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‘My greatest fear is of waiters and porters’

I am fascinated by the relation between people’s looks and the freedoms they are given by others. An important aspect of this is that I do not believe that so-called public spaces are accessible for everybody. The way people dress, or the way they behave, can be a reason for others to exclude them.

UBL01-P326N312-largeVieuxDoelen

Print of the Vieux Doelen from 1844, published by A.P. van Langenhuysen, now in the University Library of Leiden (Bijzondere Collecties).

The twentieth-century Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg wrote an evocative poem about this – about being out of place and not feeling welcome in the poshest hotel of the Netherlands’ poshest city (translation below):

Du Vieux Doelen

Het kijken van voorbijgangers braveren.
Doen of ik iemand ben bij elke stap.
Zoals ik deed als knaap en voor de grap,
om mij daarmee allure aan te leren.

Doen of ik niemand ben en zo riskeren
te zweven tussen schouderklop en trap,
tussen toenadering en achterklap,
maar altijd dupe van de hoge heren.

Voor obers en portiers ben ik het bangst.
Een klein vergrijp tegen de etiquette
moet ik bekopen met een blik die kwetst.

Ook al beweeg ik me op ‘t allernetst,
ze blijven uit de verte op mij letten.
Het eind waaraan zij trekken is het langst.

[rough-and-ready translation:]

Hotel Du Vieux Doelen

Braving lookers-on.
At every step pretend to be someone.
Like I did as a boy for a laugh,
in order to teach myself some class.

Pretend to be no one and risk
both pats on the shoulder and kicks,
both friendly approach and backbiting,
but remaining the victim of gentlemen.

My greatest fear is of waiters and porters.
The tiniest breach of etiquette
must be paid for with glances like bayonets

However politely I move about,
they keep an eye on me from afar.
They always get the last laugh.

The poem is part of a series about The Hague, about the modernity of The Hague, and about the lonely flaneur wandering through the glittering city.

Apart from the wonderful rhyme in the original (‘kwetst’ – ‘allernetst’, etc.), this poem is also interesting for what it says about looks and belonging.

Two themes run through the whole of Achterberg’s series of poems about The Hague:

  1. the staggering modernity of department stores with customer lifts and ready-priced items, of shop girls and businessmen; and, perhaps most importantly, of huge shop windows with their live male window-dressers and lifeless female fashion mannequins.
  2. the loneliness of the man who walks through this modern space; the lack of meaningful, long-term relations he experiences; the city-dwellers’ business-like communication that is often wholly reduced to financial transactions.
622px-Eaton%u2019s_College_Street_Store_Toronto_-_ca._1930

Eaton’s Department Store, Toronto, Canada. Archives of Ontario: T. Eaton Company. Available on Wikipedia.

By the time Achterberg was writing in the 1950s, this image of the modern city already had a long tradition in European writing (Baudelaire, Zola, Simmel, Benjamin…). Although attractive enough to many, it is a limited image that stresses the experience of wealthy male observers.

However, Achterberg is a more interesting poet than what I’ve just said suggests, and one of the ways in which he shows this is in this poem about the hotel Du Vieux Doelen. Here, the protagonist is not the wealthy but alienated flaneur who buys empty luxury and empty love on the streets of the city; instead, he is an outsider, not rich and educated enough to be at home in this hotel. Meanwhile, porters and waiters are the princes of the palace.

 

The poem is taken from Gerrit Achterberg, Voorbij de laatste stad, Paul Rodenko (ed.) (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1955, 1978), p. 148.

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Thou shalt clean more

Remarkable view on cleaning in a magazine this week:

I’m noticing young people spend less and less time on cleaning their homes. They are too busy or do not enjoy it.

[…]

I want to put back the fun in cleaning. As far as I’m concerned, a house cannot be too clean.

This is from an interview with professional cleaner Liesbeth Verboven. Clearly, she sees the same demise in young people’s cleaning time as I do, only she values it negatively.

You would think that as a professional cleaner, she’d be happy with all those over-worked, well-paid yuppies. But she also has a book to sell, in which she wants to teach these kids how to do the job themselves. So she promotes the idea that cleaning is fun. (It’s not quite clear how the title of the book should help in this endeavour: it’s called The Cleaning Bible. But let’s not assume the author could help this.)

Now a second question is whether the majority of housewives ever thought of cleaning as ‘fun’. Perhaps they did. Or perhaps they (also) wanted to feel useful.

This still leaves us with the question: if nowadays, cleaning is no longer fun; nor needed to fill our time; nor even possible, because we are so busy: why then should we encourage ourselves to do more of it?

Sounds like a typical case of finding a problem for a solution.

The interview appeared in Eigen huis magazine, May 2016, p. 7. N.B. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading the book who has to clean anyway, and wants to find out how to do it.

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Are we done with ironing?

Time for the follow-up post to ‘Ironing board will soon be obsolete‘!

Do you iron?

We were lying by the pool, so my friend’s question was an unexpected one. She herself is a non-ironer, and she seemed to be gauging whether this makes her a bad person. Luckily, I could set her at ease: I do not iron my laundry either.

And your mother?

Well yes, the works: from cardigans to underpants.

While the recently released UN report ‘Progress of the World’s Women’ draws attention to the burden of unpaid care and domestic work that falls on women globally, it also allows us to ponder how the more affluent parts of the world deal with these tasks.

Clearly, women in wealthy countries are no stranger to the difficulty of juggling different duties within the limited hours of the day. However, I found that the question my friend asked me by the poolside signals a remarkable change that we see with today’s young people. This generation of emancipating women are using their time in a new manner.

In the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, housewives set towering standards when it came to the proper maintenance of furniture, floors, windows, linen and clothes.

Embed from Getty Images

To give an early example from a British housekeepers’ manual (pp. 6-7): every day, the blankets but also the sheets had to be taken from all the beds, and mattresses had to be

turned over daily. Feather-beds must be turned over and shaken in all directions.

The bed should then be completely remade,

and drawing your hand along the lower edge of the pillows, so that their form may be seen, the bed is made.

Before making a bed, wash your hands, and take care that your apron is not dirty.

Although these efforts may have yielded some health benefits, they were primarily aimed at enhancing a family’s respectability. Next to this, they may have helped mothers who were caring for only a small number of children, but who had nevertheless been excluded from the work force (it was a matter of pride for couples when the wife did not ‘have to’ work), to give purpose to their life: to feel needed.

In the 1970s and 80s, second-wave feminists were already different wives from their mothers. No longer did they just take care of home and family: they turned to paid work in massive numbers.

Still, they had been raised with their mothers’ domestic ideals: a perfectly neat interior, especially when receiving guests, the children always scrubbed and combed… Beside their paid jobs, wives and mothers continued to spend twice as many hours on home and care as their husbands, both in the UK and in many other countries (see the Multinational Time Use Study database). This ‘second shift’ of work is what led to the feelings of stress and inadequacy many women know so well.

In other words, the baby boomers were stuck with a historically high bench-mark in all matters domestic. In spite of a substantial growth in paid labour participation, which now absorbed much of women’s time, the baby boomers have never really rid themselves of this standard.

This is a thing which we do see happening with their children. Many of the young women who are starting a household today, and their partners, too, are taking on a new mentality. Of course, women’s time scarcity can also be alleviated by men’s greater involvement in the home, and by hiring professional help. Partly, this is also what is happening. However, the other obvious option young people see, is to simply lower their expectations.

A photo by the USA Department of Agriculture. Extension Service: 'Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.'

A photo taken by the USA Department of Agriculture, Extension Service, around the 1940s: ‘Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.’ (Currently in the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. Photo provided on Wikimedia Commons.) Did the federal government occupy itself with the efficient cleanliness of American homes? I’m no expert on this, but it would seem so.

Hoovering, mopping, replacing linen and making beds: everything happens less often in this generation. Except for a formal shirt now and then, none of my friends ever iron as far as I can tell. Even folding is occasionally abandoned. (A weekly dusting has already been history for a while: in my work as a professional housekeeper, the different priorities of different generations of clients have become abundantly clear.)

Yes, guests like to sleep on clean sheets, but that does not mean the entire house must shine. Kids don’t like to worry about their clothes in the first place. And who knows what will happen to the pressing iron? It might do nicely enough as home decoration next to the washboard and the spinning wheel.

If these first indications persist – if women are grasping this opportunity to turn their back on perfectionism, and men are growing just as modest in their expectations – then, perhaps, we can look forward to a little less pressure in our stressful lives. Which is why the best place imaginable to start a discussion about housekeeping, was indeed the poolside.

This column has also been published in the University of Sheffield’s History Matters and, in a different version and focusing on the Dutch instead of the British situation, in NRC Handelsblad on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2015.

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The perfect gift for…

Spring-time is here again (on the Northern Hemisphere). All over the world, countries get ready to celebrate Mother’s Day.

In Britain, a large household retailer has found a striking way of using this day to remind mothers of their duties.

shop window of large chain of household goods, 12 March 2015

Shop window of British chain of household shops, 12 March 2015.

It’s not altogether clear here who needs to get set: children, by buying a gift? Or mothers, by making everyone look their best on this festive Sunday?

Either way, we all know a happy mother is a mother dallying around the home. And her children are urged, by this shop, to help her remember in case she forgets.

Or should we assume that British mums are still pounding, rinsing and mangling their beloved’s blouses and bloomers by hand? In that case, they will be truly delighted with this gift, as it will open the way to an ocean of leisure. No better present imaginable.

If you are a particularly dirty child or spouse, you can even buy her three. Or give one to each mistress.

With thanks to my mother.

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Ironing board will soon be obsolete

8 March is International Women’s Day. A day to think about the freedoms women and men have. And about the question: if these freedoms are unequal, how come? If even relatively rich, well-educated women are less happy in life than men, how come?

Photo of a Coleman's gas-heated pressing iron form the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

Photo of a Coleman’s gas-heated pressing iron from the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

A small contribution to an answer and a solution appears in today’s issue of Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, under the somewhat fanciful title ‘No More Dusting, Ironing or Hoovering’.

An English reworking of this article is now on Historian at large as well.

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With a little help from my strangers

Last night, I was in trouble.

I live in a city. It is a hilly city. I try to cycle around as much as I can, but yesterday I was on foot, quite a long way from home, tired, hungry, and… near a tram stop. Isn’t modern city life wonderful?

I got into the tram and discovered that I did not have enough cash on me to pay for my fare.

Now we have to move back a few hours, to the moment I was still at work. My task was to get better acquainted with theories of modernisation. One of the most famous theories, and one that many of the newer ones rely on, is that of Georg Simmel. Simmel lived in another city, Berlin, around 1900 (okay, I have to admit that even in 1900 Berlin was somewhat bigger than the city I live in). He believed that life in the city made people blasiert: hard, arrogant, unsocial. People in the city, he wrote, were only interested in treating each other correctly; not in getting to know them. People in the city were rational, unfeeling. They treated other people like things, machines to be used to get on with one’s own life and then discarded.

All in all, my situation was looking pretty grim, there in the tram-car on a cold night in the big city.

Honoré Daumier, 'Entre onze heures et minuit', from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

Honoré Daumier, ‘Entre onze heures et minuit’, from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on http://www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

At that moment, a single modest individual stood up and proved Simmel and his succeeding generations of theorists wrong by a simple but brave act. She offered the conductor the amount for my fare. And was interested in chatting with me for the rest of our shared journey. In fact, she was a city dweller if ever there was one: she was born in one, and had lived in various cities and metropolises around the world. So she was certainly not the Last of the Mohicans, taking a fading country-side mentality with her into the modern metropolis.

It is true: the town or city makes different demands on its inhabitants than the village. It has always done so, and it always will: there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about that. As soon as a place grows so big that you cannot know everyone, your attitude to your fellow citizens necessarily changes. This is because we cannot follow up on most of the social encounters we have: we will never build relations to most of the people who serve us in shops, check our parking permit or sit with us in tram-cars. Therefore, we can never ‘reward’ the people we are grateful to, nor ‘punish’ those that have done something wrong in our eyes.

This is also why begging homeless people form such a ‘challenge’ to city councils and affluent ‘homed’ people alike. Their unboundness, their freedom of sorts, makes giving to them scary. People want to know what happens with their money: ‘If we start giving to them without asking anything in return, where will it all end?’ Another city where I used to live explicitly advised its new (homed!) citizens not to give any money to those directly asking for it, but donate to an official charity instead.

Whether this is a sound advice, I do not know. Probably, the answer cannot be general but has to be specific to the circumstances: somewhat intellectually handicapped, freedom-loving 60-year-old tramps for life are a different matter altogether than (to give a quite different example but one that operates under the same mechanism) ministers of poor countries, which may be better off with trading opportunities than guilt-assuaging money.

But I know that this city’s warning appeals to the desire most people have to control the recipients of their charity. And, perhaps, also, not to come too closely to them. Strangers feel safer at a distance: in that sense, Simmel was absolutely right. Therefore, I called my ransomer’s small act brave.

She was acting from the age-old hope that the good you do will return to you some day. Was her decision therefore old-fashioned, un-modern? I believe not. Urban disinterest, which is inevitable to some extent, does not govern all we do. Just think back to the past year: I am pretty sure you can remember some instances when someone (in the city!) has done something good for you without expecting anything in return from you.

And that almost turns this column into a Christmas wish (aaargh)…

(Ok, lets get it over and done with:) I will close with the same two words spoken every day by Ellen DeGeneres:

‘Be kind’.

This post was written on Tuesday 10 December.

P.S. I know there are some critical readers out there who might object that acts of charity, like this one, tend to reinforce social (‘class’) distinctions (crudely put: we help the people who look like us). I do not believe this is completely true – I am not as pessimistic as that – and even to the extent that it is: that story needs to be told some other time and, I think, does not undermine today’s.

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Shoes like those would hurt my feet

When you think of archaeology, perhaps you think of digging in the ground for things that were made before people wrote anything down.

And the word ‘history’ might call up the image of handwritten papers hidden in archives.

Yet so much that is important about our past, falls in the crevices between these domains.

Luckily, good scholars from all disciplines have long realised this. They have braved the forces that keep them within their disciplinary boundaries (the way university departments, library shelves and academic degrees are organised for example. But foremostly their own exponential lack of time as the mass of writing about the past bulks up). So, they have studied the things in between – not just since the latest MacArthur award, as that jury report suggested, but for many years.

Classicists study what is written on objects, thus bridging the gap between things and words.

Medievalists, although often to be found within history departments, routinely use textless objects and images in their work.

Material culture scholars of North America have since long been interested in the homemade goods that European settlers were living by.

The archaeology of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial sites is blooming, for example in Sheffield.

Anthropologists do not just exchange stories with the people(s) they work with, but objects, too.

And I could go on, mentioning sociology, geography, science and technology studies…

The truth is, the most interesting things are often not be found within disciplines, but in between. From all sides, we have to make an effort to figure out what is important. And we need all the tools we can lay our hands on to understand how things work, no matter whether we call ourselves historians (as I happen to do) or something else.

The challenge therefore is not to start to study objects, as the MacArthur Foundation claimed. It is in how we use objects as sources, as data, as bits of information.

To begin with a rather well-known use of things as sources: the BBC and Discovery Channel regularly broadcast spectacular shows about dives for Ancient Greek ships. Such investigations show with what other cultures, Mediterranean settlements traded their wares. So, objects can demonstrate links and networks of communication.

But things get really exciting (in my opinion) when they bring us straight back to how individual persons of the past lived their lives.

MarieAntoinette

Marie Antoinette, painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Wikimedia Commons

The way objects were designed, for example, open up a view to all sorts of past practices. How else could the most famous Queen of France enter through a door but sideways, for example? Folding-up hoops might have been practical, but they would have taken away from the very decorum her dresses were meant to heighten. Perhaps the answer is that she avoided buildings with narrow corridors and doorways altogether?

Another example of arguing back from design to practice: did her contemporaries ‘switch off’ the heating in spring sooner than modern Europeans? After all, their many layers of clothing provided excellent insulation. Indeed, it seems they did, although there was quite a bit of regional variation in preference as well. (I must confess that I cheated here: I found this out using written sources. As I said before: you have to use anything you can lay your hands on.)

Secondly, the way things have worn out or broken down can reveal how often they were used and in what circumstances.

Many nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Europeans aspired to a fancy room in their homes. But did they ever use it? As you would expect, the actual living was of course done in the kitchen. You or your parents may remember sitting up in the drawing-room on Sundays, bored and afraid of breaking a china teacup. It’s the ugly and chipped crockery and furniture – the things that you don’t normally get to see in museums – that really tell the story of everyday life.

DSC00675

Passport belonging to Baron W.H.J. van Westreenen van Tiellandt, 1833: Museum Meermanno/Huis van het Boek, The Hague, 70/154-161, photo by APHG

Take a look at this passport, for instance. If it had been your own expired passport, you might throw it away. So we are lucky to have this proof of how intensively it was used by its owner, an early-nineteenth-century Dutch traveller. It was taken out of his pocket and handled by customs officers all over Europe in almost every city he travelled through.

It is when we want to know not just how people went about their everyday lives, but how they liked it, that things become tricky.

When we see a photo of a nineteenth-century ‘slum’, for example, many of us are trained to judge this environment as dirty and uncomfortable. But this judgement has been passed on to us by the busybody elites that tried to gain influence over the working areas of their towns.

What we want to know is, on the contrary, how the inhabitants themselves of those workers’ quarters experienced their lives. It is quite plausible that for a great part of their everyday activities they were perfectly at ease there. But without recourse to their writings (and they did not leave many on the topic of interior decoration or city planning), it remains hard to tell.

The problem here is that when we try to conclude anything from material sources, we tend to assume a high degree of similarity between people of the past and ourselves. And it has been European elites who have determined the greatest part of our views on the past. If we give in too much to the temptation to see, for example, two-hundred-year-old slums through present-day European eyes, that would destroy the very point of doing history!

How to deal with this problem?

GAAmsterdamOlieGebedzonderend

Jacob Olie, photo of the Amsterdam alley Gebed zonder end, 1892, from the Amsterdam city image base (beeldbank.amsterdam.nl).

One non-textual strategy would be to again take a look at practices.

People modify their environment when they are dissatisfied with the way it looks. Have a close look at the photo above: you will find that the inhabitants of these rooms have added potted plants to their view. So because we in fact find workers decorate their homes, it is reasonable to conclude that they cared about their homes and had the power to adapt them to their own liking – at least somewhat.

Another strategy works only with those things that we believe have not changed too dramatically over the course of history. Our bodies might be one such thing, at least partially (the history of body-shaping practices like wearing corsets and binding feet should not be overlooked).

If it is not too frivolous to assume, then, that the nineteenth-century British left foot was different from its right foot, just as it is today, what to make of the fact that before the twentieth century, many left and right shoes were exact copies of each other (this seems to be an example)? Even (ladies’) walking boots did not distinguish between left and right.

If we, again, may assume that feet could ache in the same way then as they can now, we (whether ‘we’ are art historians, archaeologists, or whatever) may have learnt something about nineteenth-century walking experiences from looking at an old shoe.

Note: A shorter version of this column appears on the History Matters website of the University of Sheffield.