At the outset, I must mention my closest friend Charles M. Greene, “The Greene Man.” He is my “main man” at least 90 percent of the time. I must give him recognition because the subject of this column comes from him. Last week, I told him I was in a hurry to get home, as a painter was coming to provide an estimate for painting our kitchen. He mentioned an exhibit at a local museum featuring the interior of a home in Harlem. He commented on how different homes were decorated in the past in comparison to homes today. He suggested this would be a great column for me. So, Charlie, my good friend, thanks for the suggestion.
How many of you grew up in homes where your parents resorted to protecting the living room furniture with plastic covers? I suspect many of you recall those covers on your sofas, love seats or armchairs. There was no way to remove them short of cutting them off. Do you recall sliding off of the plastic covers or perspiring during the summer because of the heat they generated? My dear mother swore by these covers; they eliminated any concern abut stains or dirt, especially when children were permitted to sit in the living room. Those who have plastic-covered furniture today must forgive me. I suspect most of you will agree that such furniture is unacceptable in any living room today. However, such covers were viewed as necessary to enable furniture to last over an extended period of time, back in the day.
I only know a handful of people today who have wall-to-wall carpet and ceiling-to-floor draperies in their living rooms. These draperies had a sheer interior curtain. Draperies were viewed as classy; they “dressed up” the living room. Do you recall the Venetian blinds of the past? I know some of you go back to the days of the wood slats; if you do, then you will recall the “restringing” of the blinds. That was a real task. Recall the Venetian blinds with metal slats, with edges so sharp you could easily cut your fingers.
I clearly remember the huge mirrors used as accessories in the past. They were usually over the sofa, or “couch,” as it was known in my home. They covered a large portion of the wall space above the sofa. These large mirrors gave a spacious appearance to living rooms. And I cannot ignore those small mirrors that were on walls throughout one’s home. They could be found in the vestibule, dining room, hallway and the wall along the stairs from the first to the second floor. Many of these small mirrors had frames that often had been painted gold.
Family photographs were everywhere; on the coffee table; end tables; mantles; and the radiator covers. With regard to pictures, if you reflect on your living room walls back in the late 1960s, I know you will recall pictures of Jesus, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Those who have carried this display of pictures to the present have now added Barack Hussein Obama.
Another familiar item was the framed piece with the words, “God Bless Our Home.” Perhaps there was an upright piano that had been handed down from one generation to another. You might also remember decorative pillows lining the sofa and large pillows in special areas on the floor. Plants, artificial or real, were also important in home decorating. Lamps ranged from the large table lamps to floor lamps, usually found in the corner of a room. Other items you might recall in home furnishing back in the day include cathedral-type radios, candy dishes on the coffee table, and ashtrays. While my father did not permit smoking in our home, we did have several decorative ashtrays in the living room. Were there knickknack shelves or a curio cabinet? Did you have a cast iron doorstop? My parents had a cast iron buffalo and a cast iron dog. Often a coat rack, or at least coat hooks, could be found in your vestibule or hallway adjacent to the living room. A console television set with a radio and record player completed the decor for your living room. Most of these would not find there way into our homes today because they just do not fit; they are too old-fashioned. Our modern way of life has made them obsolete. Still, many of them, in particular, our Zenith console, will be part of my memories of our living room of back in the day.
I grew up in a large three-story home in West Philadelphia. A long hallway led from our vestibule to our kitchen. Besides the plastic on our living room sofa and armchairs, plastic was also found on the floor. Once we graduated to wall-to-wall carpeting, my mother purchased a plastic runner that covered the hallway carpeting from the vestibule to the kitchen door. I would guess it was at least 50 feet long. This plastic runner was removed on Saturday evening to display the carpet.
I used the expression, “graduating to wall-to-wall carpet.” Well, some of you will recall how floors were covered in the past. Linoleum was a standard decorating practice; not any linoleum, but cheap linoleum. This type was so cheap that newspaper was placed under it to give it support and enable it to last. Some of you may also recall what families did prior to the linoleum days; I know someone can go back in time to the days when families used that ugly brown paint to cover their wood floors; no, not hardwood floors, just plain wood. It was during the era of the painted floors that throw rugs were popular. Then there was shag carpeting, popular in home decorating back in the day.
Can you think about any room, particularly the living room, in a home in the past without seeing wallpaper? It was everywhere! There was wallpaper with large floral prints, or perhaps you recall wallpaper with bold, wide stripes. I love wallpaper, but it seems to be a decorating technique buried in the past. In fact, wallpaper hanging is a dying craft. Just try to find a paperhanger today.
I recognize that some things closely related to home decorating in the past can still be found in homes today. Without a doubt, some homes have a grandfather’s clock today. They have them even though they dwarf some rooms and appear to be out of place. I doubt, however, that many homes have cuckoo clocks today. Chandeliers are also found in homes today, particularly in dining rooms. However, those gaudy, glass chandeliers, as beautiful as they are, have become things of the past, except in older homes with high ceilings seeking to provide a throwback look.
It has been some time since I have been in a home that had plates hanging on walls in dining rooms. Also, can you recall the last time you visited a home and saw the dining room table laid out with china and silver in a manner that suggested dinner was being served? Now, reflect on the breakfront in your dining room. I bet it contains a few of your favorite dinner sets. I suspect you will recall the term “china closet.” Whenever I think of this piece of furniture, my mind goes to my mother’s collection of salt and pepper shakers that she proudly displayed in her china closet, back in the day.
Do you have a stepstool in your kitchen? What about an oversized wooden fork and spoon hanging on the wall? When I was a kid, washing machines were typically found in the kitchen. I doubt this is where you wash your clothes today. Are there heavy quilts on your beds? Does anyone still sleep on bunk beds? Is there a Bible on the nightstand by your bed?
Of course home décor is significantly different today than in the past. Given my love for revisiting the past in my column, I admit that there are some things our parents and grandparents did to improve the appearance of their homes that appeals to me today. Thus, I would not hesitate to return to some of their decorating styles that were indicative of style and taste and were characteristic of home life, back in the day.