Coat closets are rare in California. Since I moved into my own place here in 2006, I have lived in 7 different homes, 5 of which did not have a coat closet. I grew up in Oregon, however, and my husband is from Mt. Shasta, so we keep heavy winter gear for family visits. Where do we put these coats that we only really need for two months of the year? What about all the other stuff that tends to be stored in a coat closet, when we have one? That includes the dog’s leash and other paraphernalia, our luggage, mops and brooms, the earthquake water, Roomba accessories, and canvas shopping bags. Our coat closet conundrum is one example of the way that home infrastructure does not always match the material needs of the inhabitants. It’s also an example of the way that we insist on putting stuff in particular places in our home, regardless of whether there is space for it all.
We just moved into a 728 square foot house that is 53% of the size of our old house. Part of the space that was cut from our accustomed living area includes the aforementioned coat closet, a bedroom, about 2/3 of a linen closet, half a bedroom closet, a pantry, and a walk-in storage closet off the garage that had considerable built-in shelving. We also accidentally destroyed a cabinet that used to hold all our office, art, and sewing supplies. It was really challenging to find places for the last 10% of our stuff and make our office a usable room.
We’ve been traveling back in time. When we first moved in together, I had been living in a 900 square foot “granny unit” built in 2001 that would technically qualify as a mini-house. Our newlywed house was built in 1988, had 1544 square feet, and came with a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, an astounding amount of kitchen storage, two living rooms, a cavernous garage, and, of course, a coat closet. The next house was 1056 square feet, freshly remodeled but built in 1972. Then we spent a few weeks in temporary housing that was part of an apartment complex. After that, we moved into the 1346 square foot, 1961 house where we lived last. Our current house was built in 1939. The closet rod in our bedroom measures 40 inches. This closet could have hidden behind some clothes in the walk-in closet of our newlywed house, and we wouldn’t have noticed it was there. We’ve learned a lot about what distinguishes homes of different decades, and how what is considered standard changes over the years.
As a newlywed couple, we combined two complete households’ worth of furniture, housewares, and linens. The 1988 house was so big, and had so much built-in storage, that we were able to keep both our couches, both our dining tables, and enough pans and utensils for 3-4 kitchens. We never really had to negotiate about downsizing anything. Four years later, we moved to another city, and the new house was 1/3 smaller. If the move had gone the other direction, starting in the 1972 house, we probably wouldn’t have chosen such a large house. We would have been used to the smaller space, and we would have wondered what anyone would do with an “extra” 500 square feet. If we were looking at buying a new home built in 2015, well, the median is around 2400 square feet! That’s more than 3x bigger than what was, judging by the 5-mile radius around our new house, absolutely ordinary in the 1920s and 1930s. Believe it or not, maybe 20% of the houses around us are smaller than ours.
We moved into our new bedroom, and I felt proud that I could fit all my clothes and my hanging shoe racks on a 40” closet rod, 4 inches shorter than my half of the previous closet. What’s missing? My husband’s clothes. They’re all in the office closet, because he often wakes up at 5:30 AM and considerately leaves the room to get dressed. In 1939, our “office” would almost certainly have been a children’s bedroom, and there might have been 2-3 kids in there! (In the late 50s, my mom shared her bedroom with two of her four siblings). My hubby and I would have fit our entire wardrobes on that 40” closet rod, including our coats, because that’s all the clothing we would have had. The shelf where I keep my sweaters and pajamas probably would have held our hatboxes, a suitcase, and perhaps a box of old letters from our courting days. We would not have had our current California King mattress, because they date to the 1960s, so there would have been room for another dresser that we don’t have, or perhaps a vanity table.
What else would have been in our 1939 house, if we were 1939 people? We would have had a radio cabinet in the living room, probably with a built-in turntable. We would each have had an easy chair, and next to mine would have been a workbasket for my knitting. Every night, I would darn socks, sew buttons, or work on a sweater or blanket while we listened to The Benny Goodman Show. I might have a sewing machine set up in the corner, or I might have my clothes made by a local seamstress, who would come over and hem them right on my body. We would not have had a dishwasher, clothes dryer, or microwave, so more of my time would have been spent hanging our clothes out to dry, ironing, washing dishes, and cooking. I’d be spending upward of 30 hours a week on domestic tasks, instead of six. 1939 happens to be the year that my maternal grandparents were married, so I have built this narrative from family photos and oral history, as well as a certain amount of web research.
Part of why we modern folk have a clutter crisis on our hands is that we have easy access to uncountable masses of cheap consumer goods. We have more leisure time than middle class suburbanites could ever have imagined a few generations ago, because machines do all our domestic labor. (Most time use statistics compare today with the 1970’s, which presents us as wage slaves [true] rather than presenting our grandparents as slaves to housework and food preparation). We want to know where we’re supposed to put all our collectibles, fabric hoards, laundry piles, DVDs, CDs, software, electronics, charging cables, shopping bags full of items with the tags still on, and other things that didn’t exist when our homes were built. We would never have been able to afford to buy these things in such volumes in the past. In 1974, my mom got a pocket calculator for a high school graduation gift. It would have cost about $150, or over $700 in 2015 money, for an item that now costs $3, fits on a keychain, and has more functions – IF you don’t just use an app on your phone. A few months ago, my teenage nephew sent out a group text of his Christmas wish list, including a Go Pro, a tablet computer, a PlayStation 4, and a TV for his room. Quod erat demonstrandum.
What are the 2015 items we’re having trouble storing in our 1939 house? The eBay stack. My extra ergonomic keyboard. A handy place to charge our two tablets, three smartphones, my Bluetooth headset, my Apple Watch, and my laptop. A half-gallon plastic bucket of Spike’s racquetballs. Some board games. A dry erase board. My husband’s Arduino workbench. We have plenty of room for our kitchen wares, tools, books, and clothes – things that we would have used in 1939 – but the modern stuff doesn’t seem to fit quite as well.
It seems that on a society-wide level, our material goods ballooned from the 1980s through the 2000s, and are now starting to contract again. One example is the boom box I bought in the late 90s. It played CDs and cassettes, neither of which category I own any longer, and it was bigger than my gym bag. Its place has been taken by my phone. My clock radio from the same era suffered the same fate, as did my answering machine. What happens is that we hand our obsolete items down, either to younger relatives, yard sale patrons, or Goodwill customers. Eventually, even the poorest households will wind up with things that were expensive and state-of-the-art a couple decades earlier. In 1939, the year our current rental house was built, apartment dwellers would have had one bathroom per floor that they shared with other tenants, while rural people would still have used outhouses. Almost everything on the house rental market is 20-50 years old, meaning what used to be curb-appeal innovations gradually become standard, even for broke people. Thrift stores are full of items of every description that were top of the line a decade or more in the past. Eventually, our more minimal lifestyles will trickle down *cough* and having a house crammed with clutter will seem as weird as it actually is.
Minimalism is a stylish luxury commodity in the same way that having a lean, toned Pilates body is. In the past, only the wealthiest of the upper crust could afford to be fat or to have possessions beyond ordinary functional housewares. Most people through most of history did not own a second outfit. Now it’s flipped the other way, and our poor people are the ones who carry the extra weight and the housefuls of extra stuff. Conspicuous non-consumption of particular goods and foods marks the elite. I’ve been talking a lot about my new neighborhood, because we’re so excited to be here, and part of the reason is that it’s a safe, well-manicured (read: expensive) oasis. Most of our new tiny-house neighbors also seem to be quite house-proud. We can brag about how far we are below 1000 square feet, rather than how far we are above 3000 (or 10,000, not all that far down the road from us). Gradually, social comparison will pull more and more people toward a more minimalist lifestyle, in the same aspirational manner that more people have quit smoking, adopted healthier diets, taken up yoga practices, and joined book clubs. More and more of us will show off the way our capsule wardrobes fit so neatly in our vintage closets, just like we would have shown off our increasingly tiny phones a decade ago.
We’ll still have to figure out where to put our winter coats, though.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.