The Shock of the Old


‘She could not help feeling the claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally, and yet she did not stop. There was nothing there which she could not have used-nothing which she did not long to own. The dainty slippers and stockings, the delicately frilled skirts and petticoats, the laces, ribbons, haircombs, purses, all touched her with individual desire, and she felt keenly the fact that not any of these things were in the range of her purchase.’

So Theodore Dreiser wrote of poor Sister Carrie, wandering the aisles of a Chicago department store in the autumn of 1889. How shocked Carrie would be to learn that a little more than 100 years hence, a glut of interpretations-some literal, some comical-of the stuff she craved is for sale all over Manhattan. A few weeks away from the year 2000, the city’s shops are crammed with loopy versions of old-fashioned goods ripped cruelly from their cozy historical contexts and offered coldly for sale to the casual comer.

The bustling corridor of Fifth Avenue between 14th and 23rd streets (in Dreiser’s time a prosperous retail neighborhood as well) is bracketed by two particularly successful traffickers in fin-de-siècle?
inspired goods: the just-opened branch of Anthropologie in the space at 16th Street where B. Shackman Toys used to be, and Restoration Hardware at the corner of 22nd Street.

The merchandise at Anthropologie revels in a late-Victorian aesthetic, inviting the shopper to enter a hallucinogenic dreamworld where she is able to inhabit two centuries at the same time: one with washing machines and computers and contact lenses and penicillin, the other trucking in beeswax candles and perfumed bath salts and hand-hooked rugs and chamber pots.

Anthropologie’s homages are hardly literal: There’s a goofy, liberating disregard for what particular styles once meant. An ankle-length patchwork velvet skirt, formerly the province of the very poor (a patchwork coverlet was bad enough, but clothes?) is offered without shame for $168. Clogs, along with sandals among the earliest footwear worn (there weren’t even right and left shoes until the middle of the 19th century), are here rendered in leather, lined in velvet, decorated with beaded flowers, priced at $198, and ready for a party; a denim kerchief, originally employed in catching the sweat from a brow damp from mopping or scrubbing or hoeing, is decorated with a scarlet ribbon. Stacks of sea-foam and peach-colored shawls, woven from a blend of silk and the ubiquitous pashmina, stand ready to make the wearer as attractive as the Manchester factory workers described by a novelist in 1848 as sporting a garment “which at midday, or in fine weather was allowed to be merely a shawl, but towards evening, or if the day were chilly, became a sort of Spanish mantilla or Scotch plaid, and was brought over the head and hung loosely down, or was pinned under the chin in no unpicturesque fashion.”

Anthropologie’s housewares department is similarly rooted in the proletarian past. An old bed that has been heaped with deliberately faded quilts and cushions is half-hidden by a curtain made from a flannel sheet hung from a rope, a room-dividing method last seen in the photographs of Walker Evans; stacks of dish towels decorated with baby chicks and anthropomorphized utensils that look like they were made in a WPA project in Appalachia actually were sewn just last month by impoverished people in India.

Downstairs, there are bars of amber soap wrapped in rough gray paper and tied with wire bows, and pretty envelopes full of lavender bath salts-both fun items if you’ve got your own bathroom, but doubtless capable of inducing acute longing not so long ago, when people stank. As late as 1918, an author was appalled that “in some shops, where dark costumes are the required garb, frequently the odor that emanates from a saleswoman is so offensive that much of the joy of shopping is lost.” The writer goes on to describe approvingly a girl who “through necessity… lived in a boarding house where only two tub baths a week were allowed each individual and where her room had no heat in winter; yet she took a sponge bath daily and practiced towel rubbing. She said that she thought she would freeze the first few mornings….”

Up the street at Restoration Hardware, inchoate nostalgia likewise runs amok. Here, glass bottles of witch hazel and boxes of fake Christmas snow and crystal radio sets are merely appetizers for the specialty of the house: reproductions of the Arts and Crafts furniture once de rigueur in the parlors of respectable homes. An $895 breakfront that looks like it’s ready to hold a collection of Roseville pottery is actually an audio cabinet; a more ambitious piece called an “entertainment armoire” costs $2795. Either of these anchors could be accompanied by one of the store’s Mission magazine racks, Craftsman bookcases, ladder-back chairs, armoires, sideboards, hat racks, or other example of stolid furniture.

Restoration Hardware isn’t alone in its enthusiasm for these items-Arts and Crafts pieces are currently so hot that Barbra Streisand, a major collector of the originals, is auctioning off some of her holdings at Christie’s later this month. (Actually, Babs is involved in a bit of a fracas with the curators of the nonprofit Craftsman Farm Foundation, who have begged her to donate or sell them a pair of cabinets she owns that were removed years ago from Craftsman Farm, a national historic landmark and museum in Parsippany, New Jersey. Streisand has thus far refused their entreaties; Christie’s estimates the cabinets in question will sell for at least $40,000 to $60,000 each.)

If fake snow and reissued greeting cards and reproduction art deco calendars aren’t enough, Restoration Hardware suggests that you illuminate the upcoming holidays with slender, 10-inch-tall tapers they describe as being available in “intelligent” colors. These Proust-spouters will bathe your Arts and Crafts dining room in a lovely glow.

Or you can just flick the overhead light, throw on a pair of running shorts and a pashmina shawl, turn on the TV, and watch the ball drop.