Monday, March 10, 2008
Linen Presses and China Closets and Larders~Oh My!
The tidy linen closet of my dreams...
Over on the Cupcake Chronicles blog, there has been a lot of talk of laundry recently, thanks to Edie who has been obsessed with the idea of clotheslines and laundry (and it's catchy). This morning Peaches asked about linen presses so I thought I'd blog my answer as I am learning about them, too. As a linen press is much like a pantry, I thought I'd blog it here.
In the Mrs. Washalot laundry blog, a must for anyone with a passion for laundry or at least the idea of it, there is a fine entry on the linen press, including the vintage image, above, from a 1928 House Beautiful. A linen press can be a freestanding cabinet or a built-in cupboard. For our 1813 Federal home built for two brothers, in the specification of rooms to the contractor (which is in the New Hampshire Historical Society archives), several linen presses were stipulated. I believe two of these are in the original kitchens of the main house and two are upstairs in two of the bedrooms. They are shallow built-in cupboards, with a door that gave them the appearance of a normal closet or doorway from the outside, but inside only allowing depth enough for sheets or small linens. [Of course, we use them for anything but their original use.] Closets were scarce until the Victorian period and a linen press allowed preferable storage, keeping linens flat, viewable and at the ready.
Several years ago while scouting places for The Pantry, I photographed an image of a linen closet in the service ell of a New England farmhouse. It was likely from the Colonial Revival era, built in the first decades of the 20th century, but it may have been earlier. With sliding glass doors and cupboards below, and with continuous light from a north window, it seemed perfect. I have always fancied an entire walk-in linen closet like this--a laundry "pantry"! My Ohio grandparents had one but it was in the domestic wing of the house where we grandchildren were not permitted, down a long, inviting hallway. I only glimpsed of it from the top of the back stairs, when the door had been left open. It was a narrow and deep walk-in closet.
When I last saw my Grandpa, I slept in that area of the house because the night nurses had taken over the guest rooms. For the first time I was able to explore that secret realm which had intrigued me for twenty years. I found the linen closet, much of its contents depleted through staff theft at the time. Fortunately, of the linens that remained, I inherited some from my father and still use them to this day: fine cotton percale sheets that are always crisp and cool when you climb into them, monogrammed towels, table linens.
Of course, a linen press sounds right out of 19th century England or from a novel written by Jane Austen. In England a linen press was more likely a large freestanding piece of furniture, as at left. In a letter written in 1814 to "Cassandra" Austen wrote:
Mrs. Driver, &c., are off by Collier, but so near being too late that she had not time to call and leave the keys herself. I have them, however. I suppose one is the key of the linen-press, but I do not know what to guess the other.
In Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte, written in 1848, one of the characters also mentions a linen press--and in the same passage a china-closet and a larder, too. Oh my! A character after my own heart:
Right, mother! And if my Master has given me ten talents, my duty is to trade with them, and make them ten talents more. Not in the dust of household drawers shall the coin be interred. I will not deposit it in a broken-spouted tea-pot, and shut it up in a china-closet among tea-things. I will not commit it to your work-table to be smothered in piles of woolen hose. I will not prison it in the linen press to find shrouds among the sheets: and least of all, mother' - (she got up from the floor) - 'least of all will I hide it in a tureen of cold potatoes, to be ranged with bread, butter, pastry, and ham on the shelves of the larder.