Thursday, March 02, 2017

From the archives: Life on a desert island, so to speak

First posted March 2011, edited slightly

I [previously] mentioned that I'd found a copy of Flanagan's Smart Home, by Barbara Flanagan.

The subtitle of the book is "The 98 Essentials for Starting Out, Starting Over, Scaling Back."

That concept is introduced at the beginning of the book, but seems to get lost a bit in discussion of whether the items described are durable, well-designed, and/or eco-friendly.  Flanagan doesn't explain exactly how or why she came up with 98 "essential" items for a home--she does say that she was aiming for 100 but that it came out at 98.  As someone said in a review of the book (I think on Amazon), her magic 98 didn't include a toilet plunger...someone else said they can't live without a roll of duct tape.  We could probably debate the "essentialness" of such things as a salt cellar, an electric blanket, a headband flashlight, and a floor lamp in the bedroom; and whether a microwave AND a toaster oven should be essential (yes, we have both, but I admit they do take up a lot of counter space). Also, "98" refers to the number of different items, not the sheer number of objects. For example, "fork" counts as one item, although most households would have more than one.  "Night table" assumes that you have just one.  "Bookcases" count as one item, but books don't figure into the count at all.  She also recommends vinyl records (Mr. Fixit would appreciate that), but the records themselves aren't counted with the 98.   Neither are personal items or clothing.

In contrast to today's "essentials" (based, perhaps, on what a single person living in a small condo would need), here are the useful items acquired by Joyce Radway in Grace Livingston Hill's Not Under the Law (1924/1925), on the first day that she starts housekeeping in a house about the size of a garden shed:

Wooden box, pile of newspapers, and a few peanut shells (came free with the house)
Thread, needles, thimble, pins
Enough cheese cloth for window curtains
Blue and white chintz
Half a yard of white organdie
Blue and white checked apron
"Canned alcohol and a little outfit [tools] for cooking with it"
Paper plates and cups
A sharp knife
A pair of good scissors
A hammer
A can opener
Some tacks
A few long nails
A broom, a scrubbing brush, soap, a galvanized pail, and a sponge
Several wooden boxes and two nice clean sugar barrels (she makes chairs out of those)
Two more aprons (she needs them for a temporary job)

But "one couldn't just exist if one was working, one had to have things tolerably comfortable for resting and eating or one couldn't do good work.  So she went back to her little house and sat down to think.  The conclusion of her meditation was that she decided to buy a saw."
So Joyce takes the train into the city and buys:

A Bible (used)
The saw ("the best of steel")
Gray denim for upholstery
Flowered cretonne to cover her box dressing table
"A lot of wire springs, some upholstery webbing, and twine, a long, double-pointed upholstery needle, and several pounds of curled hair and cheap cotton."
Some personal items like a hairbrush and nightgowns

"It really cost very little to live when one was careful.  As for heat and light, she did not need either at this time of year....Sheets and pillow-cases were not expensive when one bought remnants of coarse cloth and hemmed them; and washing was not hard to do with the outside faucet and drain so near."
One person's salt cellar is, I suppose, another person's saw.

The interest in Joyce's shopping list (fantastical and overly optimistic though it is--living in a garden shed does present some practical problems that GLH never goes near), and the value of the Smart Home book, is similar to the effect that Material World has on its readers.  (The book where people around the world put all their worldly goods out in front of their houses.)  Each one makes you ask yourself--could you live with less?  If you have lived with little, or have been through a bad emergency situation, or have lived with inconveniences such as having to cook in the garage for a season, you might not find the idea of "essentials only" particularly romantic or desirable.  Most of us want enough stuff to be at least comfortable.

But how do you know where to stop?

Do you have a list of 98?  498?  998?

Does everybody need a salad spinner?

What's your take?

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