I went time traveling this past Saturday at the Skolfield-Whittier house in Brunswick, Maine. This time capsule of a home, last occupied full-time in 1925, captures late 19th century small town Maine life for a prominent family of sea captains, educators and doctors. Fortunately for visitors, the furnishings, essentially a full estate, were carefully preserved by the family even as they made slight adjustments to accommodate new technologies. Former occupants also tended to accumulate rather than replace, so the house is a treasure trove of historical artifacts. With an able guide, each item in the home is a repository for stories about customs, people, and historical practices.
As we stood outside the home, Dan, our able tour guide, began our visit by inviting us to look at the brick exterior. He explained that the custom of the time was to use the highest quality brick on the facade and public sides of the home, while cheaper bricks were used in the back. The interior of the home reflected this same approach. The “public” rooms were filled with material items to indicate social prominence and prosperity to visitors. The back rooms were more austere.
As we entered the house we entered those larger front rooms which were bedecked with artifacts reflecting the family’s international trade and travel, ornately carved wooden rails and moldings, marbled mantels, rich carpeting, and encaustic tiling. Many items were imbued with deeper layers of meaning, invisible to the ignorant 21st century eye. Dan served as our able translator. A hall tree (coat stand) in the entry wasn’t simply a resting place for hats and umbrellas—its ornate carving made a subtle, but undeniable social statement, as did the calling card holder resting atop it. Long curtains puddled over the floor in the dining room, their lavish length another indication of wealth. A painting of one of thefamily’s ships was not merely decorative but also served as an insurance record of the ship in case of loss. (Small figures are visible on the deck and, multiplied by two (for the crew resting below), this documented the crew required by the ship.) We were hard pressed to leave each room as Dan held us in the palm of his hand, weaving stories of this family and their time. This is the history that appeals to me—the personal stories anchored in tangible items that evoke the mists of the past and give me a sense of daily life long ago.
As we stepped into the back of the house, the contrast was remarkable. Here the look was utilitarian rather than ornate. Gone were the ornate woodwork, exotic furnishings, and opulent fabrics. Narrow hallways wound from the dining room to the laundry room, pantry and kitchen. These rooms were purely functional —social nuance had no role, as visitors did not reach these regions of the home. Thus, objects residing in these rooms offer a more intimate glimpse into the lives of past residents. In the kitchen a small glass jar holds a butterfly and a robin’s egg—treasures of a young collector. A lock of hair and mementos of a child lost to tragedy rest in a box sitting in an upstairs room. Packets of soap fill the top of an old icebox. A slop hopper, designed to drain the contents of the household’s chamber pots, is tucked into a back corner. Each question we asked Dan sparked more and more stories about the lives of the residents, customs, historical practices, and more. We journeyed back through time in this home, spell-bound.
As I left the tour and re-emerged into present-day Brunswick, I pondered the message of the bricks, reflected in the interior decoration of the home. The idea that the expensive brick and the richly appointed front rooms with their embedded social messages were a deliberately created public “personna” intrigued me. I considered their contrast with the cheaper bricks at the back of the house, and I wondered whether there is a modern equivalent to this front room/back room practice.
There are certainly people who are “house proud” but I don’t believe there is such a contrast between the front and back, or the public and private rooms in our modern homes. I suspect our efforts are more invested in our individual public images. We work hard to create our public persona and as we all know, much can be hidden behind a carefully crafted facade. I think of those much-maligned Christmas cards which regale the reader with happy events and accomplishments while leaving other less celebratory events unaddressed—out of sight in the back yard, as it were. Is there another parallel in the public face we create on our social media sites? People chose what to share and the picture they present to the world is often quite different from their more private lives. I’m still considering how this practice has evolved through the years and wondering if perhaps, though many, many years have passed, we haven’t changed very much. We’re all still putting our best brick forward.