Friday, July 21, 2017  

Southern Discomfort
On the Matter of Interior Decorating  

Time was when men made all the decisions regarding what went into one’s house, and more importantly, where. Time was.

Nowadays, unfortunately, men have abdicated this responsibility, along with many others sad to say, including such responsibilities as the foreign policy of the United States, to women. Some would argue that this frees men up for more important things to concern themselves with, such as, should one have chromium wheel covers for the 1967 Mustang, or stock issue?

Absolute control over interior decoration was the male preserve in George Washington’s time. After all, while it was
the Age of the Enlightenment, it was concurrently also the Age of Absolutism. Just ask Frederick the Great. Well, you can’t ask him ’cause he’s dead.

In any case, at Mount Vernon, Monticello, Gunston Hall, no woman ever ever ever said where a table was to go, where the chairs were to be placed, what pictures were to be hung on the walls, what carpets were to be laid, or anything else under the sun regarding the interior arrangement of one’s principal residence.

I can hear it now: “George, don’t you think that picture of cousin Sally would look good over the sideboard?” “No, Martha, I don’t. Now don’t you think the kitchen help need your attention right now? Furthermore, at the moment I am busy with a cabinet meeting, if you don’t mind.”

Lord, how things have changed. Recently, there was a great cartoon in The New Yorker showing two birds building a nest. The female bird says to the male bird who is about to place a twig in the process, “You’re not going to put that there, are you?”

I believe that this sad state of affairs is due to the domestication of the male in the long and vast and endless period called the nineteenth century. For most of the nineteenth century Queen Victoria reigned and her husband Prince Albert had little to do other than amuse himself with social improvements, such as consult Sir Thomas Crapper on the design and function of the newly minted flush toilet. Believe me, it was Victoria who decided where the pictures were hung and how the rooms were appointed. In short, she wore the pants.

This model was quickly taken up in America by that maven of taste, Edith Wharton, who besides being a first-rate novelist, was also a self-appointed interior designer and major battle-axe. If Victoria reigned over a vast empire on which the sun never sat, Edith Wharton reigned over an equally vast empire of taste. No one dared cross Edith Wharton in matters of interior decoration. She made Martha Stewart look like a shrinking violet by comparison. Indeed, one has to admit that actually there is no comparison.

Men were sent packing. They may have retained control over the billiards room, the smoking room, or that lovely male preserve, “the growlery.” But even in those hallowed and sanctified chambers, the women were coming with their floral prints, chintz slipcovers, and antimacassars. Essentially, the male domain was reduced in size, just as Napoleon reduced the size of many German principalities.

Thomas Jefferson must have been insufferable to many women. Nothing went into Monticello without his approval. And, once it got there, nothing went up on the walls, on the floors, anything, everywhere, without the Sage of Monticello giving his approval.

But then, Thomas Jefferson never met Edith Wharton, or even more formidable, Martha Stewart.

Men of Tidewater Virginia, Revolt! You have nothing to lose but your chains! Take a page from the George Washington playbook. Tell Martha to go back and supervise the kitchen. That William Kent sideboard is not going in the powder room, but is commanding the lead position in the dining room.

And those over the top floral arrangements? Don’t even get me started.

My wife and I have come to the following arrangement. She is in charge of the out of doors: gardens, landscape design, walks and such. I have complete and absolute domain of everything inside. Period.

And when she notices a new print on the walls, or a new beaten up eighteenth-century table, and says, “You’re not
going to put that there are you?”  I, naturally, reply,  “Oh, no. Of course not. I just haven’t found the right place for it.” 
To which, she replies, “Well, you better work on that.”
“Yes, dear.”  Alas, how did Washington and Jefferson and all the rest do it?