Poe’s Philosophy of Furniture

In 1840 Edgar Allan Poe, the master of horror and author of The Fall of the House of Usher, produced this tongue-in-cheek essay on the perils of decorating.  It is a masterpiece of the even-handed insult. Poe takes every nation to task for its neglect of the principles of good taste. He does not spare his countrymen, citing the Americans as the epitome of gaudiness and overspending. We present his observations below.

There is philosophy even in furniture — a philosophy nevertheless which seems to be more imperfectly understood by Americans than by any civilized nation upon the face of the earth.

In the internal decoration, if not in the external architecture, of their residences, the English are supreme. The Italians have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colors. In France…the people are too much a race of gad-abouts to study and maintain those household proprieties, of which indeed they have a delicate appreciation, or at least the elements of a proper sense. The Chinese, and most of the Eastern races, have a warm but inappropriate fancy. The Scotch are poor decorists. The Dutch have merely a vague idea that a curtain is not a cabbage. In Spain they are all curtains — a nation of hangmen. The Russians do not furnish. The Hottentots and Kickapoos are very well in their way — the Yankees alone are preposterous.

How this happens it is not difficult to see. We have no aristocracy of blood, and having, therefore, as a natural and, indeed as an inevitable thing, fashioned for ourselves an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth has here to take the place, and perform the office, of the heraldic display in monarchical countries…

In England, for example, no mere parade of costly appurtenances would be so likely as with us to create an impression of the beautiful in respect to the appurtenances themselves, or of taste as respects the proprietor — this for the reason, first, that wealth is not in England, the loftiest object of ambition…and, secondly, that there the true nobility of blood rather avoids than affects costliness in which a parvenu rivalry may be successfully attempted, confining itself within the rigorous limits…of legitimate taste.

The people naturally imitate the nobles, and the result is a thorough diffusion of a right feeling. But, in America, dollars being the supreme insignia of aristocracy, their display may be said, in general terms, to be the sole means of aristocratic distinction; and the populace, looking up for models, are insensibly led to confound the two entirely separate ideas of magnificence and beauty. In short, the cost of an article of furniture has, at length, come to be, with us, nearly the sole test of its merit in a decorative point of view…

There could be scarcely any thing more directly offensive to the eye of an artist than the interior of what is termed, in the United States, a well furnished apartment. Its most usual defect is a perposterous want of keeping…A want of keeping is observable sometimes in the character of the several pieces of furniture, but generally in their colors or modes of adaptation to use. Very often the eye is offended by their inartistic arrangement. Straight lines are too prevalent, too uninterruptedly continued, or clumsily interrupted at right angles. If curved lines occur, they are repeated into unpleasant uniformity. Undue precision spoils the appearance of many a room.

Curtains are rarely well disposed, or well chosen, in respect to the other decorations. With formal furniture curtains are out of place, and an excessive volume of drapery of any kind is, under any circumstances, irreconcilable with good taste; the proper quantum, as well as the proper adjustment, depends upon the character of the general effect.

By Nazmiyal Collection - Nazmiyal Collection, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33021383

Carpets are better understood of late than of ancient days, but we still very frequently err in their patterns and colors. A carpet is the soul of the apartment. From it are deduced not only the hues but the forms of all objects incumbent. A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius. Yet I have heard fellows discourse of carpets with the visage of a sheep in reverie…who should not and who could not be entrusted with the management of their own moustachios. 

Every one knows that a large floor should have a covering of large figures, and a small one must have a covering of small; yet this is not all the knowledge in the world. As regards texture the Saxony is alone admissible. Brussels is the preter-pluperfect tense of fashion, and Turkey is taste in its dying agonies. Touching pattern, a carpet should not be bedizzened out like a Riccaree Indian — all red chalk, yellow ochre and cock’s feathers. In brief, distinct grounds and vivid circular figures, of no meaning, are here Median laws. 

The abomination of flowers, or representations of well known objects of any kind should never be endured within the limits of Christendom. Indeed, whether on carpets, or curtains, or paper-hangings, or ottoman coverings, all upholstery of this nature should be rigidly Arabesque. Those antique floor-cloths which are still seen occasionally in the dwellings of the rabble — cloths of huge, sprawling and radiating devices, stripe-interspersed, and glorious with all hues, among which no ground is intelligible — are but the wicked invention of a race of time servers and money lovers — children of Baal and worshippers of Mammon — men who, to save trouble of thought and exercise of fancy, first cruelly invented the Kaleidoscope, and then established a patent company to twirl it by steam.

Glare is a leading error in the philosophy of American household decoration — an error easily recognized as deduced from the perversion of taste just specified. We are violently enamoured of gas and of glass. The former is totally inadmissible within doors. Its harsh and unsteady light is positively offensive. No man having both brains and eyes will use it. A mild, or what artists term a cool light, with its consequent warm shadows, will do wonders for even an ill-furnished apartment. 

In the matter of glass, generally, we proceed upon false principles. Its leading feature is glitter — and in that one word how much of all that is detestable do we express! Flickering, unquiet lights are sometimes pleasing — to children and idiots always so — but in the embellishment of a room they should be scrupulously avoided. In truth even strong steady lights are inadmissible. The huge and unmeaning glass chandeliers, prism-cut, gas-litten, and without shade, which dangle by night in our most fashionable drawing-rooms, may be cited as the quintessence of false taste, as so many concentrations of preposterous folly.

The rage for glitter — because its idea has become, as I before observed, confounded with that of magnificence in the abstract — has led also to the exaggerated employment of mirrors. We line our dwellings with great British plates, and then imagine we have done a fine thing. Now the slightest thought will be sufficient to convince any one who has an eye at all, of the ill effect of numerous looking-glasses, and especially of large ones. Regarded apart from its reflection the mirror presents a continuous, flat, colorless, unrelieved surface — a thing always unpleasant, and obviously so. Considered as a reflector it is potent in producing a monstrous and odious uniformity — and the evil is here aggravated in no direct proportion with the augmentation of its sources, but in a ratio constantly increasing. In fact a room with four or five mirrors arranged at random is, for all purposes of artistical show, a room of no shape at all. 

If we add to this the attendant glitter upon glitter, we have a perfect farrago of discordant and displeasing effects. The veriest bumpkin, not addle-headed, upon entering an apartment so bedizened, would be instantly aware of something wrong, although he might be altogether unable to assign a cause for his dissatisfaction. But let the same individual be led into a room tastefully furnished, and he would be startled into an exclamation of surprise and of pleasure.

Italian, 19th century drawing room. - Artist unknown. This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The room comes close to Poe's ideal of minimal glare and glitter and a quiet carpet. The sole offending object seems to be the rather larger mirror above the fireplace.

Even now there is present to my mind’s eye a small and not ostentatious chamber with whose decorations no fault can be found. The proprietor lies asleep upon a sofa — the weather is cool — the time is near midnight — I will make a sketch of the room ere he awakes. It is oblong — some thirty feet in length and twenty-five in breadth — a shape affording the best opportunities for the adjustment of furniture. It has but one door, which is at one end of the parallelogram, and but two windows, which are at the other. These latter are large, reaching downwards to the floor, are situated in deep recesses, and open upon an Italian veranda

Their panes are of a crimson-tinted glass, set in rose-wood framings, of a kind somewhat broader than usual. They are curtained, within the recess, by a thick silver tissue, adapted to the shape of the window and hanging loosely, but having no volumes. Without the recess are curtains of an exceedingly rich crimson silk, fringed with a deep network of gold, and lined with the silver tissue, which forms the exterior blind. There are no cornices; but the folds of the whole fabric, (which are sharp rather than massive, and have an airy appearance) issue from beneath a broad entablature of rich gilt-work, which encircles the room at the junction of the ceiling and walls. 

The drapery is thrown open, also, or closed, by means of a thick rope of gold loosely enveloping it, and resolving itself readily into a knot — no pins or other such devices are apparent. The colors of the curtains and their fringe — the tints of crimson and gold — form the character of the room, and appear every where in profusion…

The (picture) frames are broad but not deep, and richly carved, without being fillagreed. Their profuse gilding gives them the whole lustre of gold. They lie flat upon the walls, and do not hang off with cords. The designs themselves may, sometimes, be best seen in this latter position, but the general appearance of the chamber is injured. No mirror is visible — nor chairs. Two large sofas, of rose-wood and crimson silk, form the only seats. An octagonal table, formed entirely of the richest gold-threaded marble, is placed near one of the sofas — this table is also without cover — the drapery of the curtains has been thought sufficient. Four large and gorgeous Sevres vases, in which grow a number of sweet and vivid flowers in full bloom, occupy the angles of the room. A tall and magnificent candelabrum, bearing a small antique lamp with highly perfumed oil, is standing near the head of my sleeping friend. Some light and graceful hanging shelves, with golden edges and crimson silk cords with gold tassels, sustain two or three hundred magnificently-bound books. 

Beyond these things there is no furniture, if we except an Argand lamp, with a plain crimson-tinted ground glass shade, which depends from the lofty ceiling by a single gold chain, and throws a subdued but magical radiance over all.

English drawing room, 19th century, Guys Cliffe, Warwickwhire. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Recommended Reading

Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings by Edgar Allan Poe (Penguin)

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