Hankering for a ‘Comfortable’ Past

In Home: A Short History of an Idea (Penguin: New York, 1986, pp. 213) Witold Rybczynski writes:

If department stores or home-decorating magazines are any indication, most people’s first choice would be to live in rooms that resemble, as much as their budgets permit, those of their grandparents….such nostalgia is absent from other periods of our everyday lives. We do not pine for period cuisine. Our concern for health and nutrition has altered the way that we eat, as well as what we eat; our admiration for the slim physique would be puzzling to the corpulent nineteenth century. We have changed our way of speaking, our manners, and our public and private behavior. We do not feel the need to revive the practice of leaving visiting cards…or of indulging in extended, chaperoned courtship….Unless we are collectors, we do not drive antique cars. We want automobiles that are less expensive to operate, safer, and more comfortable, but we do not imagine that these improvements can be achieved by resurrecting car models from previous periods. We would feel as odd in a Model T as we would in plus fours or a hooped skirt, yet although we would not think of dressing in period clothes, we find nothing strange in dressing our homes in period decor.

Nostalgia for the past is often a sign of dissatisfaction with the present….the modern interior…represents an attempt…to change social habits, and even to alter the underlying cultural meaning of domestic comfort….People turn to the past because they are looking for something they do not find in the present–comfort and well-being.

“Comfort,” of course, is the notion that Rybczynski has devoted Home to developing:

[A]n invention–a cultural artifice. Like all cultural ideas…it has a past, and it cannot be understood without reference to its specific history….domestic comfort involves a range of attributes–convenience, efficiency, leisure, ease, pleasure, domesticity, intimacy, and privacy.

Hankering for the past in our domestic interiors–but not elsewhere in our lives–makes especial sense in light of the importance assigned to those spaces as settings for the emergence of an individual self, for the development of still-contested notions of privacy, family and sexual relations. It is where human beings begin lives and learn language. It beckons thus as a space of return–sometimes by changing furnishings. And if the interiors of domestic spaces filled up as the interior lives of their residents did, then conversely changing those lives could perhaps be best achieved by changing domestic spaces.

Of course, this act of restorative nostalgia, this seeking out our missing comfort in the interiors of the past, as domestic comfort, as furnishing for our private lives, has never been a low-cost endeavor. Those able to experience this form of nostalgia then, are enabled by their stations in life, their class. Comfort remains an economic privilege (as perhaps, does “dissatisfaction with the present”?) Many may want their homes, their private spaces, to resemble, in overt appearance and function, the homes they dimly remember from a romanticized past, but only a very particular subset is able to indulge that want.

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