Stuck in the Middle: A Story of Vintage Silver

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Downton-Abbey-Dining Table

The Dining Room from the BBC series Downton Abbey...let's revise our expectations a bit.

A couple of months ago, a very dear friend gave me a fantastic vintage copy of Mary & Russel Wright’s Guide to Easier Living: 1,000 Ways to Make Housework Faster, Easier, and More Rewarding. The name alone is both intriguing and terrifying…they thought of 1,000 things to make housework easier! But I digress, the Wrights were famous mid-Century designers, Russel in particular is very well known for his dinnerware and furniture. The Wright’s were passionate advocates of a radical and efficient restructuring of domestic life. This book is their manifesto for life in a new era, unfortunately the paradigm shift they advocated didn’t quite get completed and now we are stuck in the middle.

How Did We Get Here?

Let’s just put this into context for a moment, and please forgive the sweeping generalizations. They make the academic in me cringe, but it’s a blog not my PhD.

Russel was born in 1904 and I presume Mary was of a similar age (I could not find her date of birth, although she died at a young age in 1950). They had been children during the First World War, and quite possibly had relatives or family friends who fought and died in the war. WWI is a widely accepted turning point in the lives and privileges of the European aristocracy. Virtually a whole generation was wiped out, by among other things the introduction of a new and very efficient technology the machine gun (10 million military, 7 million civilian deaths). Then came the flu pandemic with 19 million dead, there was a bit of bright news during the Roaring ’20’s but that was eclipsed by the Great Depression and World War II (military and civilian casualty death estimates range from 50-70 million people).

The reality of the post-WWII life necessitated change whether you wanted it or not.

A “Cruel” Inheritance

By professional (he was an Industrial Engineer, she was a Designer) and personal circumstances (as evidenced by the dedication quotes below) the Wright’s were unabashed advocates of change.

“We dedicate this book to: Dorcas Hollingsworth, who for years served our household with great artistry, and whom we miss very much. On the other hand, if she hadn’t left us, we would never have written this book…And to: the whole present generation, who will never have a Dorcas Hollingsworth.”

– the dedication of Guide to Living

Downton Abbey - Servants

The massive majority of us don't have an army of servants, we're going to have to make some compromises.

“The entire fiction of ‘gracious living’ is a cruel charade, imposed on us by a set of standards we should have discarded long ago. We are victimized by the illusion of generations who had the kind of servants we do not have, afraid to change anything in the interest of comfort, work-saving, or better family living, hearing inside our very walls the scornful whisper that we can’t afford, or don’t know how, or haven’t the taste to do things “properly”.

The truth is the American woman of today does not live in the elegance that books of etiquette prescribe or the advertising industry would have us believe (author’s note: are you listening Don Draper?). She cuts corners and makes compromises in order to get her work done, but she does so as if it were a secret vice.”

– Chapter 1 Home, Sweet, Home

A Strange Thing Happened on the Way to the Party

The Guide to Easier Living becomes particularly fascinating (and relevant to this post) where expands beyond the boundaries of strict housework by devoting attention to “The New Hospitality”.

The Wright’s still wanted us to have friends over and throw a party. In fact with all the new leisure time an efficient household would give is, there would be plenty of time for friends. Even our parties were to be efficient – advocating using disposable knives, forks, plates, cups, and napkins.

Their point was you can still have people over just don’t pretend you live in a manor house and have a footman for each guest when you entertain. I believe this is the crucial point in time for silver…it is an obvious link to an unrealistic aristocratic lifestyle. So the silver got packed up and saved for “best”. Presumably you did indeed embark on The New Hospitality and actually have people over.

But that doesn’t quite seem to be the reality. Two contradictory trends have left us stuck in the middle, in no man’s land.

  1. The amount of work expands to fill the time available. Despite all the time saving and improvements in technology, we don’t have more leisure time. In most households the adults work outside the home, and even in ones where someone does stay home there are a myriad of demands on their available time.
  2. The ghost of aristocratic parties past and the hibernating silver in the attic are still the images people draw on when the word “entertaining” crosses their minds. Gracious living is still associated with the “old standards” that the Wright’s argue “we should have discarded long ago.”
The image below is one I pinned on my beloved Pinterest.

This image certainly suggests that although we not have the time, apparently we want to wait until we can do it in a very time intensive and complicated fashion.

Look at all those implements, that means 5 separate courses. I don’t know about you but I’m not cooking 5 courses (regardless of anything else, the timing alone would be a nightmare) and serving them and then cleaning up afterwards.

They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody? – Princess Diana

Despite the use of a slightly tongue-in-cheek quote, I think Diana’s advice could be applied to this situation. I suggest a compromise, because although I agree with a lot of what the Wright’s have to say, they went a little too far.

  • Their (understandable) love affair with the newest technology has not been without troubles of it’s own. Single use, disposable products may be super handy for cleaning up your house after a party, but the longer term environmental effects have been very negative. Have you ever heard about the island of plastic debris in the Pacific? Quite apart from being unsightly, do you know how many creatures it kills every year?
  • Equally, clinging to expectations of entertaining suggested by the place setting image above are ridiculous.

Let’s grant ourselves permission to

  • Use precious, and often meaningful, pieces like our silver when we entertain and not worry about it being polished to a blinding finish (which incidentally is not how well cared for silver looks).
  • Acknowledge the reality of our busy lives and put the silver in the dishwasher, instead of keeping it locked away because we don’t have time to hand-wash it.
  • Have people over when the house won’t pass a butler’s white glove inspection.
  • Consider any occasion with family and friends as best – because it’s the people not the occasion that is most important.
  • Step away from all the pre-conceived notions and serve take-out on the good china while using a different fork by every plate.
The holidays are fast approaching adding more items to our already lengthy to-do lists. I say ditch the pre-conceived notions (and maybe even the people who might voice a “scornful whisper”) and nurture the holiday spirit by sharing food and hospitality with others. It’s an age-old tradition that’s well worth adapting and keeping around.

PS

Phew, epic post there. On the topic of the Wright’s book, while some of it is no longer relevant, other parts are still excellent. I’ve been implementing their suggestions of maximizing the use of space in closets for example.  A book written in 1950 is totally relevant to my house built in 1942.  Much more so, than many modern how-to books with images of vast walk-in closets!

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7 thoughts on “Stuck in the Middle: A Story of Vintage Silver

  1. Heather @ new house new home new lifeNo Gravatar

    Found your blog through Sandy, the Reluctant Entertainer and I’m glad I did.

    I agree with your statements so much. Those of us who like to entertain find ourselves caught between the old world expectations of the past and the new casual way of life. Five courses is too much to expect in this day and age, even for those of us lucky enough not to have to work outside the home. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a dinner party a lovely event by pulling out the good china, the silverware and setting a nice table. These are the things we try to do on a regular basis. Afterall, why do we have nice things if not to use them?

    1. Silver MagpiesNo Gravatar

      Heather –

      Welcome to Silver Magpies! Thank you so much for commenting. Yes, I firmly believe that if we are fortunate enough to have these things then we should use them…frequently…in a way that best suits our individual lifestyle.

      Thanks again.
      Nan

  2. Jane NaylorNo Gravatar

    Do you think the servants would have washed the silver and just polished it occasionally in those days? I imagine they’d know how easy it was to care for and this would be passed on as they trained new servants. I wonder if this knowledge was then lost to many families at this time when the servants left as the ex-servants may not have had silver and the gentry had the silver but with no experience of looking after it. Or maybe they had the knowledge but a desire to minimise the menial work?

    1. SilverMagpiesNo Gravatar Post author

      Jane –

      That is an excellent question. I know in large estates (think Downton Abbey) the silver was the exclusive domain of the butler and his footmen. Many scholars of silver lament the fact that silver from the 18th and 19th century was over-polished with often harsh substances to maintain a mirror bright finish. This often damages subtleties in the design and after an extended period of such treatment is will also wear away major features as well.

      In a smaller household with not such numerous staff I do not know how the cleaning vs. polishing issue would have been dealt with. I will have to investigate.

      Your social commentary on skills with no silver vs. silver with no skills also bears reflecting (ha) upon.

  3. Jennie@gotmyreservationsNo Gravatar

    I am so thrilled to be able to find your blog through The Reluctant Entertainer. I not only treasure my family silver, I use it all the time. It’s the perfect “green” product because it will last forever. It can go outside on the patio, it can travel to a party without fear of breaking, and it always looks beautiful, even if it’s not perfectly polished. I gleefully accept others’ silver castoffs and grab it at garage sales, no matter how tarnished. My friends have learned to accept my silver without comment, so people should never be afraid to use their silver.

    1. SilverMagpiesNo Gravatar Post author

      Hello Jennie –

      Thanks for your comment. So glad your found me via Sandy at Reluctant Entertainer. She and I are very much on the same page, just coming at it from different starting points!

      Yes, vintage silver is very green. I like to think of it as a time traveller sailing along through hundreds of years and I’m just fortunate enough to be a companion for part of the ride. :~)

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