your useful bits of beauty!

    • NumberWise,

      Now, the only question left to resolve is whether those mice were a problem or a fact of life! If your mom still remembers that little episode, you might ask her. If nothing else, she’d get a kick out of the question. (I suspect the answer would be unequivocal: Problem!)

      I’m glad you decided to use your mug. Of all the “battles” my mom and I had over the years, those involving the use of the good china, the good crystal, the sterling and such were some of the most frustrating. All of it came out for holidays and special events. Otherwise? It all stayed tucked away.

      Every time I suggested using it, she’d say, “It’s not worth all that hand-washing.” When I argued for the dishwasher, you’d have thought I had threatened murder. She was convinced the metal trim would wear off. I’d point out that I’d been washing my favorite dishes in the dishwasher for fifteen years and they looked fine. She’d start to hyperventilate. So there we were.

      Heaven knows there were enough dishes around here to feed the neighborhood. That wasn’t the problem. I just thought she’d get pleasure from using the lovely things she’d been hiding away her whole life. I did finally get her to allow the use of her good crystal, but I had to do the hand-washing. ;-)

      One of my ways of testing life situations is to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” With your mug, it’s easy to say the worst would be dropping it on the floor and breaking it. But actually, I think the worst would be having it sit on its shelf for years, never being enjoyed.

      You’re right that it’s a perfect example of a “useful bit of beauty”. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying it all these years. May it give you many more!

      Linda

  15. I have never owned a toaster cover and fear it may be too late to experiment now. Beautifully written as always.

    • mrscarmichael,

      I think you’re wise to avoid the toaster cover – or even the matched cannisters with the chicken finials, for all that. Such things have been known to lead directly to organdy hostess aprons. It’s a slippery slope!

      Many thanks for stopping by, and for your complimentary words.

      Linda

  16. Linda,

    A perfect post for me to think about as I continue opening boxes and deciding how to decorate my new home. Another component to think about is what we’re keeping because someone we love gave it to us. Sometimes I stare at the object, think about how I love the person who gave it to me, and then do the practical thing of giving it to charity because I need to love my downsizing self!

    Claudia

    • Claudia,

      I had to deal with that relationship between objects and emotion while sorting through Mom’s things after she died. The first impulse always is to keep it all, as a way of holding on to the person. Then, eventually, decisions are made. There isn’t room for an extra household of furniture, so off it goes, with only a few cherished pieces incorporated into what already is. The clothes go next, and then the ephemera – magazines, greeting cards and all that.

      Eventually, it’s only the significant reminders that remain – items that will always remain encrusted with memories or serve as tokens of the person’s life. Do I need to keep the needlepoint pillow she made for me one Christmas? Absolutely. Do I need to keep the stack of Danielle Steel novels she kept bringing home for me? No, ma’am, not at all. There are other people who need those novels!

      Linda

  17. Anything that needs a frilly cover – be it a toaster, a loo roll, a tea pot, etc. – to hide it, must be useless. The same items uncovered present themselves as form and function and if they are beautiful as well, we succeed in creating a pleasing environment.

    Here in Britain covers were big when I first came here, but their inherent ‘naffness’ has penetrated the less hidebound conventions nowadays.

    Looking at household items with a clear and thoughtful eye might prove interesting and salutary.

    • friko,

      I’m always tickled when I can add another Britishism to my vocabulary, and you’ve given me a good one: “naff”. It wasn’t so long ago I learned “chuffed” – which I am, whenever I get another good word.

      Covers can make sense for some items, like sewing machines left out during extended projects. But there, it’s a practical matter – a way to keep dust or debris out of the machine itself. I think that would meet the “useful” criteria quite nicely. But crocheted dolls hiding the loo roll? It’s not to my taste, although I’ve known some ladies who thought them quite beautiful – thus meeting Morris’s second criteria.

      You’ve nailed it in your last sentence, I think. Whatever we keep, whatever we surround ourselves with, it’s that clear and thoughtful eye that’s important. After all, we’re the ones who live in our spaces – why shouldn’t we be the arbiters of what meets our needs and is pleasing to our eye?

      Linda

  18. Linda, I tend to go with your friend who asked what toaster covers were good for. I remember my aunt had one. My grandmother had crocheted doilies over the backs and arms of ALL the living room furniture. The funny thing is, nobody seemed to question the purpose of that stuff, preferring, I suppose, the status quo.

    While it’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Morris was definitely on to something. Surrounding ourselves with “stuff” that’s no longer useful (and likely never was beautiful!) feels wrong. For sure, Chinese Feng Shui experts would have a heyday with that practice, seeing as how their No. One “cure” is to eliminate clutter.

    Thanks for a most interesting look at the past!

    • Debbie,

      When you used the phrase, “interesting look at the past”, I suddenly had a feeling I ought to look for my walker and toddle out to the porch with my handwork. But it’s true, and I’m fine with it. I’m getting old enough now that the world I remember is so different in many respects from what we have today, and so very much the same in others.

      I recently saw a photo from the house I grew up in. There’s a telephone on the table, and it has no dial. You picked up the receiver, and a nice lady would ask, “Number, please?” Lily Tomlin got it right with her sketches of Ernestine, the telephone operator. What’s most amazing about that sketch is the parallels with what’s happening today with the NSA, etc. Those Laugh-In folks were ahead of their time.

      I knew those doilies on chair backs and arms were called antimacassars, but I had no idea that “macassar” used to be a kind of hair oil. The “anti – macassar” was meant to protect the furniture from such things. Eventually, the hair oil went away, but the decorative doilies hung around, with no practical use. Some people liked them and kept them, others didn’t – sort of like toaster covers.

      Of course, we all have our “toaster covers” – things we’d never part with, no matter what, even though others might think them ugly or useless. I think my collection of found birds’ nests might fall into that category!

      Linda

      • I never knew what those doily things were called — thanks for that information. By the way, I didn’t mean to offend by calling this post a look at the past. I had no intention of calling you “old”!! It’s just that so much of this reminds me of my grandma and other relatives older than I, so I think of it as “past.” You’ve collected birds’ nests? How interesting — are they preserved under cover (plexiglass, not toaster)?

        • Oh, my! I’m not insulted or offended! I am getting old, and I cherish the experience. One of these days, I’ll be one of those wise old wrinkled-up grannies dispensing wisdom (or gossip) from the front porch!

          The birds’ nests are just sitting around. There’s one on the porch, and a couple in the bathroom, and there was one in the living room until stupid me put a couple of nearly perfect dove egg shells in it and the cat just couldn’t contain herself. She doesn’t get excited by the nests, but the scent of bird baby apparently is too much for her. ;)

  19. Hi Linda:

    We are well aware of attractive covers for electronic devices, toasters were one of them. I remember a relative (aunt) that even went as far as elaborating colorful covers for her unused rolls of toilet paper. I asked her why she did it? She answered graciously. “Omar, they look cute all dressed up.” I smiled and said, “Yes they do.” And that was that.

    I also feel that consumer products should look pretty as well as functional. That is the strategy Steve Jobs used at Apple and it paid off ten fold.

    Great blog post and nice pictures. That’s your personal touch.

    Warm regards,

    Omar.-

    • Omar,

      You were pretty gracious with your aunt, too. Part of gaining maturity is allowing others to have their taste – in food, clothing, books, music, decorating – without feeling we have to impose our standards on them. I’m not a particular fan of “cute”, but my mother surely was. We often amused ourselves by offering redecorating suggestions to each other.

      Your point about the products themselves is well-taken. When I purchased my first computer, I had an old CRT monitor with that dirty-ivory-colored plastic for a cover. It worked well enough, but my goodness, it was huge. Clunky, too.

      After several years, it commited suicide by catching fire on my desk. I replaced it with a 17″ sleek, black flatscreen monitor. I still remember the pleasure I took in just looking at the thing – quite apart from the images on the screen. Although it’s not an Apple product, that’s part of their appeal, for sure.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Linda

  20. And here I am feeling sorry for that poor toaster cover! Also thinking about unused claimed-to-be-useful kitchen items littering our cupboards and drawers that haven’t been used yet that we can’t bring ourselves to toss. I very much look forward to your series on the actually useful things, and that it is inspired by William Morris cannot be beat!

    • Susan,

      Oh, darn you. I’m such an anthropomorphizer, but I’d never allowed my tendencies to extend to the kitchen. Now I’m pondering the demise of my toaster cover. Did it feel rejected? Was it relieved to travel to the Great Kitchen in the Sky? Etc, ad absurdum.

      I did the great kitchen clean-out after Mom died. I was rolling along so well with her possessions, I thought I’d deal with some of my own in the process. One set of measuring cups is useful. Two sets are useful on serious baking days. Three sets still qualify, for those times when the half-cup measure has run off or a whole set’s in the dishwasher. But six partial sets? Begone! Likewise: the third can opener, a multitude of whisks, the four pot lids without pots (how did that happen?) and the unbelievably darling little chicken soap dispenser.

      The best thing about it is that our not-so-useful and generally-not-admired-for-their-beauty items will be just the ticket for someone else. Anyone who doesn’t think so should spend an hour in a resale shop and watch the delight of people finding our discards both useful and beautiful.

      As for the series – if you can do Shostakovich, I surely can do soap dishes!

      Linda

      • Not only can you do soap dishes, but I highly suspect the soap dish series will garner a wee few more hits than my Shostakovich series! Nonetheless, I’m finding it all fascinating, so I will soldier on. Looking forward to your next installment!

  21. Yes, I will fess up. I was given a set of appliance covers as a wedding present in the 1970s. It had a toaster cover, a blender cover, a stand mixer cover, a hot pad and an oven mitt, all matching blue. Alas, they lasted longer than the marriage did.

    When I was younger, stronger and could lug 40 lbs of water up a flight of stairs, I used to get reverse osmosis water in square 5-gallon jugs with a spigot on the end. They were to be set on their side on the counter top with the spigot hanging over the edge to facilitate the dispensing of contents. My former landlady made me a “bottle bra” for those square bottles out of navy blue with tiny white polka dots and cotton border lace to be sported when the bottle was sitting on its side on the counter. (She was a meticulous seamstress and did beautiful work.) It went the way of all flesh when I traded in my square 5-gallon bottles that simply had to be lifted up and set on a counter top for round ones that have to be upended (while open) onto a crockery dispenser. At least I don’t have to carry them up a flight of stairs any more.

    When I was a young child, we had a white painted kitchen table which was covered by an oil cloth which was yellow, ruled into squares with white lines, and had designs in the squares. My dad made many a pie crust on that table cloth. We also had a large egg beater with a red wooden handle and a red knob on the crank handle. We lived in an apartment at the time, a long bracket-shaped two-story building. All the apartments were two story with the bedrooms upstairs.

    I recall roller skating up and down all afternoon along the long stretch of sidewalk in front of the apartment building. They were metal roller skates, the kind with a leather ankle strap that you clamped onto your shoe sole and tightened with a key. The sound of metal skate wheels rolling across concrete is quite distinctive. They ka-thunked rhythmically like train wheels as first the front wheels then the back wheels rolled over the expansion joints in the sidewalk. I can still hear the sound in my mind’s ear. I was allowed to skate unattended and unsupervised, and nobody thought anything of it.

    We had an old Magnavox TV in a wooden console with cloth over the speaker openings. I vividly remember we watched the coronation of QEII on it. I would have turned four the month before. I remember the gold coach being driven down the street with her and the D of E inside. Those apartment buildings are still there.

    • WOL,

      Clearly, we’re of the same era. I was a few months past six years old when Elizabeth was crowned Queen, and remember watching it all on television.

      The oil cloth, the red-handled kitchen utensils,the painted kitchen table – they’re all part of that era. For years I used my folks kitchen table (with them since their first apartment) as my dining table. I stripped off the paint and refinished it, and it was quite beautiful. After Mom’s death, I had to make a decision whether to keep her old table or her “good” dining set, and went with the dining set. The old table got a good home with a young, newly married couple setting up their first apartment. Thus goes the cycle of life.

      I laughed at your forty pounds of water. When I feel the need to repot, I prefer a rich, locally-mixed landscape soil from one of our nurseries. It comes in forty pound bags, and I live on the second floor. I still can get it out of the car with no trouble, and can get it up the stairs, but “lug” is the operative word. More often now, I divide the bag, and carry up half in a bucket. There’s no use tempting fate, now is there?

      Linda

  22. “…the wisdom of seeking quality over quantity becomes apparent.” I guess this means no more trips to Dollar Tree. Americans will surely perish.

    I agree with this philosophy. Would that I’d come to it years ago… before I accumulated a lifetime of debris.

    Your recollections from your high chair are something. Your memory of the clock is quite a detail. I actually have a memory of sitting in my high chair and listening to Jimmy Dean singing, “Shoo fly. Don’t bother me.”

    My mother loved a yellow kitchen. When I took care of Dad the first time, I painted her kitchen yellow again. I remember her toaster cover. Everyone had them. Funny how these trends occur and everyone gets on the train.

    Sometime in the seventies, I found a tiny mouse in my sink. He’d fallen in and couldn’t get out. I couldn’t bear to kill it and couldn’t stand the thought of getting it out. I told my two-year-old son that his dad would take care of it when he got home. It was one of the most disturbing days… knowing that thing was in there, frantically trying to escape his self-imposed prison. Ick!

    Looking forward to seeing your beautiful and useful objects.

    • Bella Rum,

      Ah, but there’s a place for Dollar Tree. Sometimes we need cheap and disposable. Gift bags come to mind, along with red-white-and-blue bunting for July 4th and trays for Christmas cookies. William Morris or no William Morris, those stores are going to be fine.

      My high chair memories are pretty amazing. I’m not sure of any after this one until I was a year or two older, and of course I couldn’t interpret what I was seeing until I learned to tell time. Well – and learned “mouse”.

      What does intrigue me is their “snapshot” quality. I suppose that’s what they call “visual memory”. Even now, if I’m looking for a certain passage from a book, I usually can go directly to it just by visualizing it on the page. Very strange.

      You’re right about the trends. My gosh – think how many we’ve seen in our lifetime. Pink and gray. Poodle skirts. Beehive hairdos. Hula hoops. Cream of mushroom soup in everything. Felt pennants from every vacation destination in the world – and the stickers on the car windows. When’s the last time you’ve seen a car with a sticker from the Corn Palace or Royal Gorge?

      The worst train my mom ever got on? Dark colors on the walls. It was the late fifties, and maroon and chartreause were considered the in thing for everything from bathrooms (ours) to dishes (we escaped).

      I feel sorry for your mousie. That’s why smart people invented clear plastic containers and cardboard. Slap that container over him, slide the cardboard underneath, and out the door he goes. Just don’t forget to open the door beforehand, so you don’t drop him and have him running free in the house. ;)

      Linda

  23. It is so interesting that you are writing about this today. A few days ago I was looking at some Polaroids of my first home, here in Los Angeles-my Apartment on Hollywood Blvd. where I lived for about three years, till I found my house-the home I have lived in now for almost 50 years!

    Back on Hollywood Blvd., I had a toaster-my very first toaster-and, guess what? YES! It had a lovely Toaster Cover. Mine was white with some yellow trimming. Honestly? It looked lovely to me! And I kept that Toaster and that cover for MANY years! I finally gave them both up about 12 years ago. The Toaster is now a “Collectors” item. The Cover? Well, as with yours, it had weathered a lot of food stains and a lot “life”, just like me.

    I finally replaced the toaster with a more modern one that is white and can hold bagels. And it didn’t need a Cover. Personally I found the cover useful and somewhat decorative for my very own first toaster for maybe 20 years or so. Then, I stopped eating Bread or Toast-Always on a diet of sorts -So my poor silver colored Toaster just sat—still covered and rather lonely from lack of use.

    Then, some friends came over for Sunday Brunch one day and made fun of my old Toaster. They didn’t see the Beauty in it’s age, only the lack of function in our Modern Day World where Bagels needed to be toasted. As far as the Cover? Well…don’t ask. That too, was made fun of in a most dismissive way. I still have the cover, being a sentimental old fool. It sits in a drawer, away from prying eyes that like to make fun of certain things of the past. Not me. I don’t care what Morris says—some things transcend EVERYTHING, and must be paid Homage in a private way.

    I think of myself as a person of ‘taste’ and someone who recognizes beauty in many many areas. The Toaster Cover, in it’s day, DID have a function and could be very attractive, too. Does my newer Toaster have a Cover? No. It doesn’t need one….It stays clean and new looking after these many years, as if it were bought yesterday.

    My old original silver looking Toaster -Well,it still looks good, too, Because it was protected by that funny little cover for all those many years. I could sell it on Ebay tomorrow and say, “Like New”, and not be lying-ALL due to the much maligned Toaster Cover! The wonderful Brilliant Mr. Morris be darned! ( He was truly, much too wonderful to “damned”….lol!)

    I look forward to more of these posts, my dear….!

    • OldOldLady,

      Before I forget, here’s a little treasure I think you’ll enjoy if you haven’t seen it. Ansel Adams is famous for his landscapes, but he spent some time photographing Los Angeles, too. You can see some of the vintage photos here , along with an excellent article. The holdings of the LA Public Library can be found here. I suspect they may evoke some memories for you. I enjoy looking at them so much, particularly the double exposure the sixth row down. I prefer to think he didn’t intend it at all, but let it stay nonetheless, like the flaw woven into a Navajo rug.

      I think you’ve done a fine job of standing for the dignity, value and yes, beauty, of the traditional toaster cover! I must say – I didn’t realize toasters’ slots had been expanded to accept bagels. If I were a bagel-eater, I’d probably be up to date on these things.

      But I must say – you’re a perfect example of what Morris was hoping for. He wanted engaged, critically-eyed, thinking people to assess the world surrounding them and make conscious decisions about what to keep and what to discard.

      There’s nothing wrong with your toaster cover being snuggled in its drawer – that was your decision. If it has a faded beauty, it’s a beauty still in your eyes, and if its only function is to connect you to your past – well, what better function could there be?

      I do know this. With its yellow and white cover, your toaster cover would have fit into my mother’s yellow and white kitchen just fine!

      Linda

      • It has taken me a while to get back here…..I was very interested to see the Ansel Adams pictures…AMAZING! The three pictures that interested me most were Westmore’s on Sunset—I use to have my hair done there back in the early 1960’s…And The May Company—I loved that store, and MOST of all, the Ralph’s Market in Westwood. By the time I became aware of it, it had actually closed, while they built a NEW one, and UCLA was renting the old one for use as a Rehearsal Space for different “Professional” productions being done at UCLA….That is where we rehearsed “SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY” and opened on May 6th, 1963. We were picked up for Broadway from that 6 weeks at UCLA and Opened at The Booth Theatre on September 29th, 1963…..I wrote Original music for the production and appeared in it, as well. There were just 6 of us in the cast. (Betty Garrett, Robert Elston, Joyce Van Patten, Charles Aidman, who directed and adaped it for the stage and who also wrote Lyrics to my Music, and Steve Pearlman and myself. Rehearsing there at the old Ralph’s Market was incredibly exciting because that is where and when so much was created that became fully integrated into the show. I have very very fond memories of the entire experience—including Broadway, But it was at that old Ralph’s that the most exciting part occurred….! Thanks so much for those Links!

        • I just knew that you’d love those photos of L.A. It’s my turn to be a little late getting back here to comment, but that’s because I’ve been doing some research!

          The Booth Theater caught my attention immediately, because I’d been reading about the new production of “The Glass Menagerie” that just opened there. It tickles me beyond words to know that you played there, too. I even found the original playbill online. What an absolute treat.

          But here’s the best part of all. I have a friend on the east coast who is just fanatical about collecting old LPs – real records, that you play on a gizmo with a turntable and needle. She has contacts all over the place, and can find things you wouldn’t think possible to find. She’s going to see if she can’t unearth the old Columbia cast recording and turn it into a format to share. Wouldn’t that be fun?

          But here’s the question. Has someone already digitized the performance? I looked, but couldn’t find it anywhere. If they have, you surely would be the one to know. She wants the record anyway, so if it’s out there in another form it won’t make any difference. But I’d love to hear it.

          I think it’s so interesting that your best memories are connected to Ralph’s. I’m so glad I linked them for you!

          Linda

  24. When I first read this post, I’d just returned home from a visit to the local village, where I’d admired the sewing talents of an older woman, in particular the sewing machine cover. It was not only patchwork, but embroidered and was truly a delight even though I’m not given to fancy things. In shape, it was not dis-similar to your toaster cover! Perhaps as a cover for a sewing machine it does have a bit more credibility than a toaster cover would?

    In the mid’90’s, I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of William Morris work. Not only is his work appealing, but given the era it came out of, it must have felt like a blast of fresh air!

    Reaching tonight for my little book on Morris on the bookshelf, I selected this bit of his writing:
    “Every work of (wo)man which has beauty in it must have some meaning also; that the presence of any beauty in a piece of handicraft implies that the mind of the (wo)man who made it was more or less excited at the time, was lifted somewhat above the commonplace, that he had something to communicate to his fellows which they did not know or feel before, and which they would never have known or felt if he had not been there to force them to it.”

    Surely Linda, this describes your writing to a T ! :-)

    • eremophila,

      That passage from Morris is wonderful, and I’m so complimented that you’d think to apply it to my writing. Thank you!.

      I suspect Morris would have been willing for writers to adapt the words I quoted above to suit their own purposes. After all, not every word is useful, and not every phrase lilts with beauty. A comparison that shimmers in one context, shudders in another. A sentence that fits perfectly “here” becomes disastrous “there”. Morris clearly understood that words need to be worked as surely as copper or oils if they are to resonate.

      And I love this, also from Morris. “It took me years to understand that words are as important as experience, because words make experience last.”

      Isn’t that the truth?

      As for sewing machine covers, I’m actually a fan. Anyone who gets involved in big projects – quilting, making school clothes, whatever – doesn’t want to be putting the machine away every night. Even a nice plastic cover is fine, for utility’s sake. One like you describe would be wonderful, especially if the machine’s out nearly all the time.

      Beyond that, the fact that your friend made it only adds to the pleasure of using it – and showing it off to friends!

      Linda

  25. I studied William Morris at Art College, learning about his intricate designs both in textiles and his illustrated printed words.
    I love how your early recollections lead us into the tale about the toaster cover… and guess what? I have one over my toaster right now! I found it in a drawer a few months ago and decided still had life, and still had a use! But maybe, like William Morris suggested, I ought to remove it. It has a use, but it’s definitely not beautiful!

    • Sandi,

      Let’s not put words in the good Mr. Morris’s mouth! He didn’t say that you should remove your toaster cover, and he certainly didn’t say that things had to be both beautiful and useful.

      Look again at the quotation: “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, OR believe to be beautiful”. I’m the one who took it one step farther and suggested the best “things” in our lives might be the ones that are both beautiful and useful. Of course, I’m and both/and kind of gal, so that was an easy leap for me.

      Morris would approve your decision, I’m sure. You’re the one who pulled it out and decided that it still was useful. Bingo. You’ve met his criteria!

      I love that your college course included both his textile designs and his printing. I came late to his books and his press. They don’t get the play that his textiles do – because they can’t be reproduced in so many creative ways to make a dollar, I suppose!

      I finally tracked you down over at Flickr and it occurs to me – wouldn’t it be fun to have a Flickr group for “useful bits of beauty”. Would you like to coordinate that? ;)

      Linda

  26. I remember as a child being in someone else’s home and gazing upon a toaster cover. I knew what it was, but could not grasp the existence of it. My home never had one. Why should they? What was it about them? Or us?

    My mother lived by Wm. Morris’s words, she just didn’t know he said it. I find far too many things useful nowadays and lose sight of the beauty too often. I’ll have to let Nature carry that burden for me.

    • Martha,

      Wasn’t it interesting, as a child, to begin the process of being exposed to differences among people? I still remember a little friend who was astonished that we could have pie for breakfast at my grandmother’s house. We always had pie around – apple with a slice of cheddar, cherry or rhubarb. Breakfast pie had to be fruit, but that was the only rule. My friend thought it was wonderful, but as I recall She didn’t get very far arguing the case with her own mother.

      I think a lot of us experience a shock of recognition when we find someone who’s expressed what we’ve always felt but not been able to put into words. It seems to me that’s the best reason to read and experience widely. We never know when we’re going to stumble across something completely new that’s utterly familiar – or, on the other hand, find the absolutely familiar suddenly grown strange.

      Linda

  27. I am coming to that place where I’m giving myself permission to change my mind about that which I find useful and/or beautiful and to let go of that which no longer fits that criteria. It’s becoming easier to let go of the “toaster covers” and allow space for new useful and beautiful things.

    • Hippie Cahier,

      Well, as Anais Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” We certainly do change over the years, and there’s not a thing wrong with saying “this” or “that” no longer suits us.

      A child of her age, my mother worshipped at the altar of polyester, and was determined that I should, too. Trying to explain that, everything else aside, polyester doesn’t make it in a hot, humid climate was of no use. Today – I’m back to natural fibers, without a regret in the world. Was there a bit of a tug, giving away things my mom had given me? Of course. But there always are little griefs in life. Learning to cope with them’s a useful and beautiful thing.

      Linda

  28. Linda, oh, I will look forward to your upcoming posts!
    When reading your post this time, I was struck by your yak milk dissonance and your Road to Damascus enlightenment. Love your way with words.

    • Rosemary,

      There often are little phrases or lines in my posts that are personal favorites, and you picked up on two of them. I’m especially fond of the yak milk. When things like that appear, it’s as much fun for me as for you. I have no idea where they come from.

      I wonder if I could walk into Starbuck’s tomorrow and, with a straight face, ask for half-yak in my latté?

      I do think there will be a treat or two for you in the upcoming posts. I can’t guarantee anything about the writing, but the “things” themselves are really interesting – at least to me!

      Linda

  29. Such a delightful post! (laughing) Just yesterday I dispensed with the goose refrigerator magnet, the last of the geese motif gone, bye-bye. There was a time I had a mother goose and goslings toaster cover, glasses with geese, the goose cookie jar, salt and pepper geese. I thought I was subscribing to, as you put it ” a unity of pleasing design and useful purpose when making our choices.” Well, the girls enjoyed them, but then one by one they broke, chipped, and fractured my vision.

    Oh, the timeliness of this post. This past week as I boxed up more in an effort to declutter, depersonalize, etc. for the realtor, I photographed my favorite arrangements around the house wanting to capture the image before we move.

    I look forward to your future posts. And I want to thank you for giving me time to reminisce about my aunt–my Auntie Mame–who staunchly and lovingly subscribed to Wm. Morris’s words, “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

    This is a wonderful post rich in message and delightful in image, nothing cluttered and nothing too personal. Reading this post and others you’ve written is like the wonderful “reveal” on my favorite HGTV design shows. I mean that in a very good way and would never want to trivialize your words or thoughts. I can’t wait to read more.

    • Georgette,

      I’d been wondering about your decision-making process. It seems the decision’s been made. Good for you.

      Your mention of the geese made me laugh. Mom had the placemats, the napkins, the napkin holder, the condiment set and the kitchen towels. What was it with those geese? They were cute enough, but my goodness.

      I did keep four of her refrigerator magnets – a cat with a ball of yarn, a pot of African violets, a nice little saying about friends and a white duck sitting in a clump of bluebonnets. She called that one her “Texas magnet”.

      I don’t take your comments as trivializing in any sense. Slowly, slowly, I’ve worked to declutter the appearance of my blog, and to arrange it in such a way that it draws people in. I’ve read studies claiming that web surfers will give a page three seconds before moving on. If that’s so, strong graphics, a clean layout and a fast load time are just as important as the message contained within the words. I don’t know if the experts in “visual rhetoric” pay much mind to Morris, but they should.

      I can tell you this – while you’re decluttering your house, I’m going to have to declutter my life. My post about the Crowley clan surfaced a cousin I’ve never known about. We’ve been emailing and comparing notes, and generally having a good time. I joined Ancestry.com today, and went straight down the rabbit hole. Adding genealogy to working and blogging is going to be quite a trick, but I need to do it while my aunt still is around to fill in some details!

      Linda

  30. Just now I’m in the process of renewing the kitchen counter in my own house. The toaster and everything else that usually has a place on the counter had to find a spot on the other cluttered flat surfaces, the stove and fridge are swung out into the floor space to the end of their power chord and my tools are also competing for floor and surface space.
    Having done quite a few projects in other folks’ personal spaces I no longer worry about whether or not something I need to move has any use or beauty.

    If this kitchen was mine alone I imagine there would be fewer ornaments. In fact since I am sawing the bulky counter sections right in the kitchen I could use some disposable covers.

    William Morris:
    I found some of his poems in “The Norton Anthology of English Literature” and read the Wikipedia entry:
    “Morris himself was perhaps the greatest British representative of what has come to be called libertarian socialism. “

    • Ken,

      I can picture it perfectly. And in fact, I have some sympathy for that sawing business and the need for covers. I’ve redone a few cabin soles, right down to the wood, and it’s not a pleasant experience.

      The best situation is when someone’s willing to completely empty the boat. Cleanups a lot easier. Otherwise, even with everything in sight wrapped in plastic or sheets, it takes longer to deal with the dust than to actually do the job. Of course it has to be done, or the end result will be all that dust stuck in all that vanish. The attraction those have for one another is remarkable.

      Morris was an interesting fellow, politically. So was Elbert Hubbard, whom I linked to up above through his magazine “The Fra”. I love Hubbard especially for his “way around” the publishers of the day. He used his printing press exactly like musicians, photographers and writers use their blogs today, going directly to his audience and gaining his success that way.

      Linda

  31. Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful

    I love that! Cherie insists on an uncluttered house and hates waste. She requires that anything which has not be used or worn within a year has to go. (My mother, by comparison, never throws out anything. She has closets full of clothes she hasn’t worn in decades and several storage buildings to hold all the neither-useful-nor-beautiful stuff she’s accumulated over a lifetime). We not only don’t have a toaster cover, we don’t even have a toaster. Cherie got rid of ours because we so rarely used it (we prefer to toast our bread in the oven).

    I don’t like clutter either so I generally approve of Cherie’s method. Except when the subject are the mountains of books which fill bookshelves in our basement and are piled high in stacks in my study. “You’re never going to read most of those books again,” she reasons. “We should get rid of them.” There’s nothing wrong with her reasoning, of course. It’s just that I don’t want to part with the books.

    Now I have a good response. “Yes dear, you’re right that those books are no longer useful to me. But I would like to keep them because I believe them to be beautiful.”

    :)

    By the way, I think the toaster cover pictured in your post is beautiful.

    • Bill,

      Of course, using Morris’s guide isn’t a guarantee against clutter. There are a lot of beautiful and useful things in this world, and there’s a certain personality type that just loves gathering them up. We call them “collectors”. (There’s a story there, too, which I shall write about one day, once I’ve decided I can stand the embarassment.)

      One kicker is that phrase, “know to be useful”. My mother was a great one for keeping things around because they “might be useful” one day. That’s a category that can stretch to include everything from empty boxes to flower pot shards. Eventually, we got to the storage unit stage ourselves, except we were renting ours. One day I sat her down and explained that, with what we were paying for rent, we could repurchase anything we got rid of and unexpectedly needed again. It was a great relief to be done with that business.

      Books are tough. I’ve sent a couple of professional libraries on their way, just because. But it’s still like cutting off an arm to turn loose of them.

      I would suggest there is a utilitarian reason for keeping yours, that complements their beauty. When the great EMP rolls through and we’re back to kerosene lanterns and gossiping over the back fence, you can be happily reading your books while the Kindle and Nook crowd sits around looking morose. ;)

      Linda

  32. Linda, I so enjoyed your wonderful words- as usual. And yes, this post brought back memories of a toaster cover but none as fine as the ones you wrote about or those of the many commenters. I think eventually my mother threw out the so-so cover or it just was worn out from so many washings.

    I reallly enjoyed reading the comments of your followers. Interesting comments from those that wrote about what they have held dear.

    I’ve got most of my parents’ farm house furniture. Round oak table, china cabinet, pie safe, dresser, and chest of drawers. And some dishes. But these items are not fancy antiques but never the less they are now useful to me since I like plain and simple.

    • Yvonne,

      Even “things” have a natural life span. That’s why I buy so many of my work clothes in resale shops. Once a one-dollar tee shirt has a certain number of varnish stains, tears or rips, it’s just not very attractive. It’s far easier to throw it away than something that was “good” at one time. Likewise, many of the cotton shorts or capris I wear finally give up the ghost from so much scooting around, laundering and so on. When that happens, out they go. “Boatyard casual” is fine as a style – “ragamuffin”, not so much.

      It’s wonderful fun to read the comments, isn’t it? There are so many experiences we share, even if the details vary from person to person. I’m beginning to be convinced that anything can be a “good topic” for a blog. I mean – toaster covers? Who knew?

      Antique furniture can be beautiful, but much of it’s too massive and overly decorated for me. Of course, as an apartment dweller I couldn’t find room for one of those pie safes I so dearly love, either. In fact, I have a chair sitting near the front door now while I try to decide: stay? or go? or stay? This could take a while.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for sharing your own memories!

      Linda

  33. Oh oh oh! I love love love this! Having recently installed a toilet downstairs in the new “storage room” under our (three-year old) house, I lingered a moment and thought, “Wow, if I ban the males in the family from using this toilet, I could put a fluffy cover over the tank, the lid, and even the seat with the matching rug. Wait, WHO does that any more?” I was very amused with my own thoughts!!! It was just one of those funny hold-over ideas from a time when those furry toilet accessories were still in vogue, and I had baby after baby in potty training relieving me of the designer obligation to have such items. Besides, WHO indeed wants to wash all that furry mess almost daily? Alas, our toilets have been naked for 30 years and naked they shall remain!

    • Bayou Woman,

      Once again, you’ve combined good taste, common sense and sweet reasonableness in one great decision. Even when we all did that, we shouldn’t have!

      I’d forgotten those darned things – they were even worse than toaster covers for creating additional work. Now that I think about it, they probably increased the germ level exponentially. How do such fads get started? I suppose the sales of towels were down (because they never wear out) and some marketing genius said, “Hey! Why don’t we…”

      Now that I think of it, wasn’t that about the same era as shag carpeting? Another bad idea. I helped pull out roomsful of that stuff after Tropical Storm Allison and learned an important life lesson: if you think it could flood – ever! – no shag carpeting.

      Now, there’s a book you could write. A guide to life in hurricane country – written slightly tongue in cheek and meant for the transplants who haven’t a clue. I could do the chapter on evacuations. I’ve got that down cold. ;)

      Linda

  34. What a fun post! I actually did laugh out loud at “To my knowledge, no one in the whole sweep of human history ever had questioned the practice of toaster-covering.”

    Our house is so small that we do try to adhere to the useful and/or beautiful maxim, but we do have to work at it. In fact, I think I’m feeling a bout of fall cleaning coming on!

    • The Bug,

      I come from the generation that always was slapping on new “Question Authority” bumperstickers, so I finally asked some questions. Who SAYS we have to have covered toasters, fuzzy toilet covers and plastic on the living room furniture? For that matter who says we can’t sit in the living room because that’s for “company”? My gosh – there was less living done in the living rooms of our 1950s neighborhood than any other room in the house!

      Fall always is the season when I’m most ready to make another run through the house, cleaning and dispersing. For one thing, my energy level really goes up after the summer’s heat. Winter-bound people love spring, but summer-bound people love fall. As long as we all get one season to enjoy our chores, it’s all good.

      Linda

  35. This is such a fun post. I once had an old farmhouse which became sort of my wayback machine. I collected metal picnic baskets, bread boxes, tablecloths, hand embroidered dish towels, etc. That toaster cover would have fit right in …

    From there, I purchased an Arts and Crafts/bungalow combo: lots of oak woodwork, green ceramic fireplace, the whole bit. I had such fun decorating it, but the marriage that existed under that roof was a disaster. I still have a collection of Elbert Hubbard booklets on the great philosophers; I’ve been thinking of blogging about them. I agree wholeheartedly with the Wm. Morris quote and have been trying to live by it for some time now. I haven’t any problem with giving things away. When I moved back to Minnesota from Santa Fe, the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity received an entire household from me. Only my most personal items and favorite books remained. I now miss some of those books… :)

    I look forward to reading more…

    • Teresa Evangeline,

      I confess I envy you an Arts & Crafts/bungalow. It’s beautiful architecture – you must have enjoyed that. I had a friend who lived in such a place down in the Berkeley flats. Just being in the house was an absolute pleasure. I’ve never known such a small house to be so full of light and warmth.

      Like you, I’ve shed a good number of possessions over the years, partly because of moving so often. But I kept my special treasures, of course, and now there’s a weird eclecticism to my “decorating”. African masks snuggle next to early American pottery, and so on. At least my life as a china dealer is over. I was lucky enough to get in and out while it still was possible to make a profit – but gosh, I miss all those beautiful dishes!

      Hubbard is so interesting – a capitalistic communitarian, as I read him. And his printing was lovely. I’m fond of Art Nouvea, too. The medallions on my sidebar and my avatar are from Mucha’s work. All of them were so talented, and still have much “useful wisdom” to offer along with the beauty they created.

      I’ve never seen a metal picnic basket. Ours was woven, and came with red, yellow and blue plates, cups and utensils. It lasted for years, as things did in those days. Planned obsolescence wasn’t a concept yet.

      Linda

  36. I did not know about W. Morris but will definitely read more about him. Less is beautiful is also the theme of Dominique Loreau’s books. I have been trying to live according to this but it is not always possible when things are so related to people, events… Recently I visited friends and had tea/coffee in their garden. Guess what was on the teapot ? A tea cover or tea cosy. I loved it. It was made out of an old fabric, soft to the touch and I must admit it was great to keep the Darjeeling tea warm. Maybe not essential but how lovely !

    I loved reading this post and remembering people, feelings, things. Thank you Linda.

    • Isa,

      Honestly, I don’t think Morris cared one whit about the number of possessions we have, as long as we consider the importance of their presence in our lives. Sometimes, as with my old Raggedy Ann doll, the beauty is in the memories, and the usefulness is simply that the object connects us with the past or with a person. There’s room for sentiment and feeling, too!

      When I still was living with the cold and snow, a good tea cozy was important if we wanted that second cup to be warm. Now, I look for good insulated glasses that will keep my ice from melting. What’s useful for one isn’t always useful for another.

      I was thinking about your wonderful travel chronicles, and it occurred to me that travel can be useful, too. In “Innocents Abroad”, Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

      Oh, isn’t that a true and beautiful saying!

      Linda

  37. I love toaster covers! I freely admit that a little part of me wants one for my very own… and yet I do not, nor have I ever, owned one. Strange isn’t it, Linda?

    I could easily craft one to be exactly what I want. It would be a thing of beauty and purpose. Beautiful, because I made it to be exactly what I wanted, and the purpose? Certainly not to keep dust off of my toast! No, its purpose would be to make me smile every time I looked at it. A reminder of times when I was young, and everyone had one. ;)

    • Lynda,

      I have no doubt that your toaster cover would make everyone who saw it smile. I imagine it quilted, with piping all around. On the other hand, if you want some real smiles, do an image search for “crocheted toaster covers”. There are cows, and dolls, and baskets of apples – all concealing the pedestrian toaster!

      Well, the day will come when you’ll have a fresh new kitchen, without any dust at all to get into your toaster. Then, you can make one of those covers “just because” – and smile and smile, for all sorts of reasons!

      Linda

      • UGH. The day there is no dust in THAT kitchen will be a day of REJOICING! Last Sunday we were in ‘spacesuits’ with respirators to get the work done. It was HOT. Pulling down those old ceilings is not a job for the faint of heart… :|

        LOL, so when it is done I will be smiling, but not because of a toaster cover. ;)

  38. This post sent my mind reeling back to a certain kitchen in the 1940s. I can still see it, smell it, feel it. I hadn’t thought of this before, but that kitchen may rank as my favorite among all the rooms in which I have spent parts of my life.

    There was a separate dining room in that house, and it was adjacent to the kitchen. There was an oak swinging door that separated the two rooms, and in the 22 years that I lived in that house, that door was never closed. The only purpose it served was to promise that it WOULD close if ever one of us asked it to. But now that you and William Morris bring this up, I realize that if Grandpa or Dad had ever assessed the usefulness of that door and decided to pull out the hinge pins and cart the thing to the garage or the basement, that little part of the house, graced by that oak grain and that gleaming varnish, would have been diminished — both then and in my memory.

    As always, thanks. I’m looking forward to the other memories you are about to inspire.

    • Charles,

      Amazing, isn’t it, how such objects as those swinging doors become like grace notes in the song of life. They’re not at all necessary, but they do add a certain lilt to our memories.

      On the other hand, if the door had been removed, the possibility of closing it would have disappeared, too. That’s another way of looking at things – not only for what they provide in the present, but for what they might provide in the future.

      Kitchens seem to equate with family as much as with food – it always was the gathering place for us. And whenever my dad and his siblings went to my grandparents’ place, the first thing they would do is head for the pantry or the refrigerator, and just stand there surveying the contents. Most of the time they never wanted anything, it just was a ritual – rooted, perhaps, in their memories of those days when the pantry wasn’t so full.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I hope I do evoke more memories for you – or, if not, at least a little interest in some of my tschotskes.

      Linda

  39. Useful or beautiful… I guess my television is out.

    As I read your post I was reminded of two things: first a museum in Ottawa that had a recreated kitchen from a suburban post-war home that Veterans Affairs built for WWII vets. I grew up in a house like that. Toaster covers were celebrated, much like quinoa is now. Second, as I read of Morris’ attention to type etc, I thought of certain books which have a note on the type at the end. Generally, I find these to be books well worth reading. Thanks for the post.

    • Allen,

      Funny, about your television. And yet I remember a time when televisions were often quite beautiful, with their tiny screens tucked into elegant wooden cabinets. They were useful, too. They brought families together when a favorite program was being broadcast, and gave the elderly and infirm a new way to engage with the world.

      So many people today just don’t realize what television was in the beginning. When we got our first tv, they weren’t even broadcasting through the night. The station came on about 7 in the morning and went off by midnight. Sometimes, we’d just sit and look at the test patterns you could use to adjust the picture. We were VERY easily entertained!

      Despite every quite rational argument for e-readers, there really just isn’t anything like a beautifully printed book – especially the old ones. The bindings, the fragrance of the pages, the slight brittleness, the designs – all so lovely. Thank you for those memories!

      Linda

  40. William Morris had it right–except for one thing; he didn’t cut any slack for the kitschy things of memory or made with tender loving hands. However, in my experience, there always comes a day when you just can’t stand the look of something that has been hanging around your house for years just because someone you love gave it to you. Wonderful memory Linda.

    • Kayti,

      Ah, but our dear Mr. Morris left us free to decide where we find beauty, and what we consider useful. Is a kitchen knife useful? Of course – it can cut meat or vegetables. Is a single, worn-out child’s shoe useful? It might be, if it serves to bring back memories each time it’s touched.

      What about a dozen empty Altoids tins? Useful enough, for paper cilps and such. But beautiful? Not exactly. On the other hand, how would you like to keep your paperclips in one of these?

      There’s really a great freedom in deciding which possessions we’ll live with and which need to fine new homes – for whatever reason.

      Speaking of – wonderful to see you’re feeling the freedom to be “out and about”. I do hope your recovery is going well, and that you’re feeling better every day.

      Linda

      • Touche! You were two steps ahead of me as usual. Thanks for the good thoughts. I’m feeling better each day now that I’m operating on a “full throttle” as my granddaughter just told me.

  41. A perfect reminder to use Mr. Morris’ filter as I sift through closets and drawers and boxes. It’s so easy to lose sight of “need”. Thank you for that lovely meander through your childhood memories.

    As for that antimacassar of mine… she’s cute, but she doesn’t save the furniture the way a simple doily would.

    About those empty Altoid tins, I came across a Pinterest series that used Altoid boxes for tiny beds for tinier toy bears and mice. So cute. I’ve been collecting the boxes since :-)

    • nikkipolani,

      The bears and mousies are cute. I found myself thinking how useful little toys like that could be for mothers with youngsters – as easy to tuck into a purse as an electronic game.

      My mom collected tins for some time. She had an entire box filled with them, which I threw out. Now that I see all the things people have done with them, I find myself thinking, “I wish I had those back.” On the other hand, I know myself well enough to know that they’d just take up space and I’d never do anything with them. I do have one I keep paperclips in, but I haven’t fancied it up. Maybe I’ll spray paint it. ;)

      Maybe we need to popularize a new furniture-saver: the antimacattar. Just try to lean back, and see what happens!

      Linda

      • The antimacattar may well be the next internet meme sensation, Linda. But I’m afraid it won’t work with Sam. She’s very skittish and, moments after I shot that photo, she bounded away.

        As for those tins, I’m itching to make some of those little toys to tuck into Samaritan Purse’s Operation Christmas Child boxes.

  42. I’m really looking forward to the next posts on everyday objects. I probably love them as much as you! I can’t tell you how much pleasure my microplane gives me nearly every day :)

    The William Morris saying is definitely to be kept in mind when clearing out.

    Your story of the toaster cover had me laughing. It reminded me of a family incident some time ago. We grew up with a set of china – I think it was given to my parents on their wedding – and one of the dinner plates had an unstable base which made it rock around when trying to use a knife and fork on it. Most annoying! There was a tremendous amount of squabbling between us as to who’s turn it was to have this plate. Later, in teenage years, when my parents went on holiday without us the same thing happened again. But this time we solved the issue by throwing the plate out of the window. Actually it was my brother who did the deed, egged on by us. We never mentioned it…until much later, when we were all grown up. My mother was puzzled as to why there were only 5 plates in that set which caused us no end of sibling glee.

    All forms of chintz – net curtains, doilies etc were definitely off limits when I was growing up. I remember it being a class issue – as it usually is in Britain. There’s that aspiring spirit again….lest we tainted by oh horror of horrors ‘suburbia’ ;)

    I’m back, as you can see, hope to be blogging again soon…Herald has delivered!

    Lovely post.

    • thinkingcowgirl,

      There! You see? That’s one of the best arguments for siblings I’ve heard. Comrades in arms. Built-in alibis. Dish-throwing! Your story reminds me of a certain friend I had who couldn’t stand for a restaurant table to do that jiggley-bit. He’d get after the problem with sugar packets under one leg until it stopped.

      When smoking was disallowed in restaurants, it caused him no end of frustration. A packet of free matches works far better as a shim than sugar packets. He thought they ought to be kept around as engineering tools and souvenirs, even if they weren’t going to let people light up.

      No netting? How did you survive? I still remember the two little lamps I had on my vanity as a young girl. They were pink, of course, and edged all around with that stuff. We thought it was great – but of course we were the generation who grew up thinking starching petticoats was a great way to spend Sunday night.

      I’m terrifically glad to see you. I was just about to send out the search patrol. Have your ears been burning? Gué was inspired to do a bit of a cow blog, and we were mentioning your herd there .

      My regards to Herald – and the rest of the girls!

      Linda

      • Aw, it’s terrifically nice to know that I’m in peoples thoughts! I’ve missed everyone too. It all got very busy and I decided to concentrate on that…I’m definitely alive!

        Love Gues cow blog – glad to know that someone is as equally fond of them as me :)

        I do sometimes I wonder about that ear burning thing…it’s quite intense sometimes!

  43. My grandmother had a crocheted toaster cover for a few years. It was later cast off perhaps because it became out of style.

    Humans have a distinct need to make things beautiful from a human perspective. I believe it began with the effort to tell a story; cave art for example. From there perhaps we learned that creating a more pleasant environment suited us. One could link this behavior to our rise to power within the plant and animal kingdom; that is the ability to create new things, some useful and some not.

    No matter what the reason many humans strive to create beautiful items from doilies to sculpture. We call it art.

    • WildBill,

      There’s no question that fashions exist in home furnishings as well as in clothing and so on. A whole industry exists with the sole purpose of convincing people their furniture, draperies, carpets and wall colors are “out of style”. On the other hand, some things just wear out, and other things that seemed such a good idea at the time prove themselves to be not just useless but irritating trouble-makers!

      But you’re spot on about the human longing for beauty. You’re right about fitting an environment to a person, too. I’ll admire glass-and-steel NY penthouses with the best of them – but live in one? No, thank you. It’s taken me years to sort out my own style, but I’m happy with it. Changes have been few and generally small, and it probably will be as it is until I die.

      Of course, one of the great blessings of life is that all of us, no matter how talented or artistic, can enjoy the art of the world. There’s beauty enough surrounding us every day, if we just take the time to see and appreciate it.

      Linda

  44. Morris would love this post — it is both useful AND beautiful. These are words I am trying to hold to my heart as I embark on the great purge of 2013-14. I would add to it, though “…of simply love.” There are few things I love. They are neither useful or beautiful, yet they mean the world.

    The toaster cover is an interesting and wonderful parable. I never quite got that one, either — the tea cozy at least made sense! But I know from experience we have to learn to part with things in our own way and at our own time, which can often cause ridicule or comment (or the quiet, eagle eye) from others. But in time…

    We have an expression in our house — art and craft or arts and crapht. I try to do the first, but I’m sure there are more than a few examples of the latter within! And one person’s craft is another’s crapht! Dilemma…

    Morris was a wise man. I love so much from that period. My Stickley dining table and lamp are two of my most precious possessions (and probably the only furniture worth much, save the china cabinet!). They hold and increase their value because they are beautiful and functional.

    I may well return to this one again as I start the Purge. I’ll need the reminder!

    • jeanie,

      I love that you refer to it as the Great Purge of 2013-14. That’s a reasonable and realistic approach! Heck – it’s taken me five years of constant culling to get the china situation under control. For every one piece I decide I can part with, there are five that just have to stay with me.

      I’ll insist on it again: Morris said we should have things which we KNOW to be useful (the toilet brush) and BELIEVE to be beautiful. He’s putting the responsibility smack into our hands. Never mind those external standards – if we believe those six Mason jars filled with marbles to be beautiful, lined up along that window sill, so be it. We believe them beautiful, so they stay.

      It’s worth noting the reverse can be true. I had an original oil painting that everyone oohed and aahed over. They thought it was gorgeous. I thought it was the ugliest damned thing I’d ever seen, even though it was gifted to me by someone quite dear to me. As soon as she died, it was gone. ;)

      Love Arts and Crapht! That’s the perfect expression for a certain reality we all recognize. The souvenir shops are full of it, especially down on Galveston Island. Still, it sells.

      Speaking of the trite – it’s become terribly trite to say, “This is the first day of the rest of your life”, but it truly is. Well, the second. It may feel like just another weekend now, but wait until Monday!

      Linda

  45. Just wonderful!! I adore Morris, and of course the Arts and Crafts… And I’m constantly trying to live by its tenants. Purge is my middle name. Difficult in this society and country, but certainly not impossible (especially for the artistic temperaments, wink, who spend their money on ART).

    I love your toaster story / segue — growing up in the military, we were forced to move with sparse holdings. So no toaster, and no cover! Heh! Heck, I didn’t even learn how to use a dishwasher till the age of 30.

    • FeyGirl,

      It’s really true – moving helps to keep “stuff” under control. On the other hand, it took a long, long time for me to get sufficiently tired of moving boxes of books around to finally start getting rid of them. Now, they all have fine homes, and my back feels much better!

      Morris is wonderful. Of course I’d love to be living in a (paid-for) Craftsman bungalow with Stickney furniture and such, but that never will happen. Choices have consequences, as they say, and my choice of work means I’ll just work on wood, rather than live with it. Still, the principles of the movement can be applied in any environment – and sometimes improve it mightily!

      Linda

  46. A great scene setting introduction, Linda, and one that takes me back to my childhood in a way, although there was no toaster cover in our kitchen. And that made me think if we did have toaster covers in those days in Australia. Although I can’t recall seeing one in any other house, either, my conclusion is that they must have existed back then, as an Internet search on “toaster covers Australia” brought up 650,000 pages, including sites for businesses that do made to measure covers for anything in your kitchen, and in other rooms of your house, too. A search without a country name in it brings up 4.7 million results, so if you ever repent, but can’t find a toaster cover, you now know where to look!

    I have to say that toilet covers (a pet hate of mine) came to mind, before I saw mention of them in the comments. I hadn’t set eyes on one for decades until I came to Chile, but thankfully, they’re few and far between here.

    PS. I’m sure I recall you using that William Morris quote in a post devoted to him, and I’ve loved it ever since. I’d better start putting it into practice, then, but (as some others have mentioned in the comments) not when it comes to books. They all stay, no question…

    • Andrew,

      I’m just laughing – isn’t it fun to start exploring such things as “toaster cover Australia” and see what pops up? I was surprised myself to see how many stores in this country still sell them, especially as part of sets for the kitchen. I don’t see repentance on the horizon, but I’ll keep the tip in mind!

      As for those toilet covers – and all the fuzzy accoutrements that came along with them – may they be gone forever. Honestly, I don’t know what came over our society in those days, to think such things were necessary. I suppose it was nothing more than someone’s genius marketing campaign. The old saying is “necessity is the mother of invention”, but the reverse is equally true. First comes the invention and then comes the effort to convince everyone it’s a necessity.

      I had such fun putting together the next post – a tribute not only to Morris’s wisdom, but also to the craftsmen who put his precepts into practice in their work. I’ve faced the same issue as you with your books, although my collection was china. The culling’s been going on for five years, and needs to be continue. But just as every one of your books is useful, every piece of my china is beautiful. What to do?!

      Linda

  47. If you want more examples of this, Linda, just go to another country. My experience is of course, Asia. There are Kleenex box covers, car headrest covers, car windshield covers from blocking sunlight when you park, restaurant seat covers, where the whole chair is covered to keep it clean… just to name a few.

    This brings to another point, the concept of form and function, which is culturally defined, and esp. aesthetics, not to say subjectively defined. Someone could have gone up to an art object in your home, say, a painting, and asked the same questions your young friend asked: What’s this? What do you do with it? Function too, is often subjectively defined, and, intangible when measured.

    • Arti,

      Your comments about subjectivity point to the wisdom of Morris’s advice. He doesn’t say, “Have nothing in your house which the decorating mavens in New York say you should have”, or “Have nothing in your house which would be universally useful”. Instead, he gives us the freedom to make our own decisions about beauty and utility, and then to live with them happily.

      I smiled at your comments about “everything” being covered. There was a time in this country when that was true, too. I remember the car seat covers, furniture covers, and so on. I suspect part of that was a response to life in the Depression. People who suddenly were able to have nice things again meant to keep them that way.

      It’s actually a pretty common impulse. When I got my new car, one of the first things I did was find a color-coordinated throw to put over the driver’s seat, to keep the sanding dust off. ;)

      Linda

  48. Morris is cool (trying to catch up on all my reading…so far behind)
    Had to laugh over toaster covers – all that embroidery and cross stitch – my mom put it on everything! Not sure Morris would have given a thumbs up

    • Phil,

      Oh, I don’t know. I think that acanthus design might have looked pretty good on a toaster cover. He might not have thought it useful, but I’ll bet he would have given thumbs-up to whatever housewife decided his design was beautiful enough to grace her kitchen!

      Linda


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