by Mabell S.C. Smith, 1915
I like looking at houses and reading about houses. I subscribe to Old House Journal and have more cross-stitch charts of Victorian mansions than I will ever have time to stitch. So, despite the pitiful action and the predictable plot -- not to mention the dolefully dull pages of essay-disguised-as-dialogue -- I like this book.
It's one of the most relentlessly educational children's books I've ever read, Actually, it's a series of essays (on housing construction, artistic theory, and American history -- complete with technical illustrations, sometimes!) strung together with some dialogue and a minimum of plot.
The first third of this book could be reprinted in OHJ and it would hold the enthralled interest of its readers. The Ethels (there are two Ethel Mortons. Don't worry about it.) and their friend are taking an intense interest in the new house Ethel Blue's mother is having built. The construction foreman is very patient and explains all sorts of things. He explains why poured concrete basements are better than cellars -- providing a cross-section diagram. He helps them make their own poured-concrete birdbath, and lets them investigate the house wall construction, seeing how the wires are right inside the wall instead of running up inside the room. He shows them how all the wood is cut to length first so the ubiquitous Italian workmen can do the actual construction efficiently.
Later they pore over catalogs of lawn furniture, deciding what is most practical and will last longest. they have prolonged discussions over the proper landscaping and planting outside, and the proper wallpapers, paints, and rugs inside.
I wouldn't mind living in this house. It has central vacuum, central air conditioning, and central refrigeration! Although central refrigeration didn't catch on, it's a bit unnerving to realize that central vacuum and central air have been around so long.
It has hot water heat, fired by coal -- and a gas heater for heating water alone, in the summer time. There is a screened-in terrace with glass panels for winter use (the terrace has a fireplace!). The bedrooms all have sleeping porches, but sliding panels make it possible to have the beds on either the house side (inside) or on the porch side (outside) of the wall.
One very trendy feature is a "firecloset" on each floor, a shallow built-in cupboard with four shelves: three to hold buckets full of water, and one to hold chemical fire extinguishers. I'm not so sure about those shelves of full water buckets . . .
Except for heating, the house is all electric. An even more modern idea is that the light switches are just inside the room doors, instead of randomly placed. (If you live in an old house, you know than random placement is often the case -- and you know how much fun it is.)
While the furnishing is going on, the youngsters are taken on a short trip from their New Jersey home to Philadelphia, where they lecture one another on American history. Later they spend a day at the Metropolitan Museum, appreciating art. They seem to enjoy it -- but I'd rather go back and read the part about the house again!
© 1996 Jo Anne Fatherly
This review first appeared in The Whispered Watchword, the newsletter of The Phantom Friends