A House With Good Character
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
The people here at Daniel House are big fans of etiquette, which is why we regularly turn to Emily Post’s seminal work Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home for guidance. Often, her writings seem more than a little uppity, but we were fascinated by the way she suggested home appointments imply something about its owner’s character.
Post’s chapter entitled “The Well-Appointed House,” doesn’t read like a contemporary article on emerging home design trends. With the old monthly magazine format rapidly giving way to daily, even hourly digital communication of up and coming furnishings for every room as if they are as important as world news, we’re left feeling our homes, lovely though they were ten minutes earlier, has gone stale. There’s an impetus for constant reinvention that never really allows a home to come into its own before its furnishings are kicked to the curb.
By contrast, Post’s long chapter talks relatively little about how things in a home should appear and much more about the importance of their longevity and suitability to context. In fact, most of the chapter has very little to do with inanimate furnishings at all and much more with the importance of staffing enough servants of the right type and treating them with dignity.
Almost no one has a staff of servants today. Why would we? First, most of their roles in the home have long been filled by labor saving devices. Even of social secretaries are rarer now that we’ve acclimated to Google reminders. Next, the very notion of servanthood seems against our current understanding of equality. That someone should be constantly and overtly in our service makes us uncomfortable. Post describes that, even in the 1920’s, Americans considered the roles of servants as somewhat beneath other professions of similar pay. Her thoughts on this discrimination were interesting; she felt the idea held by the middle class that a person of lesser economic standing should derive greater pride from operating his or her own shop than from a service role was a falsehood. One might argue with her, suggesting that a shop owner had the opportunity to advance him or herself, while the servant’s role remained just that.
Still, Post’s suggestion was that through this servant-master/mistress relationship, the servant gained exposure they could not have had elsewhere, engaging with cultivated people, traveling frequently and developing their own cultivation in the process. She also saw that very often both parties in this sort of relationship developed rich, long-lasting friendships. Certainly, this was not always the case, but it does present a rather lovely vision of humanity. It’s reminiscent of the picture we saw in the mixed economy of multi-storied apartment living before the invention of the elevator. Today, a penthouse apartment always signifies the biggest pocketbook, but before the convenience of the elevator, apartments on the attic level of even a fairly low-rise building cost significantly less than their lower counterparts. As a result, people of widely varied income lived together under one roof.
In the apartment case, the societal confluence likely remained superficial. People living behind different doors don’t really need to interact with one another if they don’t care to. But the servant and master had to interact to get anything accomplished. In these relationships, the gap between rich and poor that grows ever more tangible in our country could be bridged to a level in which, at very least one understood something of the daily circumstance of the other. Post said it was evident whether a family treated its staff well by the frequency of turnover and desirability of positions in their home. While we might imagine a servant was always underlying in this historic relationship, a family’s reputation could well have fallen under scrutiny if its servants were said to be poorly treated. The point here is this: for Post, a well-appointed home very definitely included beautifully curated objects and deliciously prepared foods, but foremost, it dealt with the healthy relationships amongst the people entrusted to run the home and those entrusting them. The state of a family’s staff was, in some sense, a reflection of its deep inner character or lack thereof. Today, our devices have removed our need for lots of human interaction, giving us less and less opportunity to cultivate a depth of character able to dignify others through our interactions with them. It is a depth of personal character that leads to an ability to curate a home worth returning to, not a knowledge of what’s trending this moment.
Develop Your Character and The Goodness of Your Home Will Follow!
Peter & Alexander