Mending a Misunderstanding: 1860

early 18th c hussif

Early-18th century house-wife or hussif.



You would have known it for a bachelor’s den the moment you put your head in the door! Blue, spicy wreaths of cigar-smoke circling up to the ceiling–newspapers under the table–Castile soap in the tiny bronze card-receiver–slippers on the mantle-piece, and general confusion everywhere. And yet Mr. Thornbrooke–poor deluded mortal–solemnly believed that his room was in the most perfect order! For hadn’t he poked the empty champagne bottles under the bed, and sent the wood-box to bear them company, and hung up his morning gown over the damp towels, and dusted the ash-besprinkled hearth with his best silk handkerchief? He’d to see a room in better trim than that–guessed he would! And now he was mending himself up, preparatory to going to call on the very prettiest girl in New York. Not that he was particularly fond of the needle, but when a fellow’s whole foot goes through a hole in the northeast toe of his stocking, and there isn’t a button on his shirts, it’s time to repair damages.

Now, as Mr. Thornbrooke’s whole stock of industrial implements consisted of a lump ot wax, an enormous pair of scissors, and one needle, the mending didn’t progress rapidly. His way of managing the button question, too, necessarily involved some delay; he had to cut all these useful little appendages from another shirt and sew them on and next week when the second shirt was wanted, why it was easy enough to make a transfer again! See what it is to be a bachelor of genius! it never once occurred to him to buy a few buttons extra!

“Buttons are not much trouble,” said Mr. Thornbrooke to himself, as he wiped the perspiration from his brow, “but when it comes to coat-sleeves, what the mischief is a fellow to do? I haven’t any black thread either; and he looked dolorously at a small tear just in his elbow, where some vicious nail had caught in the broadcloth. “A black pin may do for to-night, and to-morrow I’ll send it to the tailor. The fact is, I ought to be married; and so I would, if I only dared to ask Lilian. O, dear! I know she wouldn’t have me–and yet I’m not so certain either–if only could muster the courage boldly to put the question! But just as sure as I approach the dangerous ground my heart fails me. And then that puppy, Jones, with his curled mustache, and hair parted in the middle–always hanging round Lilian, and quoting poetry to her—if I could have the privilege of kicking him across the street, I’d die happy! He isn’t bashful, not he ! If somebody would only invent a new way of popping the question–something that wasn’t quite so embarrassing!” Our hero gave a his black, glossy curls an extra brush, surveyed himself critically in the glass, and then, with a deep sigh, set forth to call on the identical Lilian Raymond, resolving as he has done a thousand times before, that if—perhaps—maybe—

Oh, the bashfulness of bachelors!

When Mark Thornbrooke arrived within the charmed precincts of old Mr. Raymond’s handsome parlors, velvet carpeted, chandeliered with gold and ormolu, and crowded to the very doors with those charming knickknacks that only a woman’s taste provides, Miss Lily was “at home” in a bewildering pink merino dress, edged with white lace around the pearly shoulders, and a crimson moss-rose twisted in among the rippling waves of her soft brown hair. She never looked half so pretty; and thank Providence, Jones wasn’t on hand, for once in his life. But what was almost as bad, Lilly’s cousin was there–a tall, slender, black eyed girl, with arch lips and cheeks as red as a Spitzenberg apple. O, how Thornbrooke wished that Miss Esther Allen was at the bottom of the Red Sea, or anywhere else except in that particular parlor. And then her eyes were so sharp—he hadn’t been “doing the agreeable” more than four minutes and a half, before she exclaimed:

“Dear me, Mr. Thornbrooke–pray excuse me–but what on earth is the matter with your elbow?”

Mark turned scarlet–the traitorous black pin has deserted its post. “Only a compound fracture in my coat, Miss Allen,” said he, feeling as though his face might do the duty of all old Mr. Raymond ‘s chandeliers put together, “you know we bachelors are not expected to be exempt from such things.”

“Hold up your arm, sir, and I’ll set it all right in one moment,” said Esther, instantaneously producing from some secret recess in the folds of of her dress, a thimble and needle, threaded with black silk, and setting expertly to work.

“There, now consider yourself whole.”

“How skillful you are,” said Mark, admiringly, after he had thanked her most sincerely. “But then you have so many nice little concerns to work with. I have only a needle and some wax, besides my scissors!”

“You ought to have a house-wife, Mr. Thornbrooke,” said Miss Lily, timidly lifting up her long lashes in his direction. Lily never could speak to Thornbrooke without a soft, little, rosy shadow on her cheek.

“A what?” demanded Mark, turning very red.

“A house-wife.”

“Yes,” said Mark, after a moment’s awkward hesitation, “my friends have told me so very often—and–and I really think so myself, you know. But what sort of a one would you recommend, Miss Raymond?”

“Oh, any pretty little concern. I’ll send you one to-morrow morning, if you’ll accept of it,” she added, with the rosy light in her cheeks again.

“If–I’ll—accept–of it!” gasped Mark, feeling as if he were up in an atmosphere of pearl and gold, with two wings sprouting out of his broadcloth, on either side. And just as he was opening his lips to assure Miss Lily that he was ready to take the precious gift to his arms then and there without any unnecessary delay, the door opened, and in walked Jones.

Mark was not at all cannibalistic in his propensities, but just then he could have eaten Jones up with most uncommon pleasure. And there the fellow sat, pulling his long mustaches and talking the most insipid twaddle–sat and sat until Mark rose in despair to go. Even then he had no opportunity to exchange a private word with Lily. “You–you’ll not forget–”

“Oh, I’ll be sure to remember, said she, smilingly, and half wondering at the unusual pressure he gave her hand. “Ladies often do provide their bachelor friends so!”

Mark went home, the happiest individual that ever trod a New York pavement. Indeed, so great was his felicity that he indulged in various gymnastic capers indicative of bliss, and only paused in them at the gruff caution of a policeman, who probably had forgotten his own courting days–“Come, young man, what are you about?”

“Was there ever a more delicate way of assuring me of her favorable consideration? was there ever a more feminine admission of her sentiment? Of course she will come herself—an angel, breathing airs from Paradise–and I shall tell her of my love! A housewife–oh! the delicious words! Wonder what neighborhood she would like me to engage a residence in–how soon it would be best to name the day? Oh! if I should awake, and find it all a blissful dream!

Early the next morning Mr. Thornbrooke set briskly to work, “righting up things.” How he swept and dusted and scoured—how the dust flew from pillar to post–how the room was aired to get rid of the tobacco-smoke, and sprinkled with Cologne, and beautified generally. And at length, when the dust was all swept into one corner, and covered by a carelessly (!) disposed newspaper, he found the window-glass murky, and polished it with such vengeance that his fist, handkerchief and all, went through, sorely damaging the hand, and necessitating the ungraceful accessory of an old hat to keep out the wintry blast for the time-being. However, even this mishap didn’t long damp his spirits—for was not Lily coming?

Long and wearily he waited, yet no twinkle at the bell gave warning of her approach.

“It’s all her sweet feminine modesty,” thought he, and was content.

At length there was a peal below, and Mark’s heart jumped up into his mouth, beating like a reveille drum. He rushed to the door, but—there was no one but a little grinning boy, with a box.

“Miss Raymond’s compliments, and here’s de housewife, sir!”

“The housewife, you little imp of Erebus!”

“Yes, sir, in de box, all right!”

Mark slunk back into his room and opened the box, half expecting to see a full dressed young lady issue from it, a la  Arabian Nights; but no–it was only a little blue velvet book all tied up with gold cord, and full of odd compartments in azure silk, containing tape, needles, scissors, silk, thimble, and all the nice little work-table accessories!

“And she calls this a housewife!” groaned Mark, in ineffable bitterness of spirit at the downfall of his bright visions. “But I won’t be put off so.”

Desperation gave him courage, and off he hied to the Raymond mansion, determined to settle the matter if there were forty Joneses and Esthers there.

But Lilian was all alone, singing at her embroidery in the sunshiny window casement.

“Dear me, Mr. Thornbrooke! is anything the matter?”

Perhaps it was the shadow from the splendid crimson cactus plumes in the window that gave her cheek such a delicate glow—perhaps–but we have no right to speculate.

“Yes.” And ‘Mark sat down by her side, and took the little trembling, fluttering hand. “You sent me a housewife this morning?”

“Wasn’t it right?” faltered Lilian.

“It wasn’t the kind I wanted at all.”

“Not the kind you wanted?”

“No; I prefer a live one, and I came to see if I couldn’t change it. I want one with brown hair and eyes–something, in short, Miss Lillian, just your pattern. Can’t I have it?”

Lily turned white, and then red—smiled, and then burst into tears–and tried to draw away her hand, but Mark held it fast.

“No, no, dear Lily; first tell me if I can have the treasure I ask for?” “Yes,” she said, with the prettiest confusion in the world; and then, instead of releasing the captive hand, the unreasonable fellow took possession of the other one, too. But as Lily did not object, we suppose it was all right.

And that was the odd path by which Mark Thornbrooke diverged from the walk of old bachelorhood, and stepped into the respectable ranks of matrimony.

The Berkshire County Eagle [Pittsfield MA] 26 July 1860: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  A laughable, yet natural mistake. The 19th-century gentleman led a life sheltered from domestic realities, first by his mother, then by his wife, so it is quite possible that he had never seen such a useful article. The “house-wife,” also known as a “hussif,” is, obviously, a little sewing kit in a fold- or roll-up case. It is a more economical version of the necessaire or etui.  Mrs Daffodil suggests that Mr Thornbrooke would be a bachelor still if Miss Lily had recommended an etui. 

One could find similar misapprehensions at the newsagent’s:

He looked over all the papers on the newsstand, and not finding what he wanted, said to the plump, pretty girl clerk: “I want a Fireside Companion.”

“What, sir?” she blushed.

“I want a Fireside Companion,” he repeated.

“O, yes, sir, I hear you now,” and she chewed the corner of her apron; “well-well—do you think I would do?”

It turned out happily.

The Pantagraph [Bloomington IL] 7 January 1880: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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