Of the historic homes I toured during family vacations as a child (we really knew how to have a good time), I can remember precisely one thing about each site.
- At Mount Vernon, a group of Japanese tourists took my photo after I demonstrated for them that I could count to 10 in Japanese.
- At the Biltmore Estate, my mother said something like, “Lord, I’d lose my way around this place”—a harmless remark that nevertheless made me feel worried and vaguely sad.
- At Monticello, I learned what a dumbwaiter was.
According to the Monticello website, Thomas Jefferson had two dumbwaiters installed in the dining room for the purpose of bringing up bottles from the wine cellar. Apparently, Jefferson spoke of such contraptions as ways of “ameliorating” the lot of the people he enslaved.
However, a more accurate description of what Jefferson was doing was provided by Scottish social reformer Frances Wright, who visited Monticello. She wrote that slaveholders, like Jefferson, who made a big deal about how they were making slavery easier or more humane were, in fact, merely “gilding” the chains of bondage. I assume that’s an old-timey way of saying, “Man oh man, is this guy an asshole.”
Sins of our Founding Fathers aside, I did think the dumbwaiter was neat as an invention. Like many children with a theatrical streak, I was fascinated by anything involving hidden compartments, secret passageways, and such.
The closest thing we had to a dumbwaiter back home was the laundry chute connecting a spot in the upstairs hallway to the room below where the washer and dryer were kept. You’d open this cabinet built into the wall, deposit your dirty clothes, and they’d fall one story so that my mom—who did manage to find her way out of Biltmore, thanks for asking—could toss the items into the washing machine.
I realize that I’m basically describing a big underpants hole in the center of my childhood home. But the chute seemed to me a cool architectural feature at the time.
That house also had a wood-paneled office with a secret closet concealed behind one of the walls. There was no doorknob or visible hinges or anything, and the paneling camouflaged the door’s cracks and seams. But if you pushed on the wood in the right place, lo and behold, you’re looking at a secret closet for some reason.
One time I hurt my tailbone by trying to impress some visitors with what I thought would be a hilarious gag where I pretended to fall back and then through the wall, revealing the hidden closet. Only I tripped and fell for real on my behind.
Physical comedy exacts a heavy toll, let me tell you.
Nowadays I keep my dirty clothes in a hamper. It’s a collapsible canvas cylinder I got at CB2 when I moved into my first apartment after college.
That means I have had the hamper for more than 20 years now. You might think I’d have developed some sort of sentimental attachment to the object after all that time, but you’d be wrong.
Some things are so beige and unremarkable, you can’t bring yourself to care about them even if they’ve been around doing an adequate job for eons. I feel the same way about Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.
When this apartment is eventually deemed a site of historical significance due to its connection to a certain failed pratfaller–turned–blogger of household ephemera, you totally have my permission to skip the hamper portion of the tour.