Apartment Home Life

This is the third article in June of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on June 20, 1909, and is an article on renting apartments and how to set up home in one.

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

Apartment Home Life

“WE DO everything in sections nowadays,” said a merry woman yesterday. “We buy our pianos upon the instalment plan, commit the care of our lungs, stomachs and heads to as many different specialists, and live in slices of houses. And it is getting to be unfashionable to be whole-souled!”

We may demur at the final section of the speech, but we are not here to discuss it.

We are so used to the idea of the sliced house that we do not stay to recall how odd the system would have seemed to us forty years back. We borrowed apartment life from the French, and the marvel is not that it is so general now all over the Northern and Middle States, but that we were so slow in adopting it. The broad strain of English blood in us may have had something to do with our reluctance to resign our lawns, our shrubbery and—last and most dear to the home-loving soul—our very own front doors. A woman who had dwelt in foreign tents for tent years declared to me her intention of taking over her front door and knocker if she ever went abroad again.

“Just to keep up the pleasant fiction that I am a householder.”

The Outside Viewpoint.

Time was, and not so very long ago, either, when to live in a slice of a house implied inability to take a whole dwelling for occupation of one’s self and family. Residents of such were of the class that talked of “the folks downstairs.” In glancing from my desk toward the nearest window I see darkly and voluminously outlined against the sky the steel framework of an apartment house that fills an entire block. It is to be the largest building of its kind in America, we are told. In addition to the stereotyped “modern conveniences” there will be a garage in the rear of the spacious court that opens to the sky ten stories above the street level, and ten elevators in the building. Apartments of fair size will rent for $5000 per year “and upward.”

Coming down in the scale of prices (I do not say in the social scale), we find a more comfortable level in the hosts of family apartments fitted up comfortably, often with modest elegance, with all the requisites for the residence of people of moderate means and simple tastes. They line our streets in what newspapers name “the residential portions” of our towns. They used to look like dolls’ quarters to us when we got into them. A hall that has degrees of narrowness, and never of width; ranged upon the only side of this that belong to John and Mary, two, maybe three, bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom sometimes so near the front door that visitors have a way of blundering into it at their exit under the impression that it is “the way out.” At the end of the more-or-less narrow hall lie the state apartments of the establishment in the guise of one or more sitting-rooms. One ambitious woman clings to the old nomenclature of “drawing-room” and we try to smile in the attempt to fit the title to the ten-by-ten parlor. If there are two of them, the agent is careful to represent that one may be counted in as a bedchamber if one more be required for the growing household. A small dining-room completes the tale of rooms.

From the Inside.

If I have seemed to jest at the strait confines and makeshifts of the lodgings hired for so much per month (with no deduction if rented by the year) in which John, Mary and one, or two, or mayhap four children must live, day and night, in the great Babel where John gets a living for them, it is all in seeming. For hundred of thousands of respectable, refined families live in this manner from year’s end to year’s end, and make homes of the narrow quarters.

There are sundry bright sides to the picture, dun-colored though it may look to the dweller in his spacious farmstead and pitifully mean to the semi-millionaire who could afford to rent (or buy) one of the $5000-a-year “slices,” but prefers a brownstone-front private residence upon a “good” street.

To begin with, the drudgery of American housekeeping is reduced to a minimum in a well-arranged flat. With no stairs to keep clean, no furnace fire to keep up, no sidewalk to sweep and no steps to climb when one is fairly at home, the mother soon appreciates a sensible lessening of the burden bound upon her body and mind. The rooms are small, bur easier to keep clean on that account. There is neither a cellar nor attic. There is, therefore, less danger of rubbish heaps to be disposed of spring and fall. If she be wise in her generation, Mary is not slow in discovering the French-woman’s sound economy of purchasing provision in small quantities. I know this tenet is at variance with the United States’ preconceived idea that wholesale purchasing is a saving in the long run. Applies and potatoes are cheaper by one-third when laid in by the barrel. If the cellar be dry, and if the farmer or the commuter’s wife has time to spare for a weekly overhauling and sorting of the specked, the decayed and the sound, the principle holds good. All the same, fruits and flour, butter and beef are used more freely if there is a big supply on hand than when calculation must be made daily of the stock in refrigerator and cupboard. And there is next to no waste in smaller quantities.

The refrigerator is built into the wall or hall or of kitchen in a flat. See to it that it aired into continual sweetness. If salad, lettuce, cress or endive be put into the refrigerator, wrap it in a linen or cotton cloth to keep it fresh and prevent the flavor from affecting milk or butter. Use the like precaution with regard to meats and fruit. Never put away strongly flavored provisions of any kind in the icebox unless in closed cases.

Look to the quantity of closet room before you rent the apartment. So much of family comfort depends upon the condition that she is short-sighted who does not make a resolute stand here. Wardrobe closets in the chambers, china presses in dining-room and kitchen, with roomy not closets in the latter, go far toward making up for the cellar and garret. There is, usually, a storeroom in the basement which empty trunks and boxes may be stored. Examine it from time to time to ascertain if it be dry. I have known trunks rotted into uselessness by storage in an ill-ventilated basement. It is no sign that the said ground floor is dry and clean because the janitor and his family live in it.

The same janitor is an important factor in flat life. Some are intolerably slovenly and incompetent; others are indifferently good; now and then one happens upon a jewel of a Joe or Patrick, who contributes a liberal quota toward the home-feeling to be gained in the sliced home. Make it a point to get on the right side of him. Speak to him kindly whenever you meet on the stairs or have occasion to summon him to your apartment to look after range or plumbing. Fee him judiciously, yet not lavishly, at intervals. It is a good investment of 50 cents or $1.

You will need to put more shelves in your clothes presses and pot closets. A legal friend informs me that, if nailed to the wall these fall under the head of “fixtures” and may not be removed when you migrate to other quarters. If neatly screwed to woodwork they are “portable.” The same is true as to bookcases. Shelve the closets up to the ceiling and make absolute the law “A place for everything in its place.” If you have more china than the presses will contain, and a superfluity of bric-a-brac, dispose of the pieces you use least upon a shelf fastened upon brackets on a level with the picture molding in dining and living room.

From the beginning determine that your abiding place shall be a home, and as pretty and cozy as your means will admit. Strike the keynote of comfort and harmony in the arrangement of the furniture. Don’t crowd the walls with pictures because you happen to have them. A few really good engravings hung in the proper light impart a tone to the parlor not to be gained from mediocre paintings. Hang family likenesses in the bedrooms. Don’t pack bric-a-brac (much abused name!) upon mantels and tables until the place looks like a fancy fair. Select a few of the best vases for show, and when you can, fill them with flowers.

The most woeful want known to the flat-dweller in the city is the poverty of light in the inner rooms. Write it down as a must-have that your children shall sleep in rooms where the sunlight finds entrance at some hour of the day. The conventional “shaft” is a device of the Evil One as truly as the spider’s web is spun to catch flies. Smells arise steadily from pavement, basement and sewer. A dark room is an abomination to the Lord of light and life. I say it reverently. It should be a penal offense to construct a house for the residence of human creatures in which this is a necessity in the mind of the architect. If you cannot avoid renting a “slice” where one of these is a fixture, use it for some other purpose than a sleeping room.

In selecting the flat choose one that is well up toward the sky in preference to a first or second floor. You have more stairs to climb, it is true, but you are amply repaid for the exertion by the better air and purer abundance of light you find at the top. If you are lucky enough to have an accommodating elevator, go as high as it ascends.

On Stair-Climbing.

It may not be true, as some assert, that at the height of seventy or eighty feet one is practically beyond the germ belt. But it is certainly true that one leaves many impurities of this low earth behind as one mounts heavenward.

One word to those who, by reason of flesh, scantiness of breath, weakness or the weight of years, find stairclimbing painfully difficult. Take the ascent slowly, and before lifting the foot for the next step draw a full breath, exhaling it as you set your foot on the higher stair. After a little practice you will surprise yourself by the increased ease of the climb. Give out the breath slowly with the rise of the knee and foot. Halt for a few second on the stair and begin another inhalation. You will not only mount faster, but you will not be breathless when you are at the end of the journey.

Marion Harland

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