On some level, many of us have come to tacitly believe that when right-minded people start buying the right things we can make the world a better place. Of course, everything, however pure, can be corrupted by the one-two combination of popularity and cynicism. William Morris may have been wholly sincere when he agitated for beauty and utility, and John Ruskin when he promoted it. And yet, by 1890, the author Vernon Lee already had the protagonist of her novella “A Phantom Lover” casually referencing the Arts and Crafts movement as shorthand for bourgeois-bohemian pretension: “My spirits sank lower and lower. I began to meditate upon the modern Gothic country-house, with the usual amount of Morris furniture, Liberty rugs, and Mudie novels, to which I was doubtless being taken.” We get jaded. Perhaps we know that behind our hopes of patronizing good old-fashioned artisans lies a more ambivalent kind of nostalgia.
Whatever the reason, it cannot be denied that the New York brick-and-mortar experience of Labour and Wait is not quite so transporting as one imagined when virtually window-shopping. The selection is naturally less extensive, but there is the enamel sink, yes; and the doorstep fashioned from a length of rope. There’s a beautiful leather tool case and stylish watering cans, and there are the hot-water bottles, swathed in mantles of scratchy Welsh tapestry blanketing. There are pressed tea towels monogrammed by a long-dead hand, and wooden clothes pegs with fetching, old-fashioned labels. And yet I found myself putting back the decorative bottle of lavender water when I saw how much it cost in dollars. And a wooden toilet brush that I’d admired online, which comes with its own cunning little galvanized bucket, seemed, in the cold light of day, actually kind of revolting. I bought a bag of German rubber bands, and waited for the thrill of a purchase well made. Perhaps my nostalgia wasn’t for a time when women scrubbed floors with wooden brushes and soap flakes but for the time, much more recently, when dreaming of the past felt like good clean fun.