Inexpensive Table Decorations

This is the first article in June of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on June 6, 1909, and is an article on the development of flowers as centrepieces.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

Inexpensive Table Decorations

The fashion of decorating the family table every day in the year is so modern that middle-aged reader will recollect the birth and growth of the custom. It is not 30 years since I heard a purse-proud boor order a footman to remove from the center of his heavily laden board a vase of wild azaleas his daughter had brought in from the country, and “not to litter up the table with any more such trash.”

“The woman folks may admire to see ‘em around,” he continued to the one person who did not belong to his household. “For my part, I wasn’t fetched up to have weeds along with my vittles!”

Our forbears appreciated the fitness and attractiveness of floral ornaments upon high days and holidays. The masculine members of the family took to the innovation slowly. So they entered gradually and reluctantly into the new universal practice of setting flowers upon Protestant pulpits. One shocked elderly communicant in a sanctuary noted for the beauty of the floral offerings gracing the chancel every Sunday once wrote to me of his dislike to “the pines and posies that were distracting the minds of worshipers.”

A Historic Table.

“Other times, other manners!” Before we go into the discussion of the subject indicated by our title, let me indulge myself and the curious younger reader by copying from an old letter written by an eminent Virginia jurist to his daughter almost 100 years ago. It describes one of the highest of the holidays aforesaid, to wit, a wedding:

“We went in to supper at 11 o’clock, the ceremony having taken place at 8. The table was extremely handsome. The centerpiece was a cake, richly iced, 18 inches across and 10 inches in height, surrounded by a treble-curled fringe of silver paper. In the hollow in the middle of this cake, left by the funnel of the mould, was planted a slender holly tree, four feet high, hung with fancy baskets and wreaths and streamers of silver filigree, and closely sprinkled with red berries. At one end of the table was a tall pyramid of jelly and ice cream; at the other, one of candied oranges. They were built about smaller silver rods, and to these were fastened silver paper festoons cut exquisitely into patterns as fine as lace, connecting into patters as fine as lace, connecting the pyramids with the tree. The long table was lighted, as were all the rooms, by wax candles, in tall silver candlesticks, hung with tissue paper cut into every imaginable device, then dipped in spermaceti to make it transparent.”

A Change of Style.

All this reads like barbaric magnificence unbecoming the dawn of the 19th century and a republic. There is a touch of the meretricious in the tissue paper dipped in spermaceti. The latter-day critic in condemning this notes disapprovingly the absence of all floral decorations, unless the evergreen treelet be recokoned as one. Yet it is not very long since we carried “mixed bouquets” to parties without caviling at the setting of the tawdry paper lace encircling the stems, and, as I said just now, a shorter time since the daily custom of enlivening sober family meals with flowers and leaves became general. So general is it that in six out of 10 homes occupied by the moderately well-to-do the table has a bare and comfortless look when the vase or bowl of living greenery and blossoms is not in place.

Nevertheless, it is not blossom time all the year round, and florists raise their prices as the mercury goes down and the eyes, wearied by the prevalling leaden hue of sky and earth, crave relief that is likewise a promise of more genial season.

“Potted plants are so unsatisfactory!” mourns a correspondent whose sick chamber would be a bower of beauty if the flowers showered upon her by sympathizing friends could be coaxed into continual bloom.

“I have written to her what I now say to the housewife whose table has a rueful expression when there are no flowers to grace the meal:

“Turn your attention to ferns and miniature jardineres.”

A tiny terra-cotta jardiniere filled with garden soil upon a substratum of broken pottery or pebbles, that prevent the mould from caking at the bottom, may be set with ferns that will live all the winter through. If you care to cover the box with a bell-glass, the life and the brighter verdure of the fern are doubly assured.

One of the most interesting table decorations I have is a globular vessel, with a top of the same material. In the bottom is put, every October, a bed of forest moss an inch or so in thickness. In this are set partridge-berry shoots studded with berries. The top is then laid in its place and the lobe is brought indoors. Every Saturday morning I take it into the bathroom and fill the globe with fresh water, leave it thus for a minute—no longer—and drain the water off leaving the moss soaked through. All winter the berries have remained bright, and wee, threadlike shoots trail themselves over the moss, pressing emulously against the glass as the spring comes on, I have reproduced, in milature, a woodland nook, kept green by a hidden spring, where wildings cling and grow.

My magic crystal, which does all this fairy work for me “when now lies on the hills.” Is now in the third year of service as a faithful standby tree times a day, when other decorations are not procurable. It cost $1 when new.

Now that the hills rejoice on every side with flowers that seem to have throbbed into life and loveliness from the beatings of the mighty heat beneath them, there is no excuse for an unsmiling expanse of tablecloth. Beginning with pussy-willows and rising in the motif of the annual oratorio of the resurrection of the beautiful, through the revelation of crocuses, apple blossoms, tulips, hyacinths, wild roses and honeysuckle to the glory of midsummer, flowers may be had for the making and gathering.

From the saucer of moss in which nestle blue-eyed houstonia, shy, yet easily entreated if supplied with water and the velvet duvet in which their roots awoke to life, to the great bowl of June roses we may luxuriate in home decorations.

Wayside Blossoms.

They lend poetry to plain living; they rest the eye and feed the fancy. Then will come the lavish wealth of the golden-rod and “The aster of the woods,” the purple and gold in which Mother Earth bedecks herself for a brave, brief season. When they have passed we shall have witch hazel and autumn leaves to cheer cottage and mansion.

Never set a meal in order without the touch of brightness and true refinement imparted by God’s unfailing messengers to those who will receive the story they have to tell. If it be only a bunch of yarrow from the dusty roadside, or a stately stalk of iris from the marsh, or a handful of ox-eyed daises brought in by a little dirty hand “just for mother,” make the best of it. Let it be your token—

“That God is thinking of His World.”

Marion Harland

Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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