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She Didn’t Start It: Jane Ellen Panton, a Victorian Marie Kondo

Sarah Bilston

Marie Kondo seems to be everywhere these days. Home-dwellers across the planet debate whether the objects in their home “spark joy” and throw out those that don’t — after thanking them for their service first, as per a key KonMariprecept. Kondo’s website proudly asserts “She started it,” and certainly her global success seems to have helped generate a new generation of YouTubers who, like Kondo, offer us advice in the tricky business of tidying up our lives. 

Yet the home beautification guru – who offers to bring us to a new state of being through the rearrangement of our houses – is not a new phenomenon. For as long as people have had a little extra cash and a house, inspirational figures have tried to help home-owners manage the order and aesthetic of their living space.  One long-forgotten figure who did just this, in the 1880s, is Jane Ellen Panton, daughter of the great Victorian painter, William Powell Frith. Frith gave the daily lives of the middle classes the dignity of vast canvases formerly reserved for royalty or scenes from history and myth. Panton saw that middle-class problems with clutter and bad wallpaper, with gaping floorboards and draughty fireplaces, also deserved serious attention, and she devoted half-a-dozen books and years of magazine columns to the topic. Indeed Panton, like Kondo, made a career telling people how to transform their homes – and how to become better, happier, more fulfilled people in the process.

Kondo’s first book is titled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and, from the earliest pages, Kondo suggests that remarkable transformations will unfold after a thorough tidying. “When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order too,” she states in the introduction, linking physical tidying with mental and emotional uplift. Positive consequences to tidying range from weight loss and renewed marital harmony to coincidences that seem mystically charged: Kondo recalls that one happy customer wrote to tell her, “Someone I have been wanting to get in touch with recently contacted me,” as if the Spheres themselves have been realigned after a rigorous session of throwing out.

At the heart of Jane Ellen Panton’s books, too, is the idea that the look of a home shapes our experience of living in it, so that improving its appearance can have dramatic consequences for all areas of the occupants’ lives. Panton opined, in her break-out From Kitchen to Garrett (1887), “we are much more susceptible to good colours and lovely things than ever we know” – indeed “we are influenced for good and evil by our surroundings.” The stakes were as high, in their own way, in Panton’s work as in Kondo’s: an orderly household is both necessary for, and productive of, an orderly mind and, by extension, the order of the nation generally.

To achieve this, everything had to have its own place “in every department in the house.” Mess and hoarding were to be resisted at all costs. “Even sentimental rubbish should be destroyed at once,” Panton informed her readers: “when we die it will be done by hands which are not as tender as ours are, and no good is done by hoarding all sorts and kinds of letters and flowers, or even babies’ first shoes.” Panton was every bit as suspicious of storage rooms as Kondo: the “garret” is “all too often . . . a storehouse for all sorts and conditions of rubbish, put up there in a desperate hope that, sooner or later, the odds and ends will come in usefully,” she remarked, advising a complete clear out of the space every three months. Panton’s mantra was “a place for everything, and everything in its place,” and this meant both that each object had to have its own, documented spot (written out on a physical list, if necessary) and that activities should take place in appropriate rooms. Panton was writing for a new, largely suburban readership, a middle-class population residing in houses set out of the city in areas that offered a little more space and a garden to urban workers. More space meant rooms with designated purposes – from smoking rooms to dressing rooms, libraries to nurseries – and Panton was a staunch advocate of using the right space for its assigned use. As a comical example of this, she records particular frustration with a guest who brought in “clammy and awful things” from ponds and ditches to examine under a microscope. “I should not have minded this one bit,” she laments, “if she had done it in a room we had, where the boys made messes . . . but I had just had my spare room done up, and the effect was so terrible I have never forgotten it.” Why couldn’t the scientific-minded guest have used the “large and unfurnished room, sacred to boys” instead of spreading out “specimens of all the nastinesses she had collected” on top of a brand new quilt?

That Panton’s guest with the microscope was a woman is interesting to note, especially since women were mostly expected to manage the home. In fact, From Kitchen to Garrett addresses itself to an imaginary “Angelina” dealing with a loving but somewhat difficult “Edwin.” All the way through the book, Edwin pops up to thwart Angelina’s best efforts, and at fascinating moments Panton strides out into the territory of Victorian marital disagreements. Kondo admits to clearing up her spouse’s and family’s closets in the teeth of their objections, and Panton (no blushing Angel in the House) admits the same. “A little careful stealing from a husband who is an inveterate hoarder . . . can be practiced to advantage,” she advises. Panton’s view is that, if women are the ones organizing the home, they should be allowed to clear up exactly as they want. The hoarder husband, who won’t give up his worn-out possessions, is a frustrating but manageable phenomenon: Panton suggests that wives write the date of an item’s purchase in invisible ink directly on the garment (“on the lining of the inside of the sleeve is the best”). This will give a wife “triumphant proof of her accuracy” which will allow her to “utterly confound” her husband when he resists her efforts to give away his garment, allowing her “to bear it off to gladden the heart of some old pensioner.”  Might a husband pick up the book and learn the trick? No, Panton observes, with great satisfaction. Men never trouble themselves to read her work.

So what else was crucial to Panton’s aesthetic? What else did this once-famous and much-reprinted author advocate for the home? Panton was writing at a time when new houses were being constructed in large numbers, and very quickly; much of her advice is focused, then, on how home-dwellers can manage problems caused by poor construction (floors are more likely to gape, for instance, if they are made of poorly-seasoned wood). She is also acutely aware of the cold and of draughts, so that her aesthetic often aims at beautifying a necessity – as, for instance, when she commends the sewing of a portiere, or door curtain, to keep out draughts. Her taste is also very much a product of her moment, influenced by the emerging Arts and Crafts movement and particularly the style of William Morris. Her answer to a remarkable number of problems is to buy textiles at the new department store, Liberty, or its Tottenham Court rival, Shoolbred’s.

But some of her advice never goes out of style, and I offer here the core of what might be called a PanJanaesthetic:

  1. “With a small income it is the reverse of suitable to make purchases that can never be replaced without months of striving and saving”
  2. “Sunshine is the very first thing to be considered, and the more sunshine one attracts to one’s house the better we shall be”
  3. “I cannot too often impress upon my readers to allow themselves to be guided more by common sense, and less by fashion and conventionalities”
  4.  “Let love, beauty, carefulness, and economy rule your lives, O young householders! And then you will find that life is the most interesting thing possible, and is always, to the very last day of it, well worth the trouble of living.”

Sarah Bilston is professor of literature at Trinity College. She is the author of The Awkward Age in Women’s Popular Fiction, 1850-1900 and two novels, Bed Rest and Sleepless Nights.

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Featured photo by Tom Rumble on Unsplash

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