‘Brown furniture,’ family silver and unheard history
Pluff Mud Chronicles
By Prioleau Alexander and Charles W. Waring III
A tragic and widespread trend is sweeping across the Charleston area and throughout the South in general: In short, children no longer want the beloved “family antiques” or the “family silver.”
Outrageous, I say.
My wife Heidi, who is a professional organizer and residential downsizer, tells me it’s one of the most difficult aspects of her job. After all, who wants to tell a lovely couple they need to brace themselves for the fact that their treasures are about to be snubbed … by their own flesh and blood, no less!
The inevitable occurs: The children come over to select the things they want and the conversation unfolds:
“This antique,” Mom says proudly, “was brought to Charleston in 1680 by your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents. It was their only possession. It survived the Revolution, the Great Fire, the War Between the States, the Great Earthquake, ten hurricanes and 7,000 cocktail parties. And now, I am going to give —”
“Hey, Mom — are y’all taking the Cuisinart? I could really use that.”
The trend is so widespread that these remarkable icons of times past have been dubbed “brown furniture.”
Not a Baroque, walnut, grain-painted, gilt-stenciled partners table … just “brown furniture.”
I believe this horrifying trend is due to socio-economic changes, especially here in Charleston. As you know, prior to the 1970s no one in Charleston had any money — but the home was decorated in wonderful antiques because they were inherited, not purchased. When the kids moved out to begin their own lives, they remained in Charleston, a city devoid of an economy. As a result, they got to be broke, just like their parents and purchased their furniture from the scratch and dent section at Sears.
When parents bestowed an antique unto their children, there was great rejoicing! Huzzah! We have a piece of furniture that’s not complete junk! When parents passed away, an entire house full of antiques was divvied up among the kids — enough nice furniture to the fancy-up the rooms visible to guests.
“LeGare, your house looks divine!”
“Thank you so much.”
“Parents died, I guess.”
“But your house looks great!”
“That’s what keeps me going. Can I freshen that up for you?”
Now? Kids leaving the nest can actually make a living — and during the next 30 years, develop their own style and furnish their home accordingly. Unfortunately, taking in five massive antiques provides only two options: Adding on a wing, or redecorating every inch of the entire downstairs.
Neither is very appealing, given that college costs $50,000 a year. In-state. And only if your kid works 40-hours a week.
The kiddoes not wanting the furniture isn’t the only gut-punch for parents. Taking a $10,000 antique to the consignment store is equally depressing, largely because retailers have that pesky problem called profits. Odds are they will inspect your antique and, not wanting to have it on the floor long enough for it to be reclaimed by the grandchildren, will price it at $8,000 and the sale will require a 50 percent commission.
But that’s my $10,000 antique! Yes, it is. And there’s a very good chance the consigner will want to paint it sky blue and sell it to someone furnishing their beach house.
The news on the family silver isn’t much better, mostly because every daughter gets her own silverware via her bridal registry and she might just prefer stainless. Mom, on the other hand, has her sterling silver … and her mom’s and her grandmother’s and her great grand-mother’s and so on. The end result is a closet full of silver, with dozens and dozens of pieces that haven’t been polished since the Eisenhower administration.
“Honey … I’ve been saving this for you. Voila!”
“Gee, Mom — an entire closet full of exactly what I don’t need! Lemme just insure it, hire a team to keep it polished and empty one of our closets so I can jam it in there and torture my daughter in 30 years!”
Charles, I kid you not — sterling silver is now worth the melt-down price.
This trend will, of course, one day reverse itself. Antiques and sterling silver will once again become treasures and regain the monetary value they deserve. Craftsmanship will again be appreciated and the number of divorces caused by assembling IKEA furniture will plummet. This is as certain as Charleston is in a building bubble.
And that should be good news for parents. Years from now, while seated atop a cloud playing their harps, they can look down at their heirs who are crying in their soup and lamenting, “Mom and Dad were right! We should’ve accepted their gifts! We passed up tens of thousands of dollars! Boo-hoo-hoo.”
Kind gives you a warm feeling just thinking about it.
Thanks for raising the issue, Prioleau. I did not appreciate this snub-the-stuff business until I read reports about the brown furniture phobia a while back and then tapped local antiques guru George Read to write a piece on this topic for our newspaper. I recall a few years back when Harvey Brockinton’s office called to tell me that Mr. Brockinton was retiring and had my grandfather’s desk (turned out it was my great-grandfather’s desk) and would like me to come look at it and think about if I wanted it or not. I said thank you very much and found Brad Nietert who agreed to restore it. I was “all in” before I knew the condition and made arrangements for Brad to get cracking and pick it up directly from the law firm.
I remember once looking at some family silver pieces my mother gave us and noticed one had my cousin’s initials thereon and immediately reached out for the exchange, which my kinsman appreciated. I only offer this comment — not to say what a good guy I am — but as an illustration of my attitude toward family pieces. Some ask why I often hunt with old double guns; it has to do with the family stories behind them.
We can make too much of “stuff” and start to make things more valuable than people; however, within the right bounds, there is nothing inherently wrong with wishing to hold on to your family pieces or seeing that certain items end up in the hands of the family or cousin who originally had them. There is great joy in seeing the look on someone’s face who has received a surprise legacy item. I was part of that experience not long ago and it was simply a matter of passing on that something very special was available for sale and it all worked. I will not disclose the buyer and seller, but the item was a bed that went back nearly 200 years and connected the buyer to a lifestyle long gone but well remembered by the item in hand.
I simply do not have anything on my radar that can ping a desire to pitch the old stuff. I guess that is when you figure out that the term “old school” is baked into your DNA and you might as well cry uncle. I understand that circumstances change when you have a space crunch, but if you have younger relatives starting off and in need of some pieces you can trade out to make space, offer away and make someone’s day. I know there is nothing fancy about my grandfather’s World War I sea chest he made to stow his gear while patrolling the coast of South Carolina while in the United States Navy. It actually takes up a great deal of space in my garage and is highly impractical.
I look at the trunk and think about the years 1917 and 1918 and then consider being on a converted yacht, taking turns on the watch and looking with binoculars far into the ocean for anything like a German U-boat. I can imagine hearing the brass bell ringing to signal coming on deck for inspection and how CWW Sr.’s gear would have been neatly organized and ready for an officer’s eyeballs.
I sit at his desk and think of the difficult days when his brother was writing scathing editorials about their mutual uncle, the much discussed Judge Waring and how he respected his uncle’s thinking but refused to let his beliefs turn into a family fight. I only know that because my father explained it to me, as he did hundreds of other family histories. Grandfather would have been firing up unfiltered Camels at that desk on a very regular basis and also writing the many sweet notes to my grandmother that I have in a box in storage. His father, T. R. Waring, wrote editorials at this desk for the Evening Post and participated fully in the Charleston Renaissance.
Perhaps, I truly am just a packrat with a trunk-load of family stories, but without those ties, it would be easier to part with some things. Meanwhile, I continue to see anecdotal articles about how the millennial interest in their family history is declining and wonder how much of a chance they ever had to learn their tales.
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