My maternal grandmother lived in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She furnished her house with Chinese snuff bottles, lamps made of Japanese dolls, and oyster silk bed-hangings. Many of her belongings had been acquired in travels with her second husband, the Austro-Hungarian named Rene. Everywhere the faint smell of Dior perfume, especially upstairs. Many things rustled.
Grandmama hung two things in her entry hallway. One, a set of harness bells on a leather strap to replace her doorbell. Any time someone rang, bells jingled.
Two, this mirror. To check hair, face, collar, before we left the house. You know, to make sure everything was “good-looking” enough.
When my grandmother died, my mother, uncle, and aunt, met at her house to divide the contents. The mirror wound up in my house, along with one silver bowl and several porringers, a few Chinese snuff bottles, those harness bells, two wooden chairs, and a wood frame bed. Apparently the mirror is from the Federalist period. But I don’t know anything more. Nor does my mother. Nor, even, does her highly efficient sister, otherwise known as Aunt Linda. The only appraisal the siblings did was for estate tax purposes, and as such, lacks detail.
High WASP family furniture is like that. Perhaps we’re not alone in the lack of detail, however it happens.
I looked up Federalist mirrors on eBay. This piece looks most like what I’ve got hanging in the small hall of my small California ranch house. So perhaps I’ve a mirror from the 1800’s. Perhaps made in Boston. In any case, it comes with sphinxes, lion’s feet and some very fiendish cherubs. I believe the photo will enlarge when clicked, for cherub-viewing.
I am enormously fond of this thing. I wonder how, if one’s grandmother didn’t happen to own anything similar, being perhaps neither the type for fiendish cherubs nor resourced accordingly, one might replicate the experience. Let us deconstruct. Much of my affection is easily come by:
- You can tell no machine put this thing together. Too many crooked noses. Artisans are on the rise in the Internet economy. Support them.
- I know where it came from, the mirror’s got more emotional history than “I went to Pottery Barn.” Which argues for house goods shopping in small stores, on Main Streets, on travels.
- It’s got some seriously quirky styling. Cherubs? And sphinxes? There’s something to be said for scattering one or two over-the-top pieces amongst one’s furniture.
- Antiques give a 1950’s California ranch house hope, if slight, of a style statement beyond, “And then many people moved to California so we built lots of identical little houses very quickly.” The first principle of High WASP decorating is Eclecticism. Necessity built the sensibility, but the sensibility became necessary.
- I actually like the Federalist period itself. I enjoy every era in which a society struggles to incorporate history. The Renaissance is another such. These mirrors can be obtained now, as antiques in places like The Federalist Antiques, and reproductions from, among others, The Federalist. Whereas I would not furnish a house house entirely in period antiques or reproductions, if you’re going for eclectic, I have no scorn for reproductions. Especially reproductions of a style that is so, um, stylistic. I’d love to see this in a modern glass house.
- The mirror belonged to my somewhat outrageous grandmother. The value is not all in affection, I admit. Grandmama could be difficult. But as I get older, I see my own story from more of a distance, and the places where mine intersects with the women in my family become clearer. Icons can be lifted from most families, and installed as reminders of us our particular task.
Finally, and more conflicted, I do derive some sense of identity satisfaction from my origin in a family of means. I confess. As though some of their glamor, and in particular the achievement that led to their means, rubs off on me.
What about family pride? Useful? Valuable, even? Certainly for a family just arrived from further shores, hustling in the American way to make good. So when that hustle happened a few centuries ago, how to recognize past generations’ accomplishments? Especially because, and here’s the rub, those accomplishments took place in a time when human rights were weak?
These days I’m in the mood to stay proud of past achievement and try to live a present of merit. A leavening of humility and constant intent. I take guidance from your comments here. Thank you. Let’s assume family pride can be a good thing.
Grandmama donated so much to charity that at her death, her children found bushels of letters from various causes, heaped on her desk, sofa, and office floor. Nobody’s perfect. You just have to keep on trying, and maybe leave a mirror. They make good legacies, as both furniture and metaphor. And metaphor is as helpful as duct tape, in a pinch.
I’m hoping someone here knows more than I about the piece itself. Fiendish cherubs and all.