Saturday, March 16, 2013

We encase the furniture in plastic so we can have nice things

IF YOU ARE a person from the east side of Cleveland, and of a certain age AND JEWISH OR POLISH OR BOTH, then the piece of furniture will look familiar:

This, for your edification is a Rococo "Davenport".  To those of you in Canada, this is what your grandmother would refer to as a Chesterfield.  In current terms, something this would be called a sofa, but not a couch.  Or maybe you would call it a Settee, or a Love seat.

You could never call it a couch, but a couch implies a level of comfort. But there is nothing comfortable about this "Davenport".  From its design - which we call "Early Van Aken" - so named for the boulevard of the same name lined with posh apartments where your "bubbie" lived, this was all about the show - it was proof that you had made it in America, because you could have "nice things" like royalty.

Early Van Aken was a favorite of working class Eastern Europeans, especially the Jews who found Early American furniture too common.  And that modern stuff that the better educated Jews and Poles liked? Feh!  "There's nothing to it!  Its a board with chrome legs and they want a fortune for it!"

It seems if you came over from the Old Country, and had this furniture you no longer had to talk about "the Old Country" except to say things like "Such heartbreak!" or "Such tsoris!" - which was just another way of saying heartbreak.  And every chance they got, they reminded the grandchildren that their grandparents upended their so that their beloved bubulahs would never have to know of the tsoris of being a peasant and eat off a board with metal legs.

This was part of the Jewish children's catechism that their grandparents drilled into their heads at each visit with Bubbie.  "I gave up everything for you so you could have a better future."

You didn't need reminded of this every time you turned around.  The fact was, your grandparents had made it out of the Old Country.  This you knew.  BUT, they bought this rococo furniture because it meant they had made in America, AND they didn't want you to feel shame in their shabby furnishings, so they bought nice things.

And given what they had been through, they earned these nice things.  And since America was the land where you reinvented yourself, for your grandparents - former peasants - could have furniture fit for the Tsar, even though the Tsar was who they were escaping from.  That is the irony of America.  A man's home is castle, but no kings or queens unless its the person who lives in their home.

But its the plastic slip covers that set it all apart.  That's what kept the nice things nice.

You see, after outwitting the Tsar's Cossack's to escape conscription, sailing steerage, arriving in America and starting out on the American dream, and the hard work and the suffering by doing without (and its always about the suffering) our grandparents, Aunts and Uncles obtained "nice things" to be just like everyone else.

No Early American Maple for them.  No, they sought out anything that they thought Bach would like, and if it was highlight in gold, all the better.  And the Cherubs!  Oy the Cherubs!   Louis XIV would be mated with Louis XVI in incestuous design schemes that also incorporated Capodimonte lamps and candy dishes, to Real Rose Globes and nick knacks.

And what they bought had to last, because while they adopted the time style of the deMedici's, they didn't have their pocket books, so the stuff had to last because God forbid you should have to buy a second Davenport in your lifetime.  That would be crazy!

To keep them nice, they encased them in plastic, so their beloved family members wouldn't ruin the nice things.

The plastic that they used for these slip covers was a hard, clear plastic, custom made because no two pieces of Rococo furniture were the same, that let you look at the brocades, moire silk-like materials and admire them. But the plastic had no "give". So when you sat upon it it crackled and snaped like a certain cereal.  And it would pinch your tukis under your clothes, and your leg's underside.  Talk about your tsoris!

And if you had a fat cousin, or an aunt or uncle, they were always steered to a dining room chair, because those plastic slip covers would hold air.  So if the corpulent aunt wasn't diverted to a dining room chair there was a risk that she would cause a blow out of the plastic cover and it would "pop" with a loud BANG!

Worse, if you were shorts because it was summer, the plastic wouldn't breath.  But your legs would sweat and stick to the plastic, leaving them wet, and God forbid a leg mark on the covering from the sweat and skin oils.

In our family, this meant only one thing - furniture throws were deployed over the plastic.

Yes, they covered the plastic to keep it from getting dirty and yellowing from sunlight light and cigarette smoke.  At first they covered them with "miracle fabrics" which created a hazard.  Because the plastic was smooth like glass, and the fabric was man-made, you had to sit and not move for fear of skidding like a man walking on ice.  Or it you twisted to talk to the person next to you, it would case the entire throw to skate off the furniture into a clump.

Now you'd done it.  Because everyone had to get up to straighten the throw which was just going to  cascade into a pool the next time someone moved.   And this ramped-up the stress of a family visit because your grandparents got fussy, tempers flared and the visit got cut short.

"Going so soon?"

This, you were reminded in the car going home, THIS, was why, your parents said, they couldn't have nice things.


"Because you fidget," my father would say.

"But I thought they came from the Old Country so we could have nice things?"

"Who told you that?"

"Grandma did."

"What does she know," replied my father.  This was my cue to shut the fuck up.

So when they came out with foam back furniture throws, my grandmother and aunt rejoiced.  The puddling issue was solved.  And our visits grew longer, and more stressfull in other ways.

If all of this wasn't nonsensical enough, there was the code that said when non-related company was coming over, there was a rush to remove the plastic from the furniture, because no one wanted the guests to think that you had plastic on the furniture.  And getting the plastic removed was a great sign that you were important, like the rabbi was important.

Once, my mother and I were out running errands and my other had to drop something off to a friend, Sylvia Robroy.   Sylvia welcomed us into the house graciously, invited us into her living room and apologized.  "If had known you were coming over, I would have removed the plastic from the furniture."  She seemed genuinely embarrassed by the failure to do so, but my mother protested.

"Sylvia, we're friends.  And you never have to worry about it."  But now everyone knew that Sylvia kept her furniture in plastic, just like everybody else did.

We went to the kitchen were I was given a glass of milk and the adults had coffee.  Everyone sat down on vinyl covered chairs.  The adults kibitzed while I sat still and waited for the confab to end.  Mrs. Robroy didn't seem to mind the dinette set in plastic, I thought.

I asked my mother once once why we never had plastic on the furniture.

"Well, I suppose we would have if your father would have had a client in the business.  But frankly, life is too short for your thighs to stick to the cushions of life.  Besides, my old country is Central Ohio.  We sat on the floor when I was a kid."

"And you," she reminded me exhaling the smoke from her Kent cigarette, "can always sit on the floor like they did in my Old Country."


  1. My grandmother also had those plastic covers (probably all the members of her mahj group had them), but after a short time she wised up and got rid of them (the covers, that is).

    1. The worst was when they got old and brittle and crack and tear. Many a child had their legs slashed by that plastic.

  2. my irish relatives favored early americana via the JC Penny catalog. The fabric was woven out of tree bark and trash bags, making it impervious to everything. Nothing say forever like an ugly couch THAT WILL NOT DIE.

    1. Nothing says Americana like a spread eagle, or twenty.

  3. this explains why you are who you are.

  4. My white trash mother and my gay little younger self had an ongoing battle over the plastic covers on the lampshades. I'd take them off, she'd put them back on. Went on for years, until I left home.

    1. So when I come to visit I should bring some and deploy them around the house?

  5. better through chemistry.

  6. In the 1/2 double former company house where we lived in Culmbank, Northeastern PA, my mother didn't go as far as platic, it would have cost too much money. We had the "front room" and it was simple, we could not go into it under any circumstances. It led to the front door, which would have created a problem of unwanted traffic, so my mother hung a sign on the front door saying to the use the back door.
    If we forgot our places and wandered into the front room, we were kicked out with a swat. So it went. My mother had that front room furniture from the early 60's to before she died in 2008. I got rid of when I moved into her place temporarily to keep it going until I got tired of the $1,000/month electric bill, cleaning it out, closing it up and eventually selling it to cover her nursing home bill.

    1. Our maid would vacuum the living room floor in a specific pattern one week and then another pattern the next and she would alternate patterns. Why? So my mother would knows she vacuumed the rug. But the pattern also showed foot prints, and this was our undoing. The maid would yell at me because I was ruining the nice pattern in the front room! Oh, dear God, not that!

  7. Rococo Davenport. New favorite drag name.

  8. I grew up sandwiched between living downstairs from my Aunt Mary who had the same exact couch, same plastic as well and my Aunt Connie who lived downstairs. Aunt Connie, while choosing not to cover her rococo set with plastic DID put plastic runners down over the carpet to protect the high traffic areas.

    When I removed them upon moving in to her apartment, they left a "reverse" path of clean untouched bright pink carpeting through out the faded pink carpeting in all the front rooms.

    1. My mother would take carpet scraps after carpet and the place them burlap side ove the carpet area that got the most traffic. That way it was carpet on carpet and nothing abraded the wall to wall.