From the Archive — From the December 2014 issue

A Little Girl’s New York

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But we must return to the brownstone houses and penetrate from the vestibule (painted in Pompeian red, and frescoed with a frieze of stenciled lotus leaves, taken from Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament) into the carefully guarded interior. What would the New Yorker of the present day say to those interiors, and the lives lived in them? Both would be equally unintelligible to any New Yorker under fifty.

Beyond the vestibule (in the average house) was a narrow drawing room. Its tall windows were hung with three layers of curtains: sash curtains through which no eye from the street could possibly penetrate, and next to these draperies of lace or embroidered tulle, richly beruffled, and looped back under the velvet or damask hangings which were drawn in the evening. This window garniture always seemed to me to symbolize the super-imposed layers of undergarments worn by the ladies of the period — and even, alas, by the little girls. They were in fact almost purely a symbol, for in many windows even the inner sash curtains were looped back far enough to give the secluded dwellers a narrow glimpse of the street.

The brownstone drawing room was likely to be furnished with monumental pieces of modern Dutch marquetry, among which there was almost always a cabinet with glazed doors for the display of “bric-à-brac.” Oh, that bric-à-brac! Our mothers, who prided themselves on the contents of these cabinets, really knew about only two artistic productions — old lace and old painted fans. But as to the other arts a universal ignorance prevailed, and the treasures displayed in the wealthiest houses were no better than those of the average brownstone-dweller.

My mother had a collection of old lace, which was famous among her friends, and a few fragments of it still remain to me, piously pinned up in the indigo-blue paper supposed (I have never known why) to be necessary to the preservation of fine lace. But the yards are few, alas; for true to my conviction that what was made to be used should be used, and not locked up, I have outlived many and many a yard of noble point de Milan, of stately Venetian point, of shadowy Mechlin, and of exquisitely flowered point de Paris, not to speak of the delicate Valenciennes which ruffled the tiny handkerchiefs and incrusted and edged the elaborate lingerie of my youth. Nor do I regret having worn out what was meant to be worn out. I know few sadder sights than museum collections of these Arachne-webs that were designed to borrow life and color from the nearness of young flesh and blood. Museums are cemeteries, as unavoidable, no doubt, as the other kind, but just as unrelated to the living beauty of what we have loved.


From an essay published in the March 1938 issue of Harper’s Magazine, one of many pieces by Wharton the magazine published. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available here.

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