You are what you own

It was a romantic notion, I confess, moving from a perfectly framed almost-new house in a master-planned community in Scottsdale, Arizona, to a 200-year-old house scavenged from 300-year-old leftovers on a winding road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, but here we are.

And things are, shall we say, different in small-town New England.

The Pilgrims and the Puritans (I could never quite keep them straight) came over from Holland or England (I could never quite keep them straight either) with their own strict ideas about what was appropriate and what wasn’t, and apparently it wasn’t appropriate to build big closets and cupboards, places where you could store lots of stuff. I guess it was regarded as worldly and scandalous to have lots of stuff.

Or, apparently, even if you were irreligious, you still built your house with tiny closets and cupboards, or none at all, just to keep from being tried and convicted and hanged as an infidel, or a witch.

However it happened, my antique house got built (of course it was “new construction” back then), and I fell in love with it and bought it and moved into it with the full knowledge that my family and I would face a dreadful dearth of closet and cupboard space.

I have no one to blame but myself.

There wasn’t even a word for closet before the 1300s, and even when the word was invented (from the Latin clausum, for “closed”), a closet was designated as a “small private room for study or prayer.” Those folks in the Middle Ages clearly did not understand that a cool American guy would need a place to hang his voluminous capitalist free-market supply of multiple suits, too many shirts, and more pants than any one person could possibly wear — not to mention a few vests that can’t be tossed out, just in case vests come back into fashion.

Also, please, if you don’t mind, there should be enough space to walk in, turn around, and survey this mini-clothing-kingdom as I decide what to wear for maximum impact in this afternoon’s committee meeting.

(Closets started out as “wardrobes,” separate pieces of furniture, in old Europe. But according to, it was the resourceful Americans who invented the built-in closet, a space-saving space designed directly into the wall. Appropriately, this was back during the era of President Martin Van Buren, an early champion of indoor plumbing. In his upstate home, Van Buren installed the first flush toilet north of New York City. You don’t read “The Outsidah” just for fun; we bring you all manner of valuable information, like this Martin Van Buren bit.)

We need our spaces, for our stuff. Where would you be without your closet, cupboard, or sideboard? Thank heaven the French gave us words for all these storage places: the cabinet (“small room”), the dresser (“to arrange”), the buffet (“bench or stool”).

And then there are shelves.

You might expect a house with a shortage of closets to make up for it with a surfeit of shelving. But no. My antique house proves otherwise. Puritans condemning closetsful of clothing were not going to sanction shelvesful of stuff. History tells us that a German family as far back as the 1300s may have had a schelf, a plank affixed to a wall where they kept small objects. But New Englanders in the early days evidently regarded such small objects as sinfully superfluous, because they created precious few places to put them. 

When we moved into our house on outer Linebrook Road, I inherited the downstairs bathroom, the smallest bathroom ever constructed outside of a jetliner, and with even less shelf space. There’s a dollhouse-sized medicine cabinet above the sink, and a barely-toilet-width nook for the toilet, with two shelves above the toilet. I call them shelves; I’m being generous. They’re two wooden shutters — those flaps that hang on the outside of your house to cover your windows, with diagonal slats — turned horizontal and nailed into the wall, to serve as shelves. As if installing actual shelves would be scandalous, an admission that the house’s residents had capitulated to the iniquitous urge to acquire stuff.

In this minuscule bathroom space, I survive by a system: (a) Day-to-day requirements jam the medicine cabinet. (b) Anything not required every day goes on the slat-shutter-shelves above the toilet.

I have tried to be creative with the limited space, sliding four small rectangular wicker baskets onto the two shelves to hold my immoral abundance of bathroom effects. Whatever goes into these baskets, however, is promptly forgotten.

The shelves are above eye level, so when I want something from one of the baskets, I have to pull it down from its place and go foraging. I’m such a classic American pig, hoarding far more stuff than I need, that every expedition into the over-the-toilet baskets is like an archeological dig into the depths of my own decadence.

This week, for example, I went searching for replacement blades for my Gillette Sensor razor. In one of the wicker baskets, I found multiple toothbrushes given me by my dentist over the years (and consistently ignored, since I use an electric toothbrush), along with a dentist-gifted sample-sized tube of toothpaste, a bag of floss picks, a tiny squeeze bottle of something called “spot treatment,” a package of “cooling eye gels,” and a small leather travel case stashed with the essentials I would need if I ever had to leave town in a hurry.

No razor blades.

The next basket featured athlete’s foot powder (although I’m no athlete), shaving cream (although I wear a beard), shoe polish (never used), a hair brush (also never used), multiple bags of cough drops (I feel fine), and another small leather travel case — apparently because at some point I felt I might need to leave town in a hurry and didn’t remember that I had already worried about needing to leave town in a hurry.

Still no razor blades.

The third basket had even more dentist’s-office toothbrushes and toothpaste, a roll of gauze bandaging the color of mud, a half-empty box of bar soap, a brush for shining shoes (never used), an array of combs in sizes and colors I would never be caught dead using, and a supply of hairpins (why?). Oh — and boxes of gas relief and laxative tablets left over from a long-ago mercifully forgotten colonoscopy prep.

I’m only giving you a partial inventory here, you understand.

In the final basket, there was an electric beard-trimmer, a travel-size bottle of hairspray, another roll of gauze bandaging but in neon lime green this time, a stack of pandemic-era disposable masks, another comb, another toothpaste, more toothbrushes — and a pharmacy bottle containing leftover cyclobenzaprine.

So I am fully prepared if I develop muscle spasms or my hair gets mussed. And I am really prepared if I make someone mad enough to run me out of town.

But I clearly don’t have enough stuff on my shelves, because I don’t have any razor blades.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, with his mountains of mostly pointless stuff. Enter the maze if you dare, at

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