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The Incredibly Exciting Mystery of Plastic on Furniture!

I did a little vlog where I got my mom to promise me she'd take the plastic off the lampshades.

When I was a kid, I'd visit my relatives in Staten Island and they'd have beautiful plush carpets covered in thick, ugly plastic runs in the places where traffic was most heavy. They reminded me of runways and I'd imagine myself landing like an airplane as I made my way down their especially-long hallway to the bathroom.

They not only had industrial-grade plastic on the couches to protect them, but they warned us kids not to sit on them because they were the "good couches" and were for "company", which made me wonder what we were- my visiting family, that is, if we were something other than company.

It got me to wondering where the hell the whole thing started? Who even thought up the idea of putting plastic on a couch?

My assumption's always been that it was a Sicilian thing to do but why the heck would Sicilians do it? Perhaps the ash from Mt. Aetna started ruining my Sicilian ancestors' stuff so they just started covering everything up and imported the practice once they emigrated to New York unaware that there was no volcanic threat.

I also figured it was a generational thing- something handed down by my WWII-era relatives who were visited by door-to-door Dow Chemical salesmen pushing their new plastic coverings with fears of embarrassing coffee and pet pee stains.

I did a Google search and found a number of forums that explored various incarnations of the same question I had. One was a discussion titled "Jersey-isms", where I found something that pointed to plastic coverings being a cultural phenomenon.

Someone asked,
"Why do people think that Italians have plastic on their couches?"

One of the responses read:
DUDE! Have you ever been in an all-Italian house in Bayonne? The backs of my legs are missing skin from all the times I've had to peel myself off the plastic during the summer! And in all fairness, I've seen plastic on the furniture in Polish houses too.

Okay, so maybe it's not so much a Jersey thing, or an Italian thing. Or a Polish thing, even.

When the more straight-forward question was asked,
"Why do people put plastic wrap on their furniture?" responses varied:

  • To prevent it from being damaged, I imagine.
  • The anal-retentive gene .
  • Just in case the Queen visits.
  • Because there is something wrong with them.

...or it was cool:
'See thru' slipcovers were the ne plus ultra of home decorating. The classy thick fitted ones cost about as much as the upholstrey they protected, and people ordered them on top-of-the-line stuff to demonstrate that not only could they afford the genuine article, but that they could also afford the optional lifetime protection covers.

...or it was a poor working-class thing:
People put plastic on their furniture because they get a job cleaning house for some rich people in Dover whose father is a clean freak with OCD and they live vicariously through them and decide that our little overcrowded cape with the single bathroom should look just like the rich folk's mansion and even though our living room is the only room in the house that isn't somebody's bedroom they think it should look just like the rich folk's formal living room that only gets used when the mayor or the pope comes to dinner so they put plastic runners on the rug and drape plastic over our $200.00 Jordan's Furniture hide-a-bed couch and don't allow us to remove it when we watch TV so for about four years we're forced to make our friends sit on plastic while they play Atari and when they ask why they have to sit on plastic we just sort of shrug and tell them it's a long story. That's why my mom did it, anyway.

...or it was low self-esteem:
...a feeling of not deserving new things, an inability to use or enjoy them. I grew up working-class poor, and my mother would say, if she was given something new (we never bought anything new) that it was "too good to use" and so it would stay in its box/wrapping, unused, whilst the old, broken thing it was meant to replace carried on being used.

Maybe it was just frugal people who wished to preserve and extend the life and value of "things" even if it meant denying themselves the full pleasure of its purpose or utility. Those are the same people that clean and fold tin foil and who scoff at Tupperware by reusing margarine tubs. We all have loved ones who do it. Hell- c'mon, that's me.

Perhaps the use of plastic coverings is rooted in a synthesis of some or all those things- like, for instance, generational class frugality. The practice appears to have been perpetuated by those who lived through the Great Depression and WWII- times of great scarcity and then growth, where the middle class grew up and aspired to become affluent, thereby compelling Cleaver-clones to buy furniture they normally couldn't afford. In an attempt to retain their value, they super-Saran-wrapped it and never physically touched it unless potential in-laws or a cleric came a-callin'.

As one forum member put it:
It was all part of the same mentality that's largely gone with the wind: you take care of what you have until you have squeezed out its last bit of use, you pinch a penny until it bleeds, and you never spend what you don't have. If that means that every time you move on your own furniture you sound like a farting cow, so be it.

Use it up, wear it out
Make it do
Or do without.

Whatever the reason, I feel I've accomplished something significant in getting my mother to rid the lamps of their plastic shrouds-of-yesteryear. In some way, I feel I've helped my family-line in its evolutionary progress with regard to home decor. Okay, maybe that doesn't seem like such a big deal to you, but then again, I'll bet you never lost a full layer of skin off the back of your legs gettin' up off your own couch, either.

Views: 65

Comment by Chig on January 31, 2010 at 9:09am
Ha! Now the furniture is made of plastic..... You see... your mother was actually thinking ahead. Better check to see what you wrap plastic in.
Comment by SydTheSkeptic on January 31, 2010 at 2:06pm
Hey Sara, thanks for such a thoughtful response.

For as much research that I did, I'm still stymied over how it came to be that Italians were branded with the origins of this phenomenon. There seems to be no direct link to where it all started but you can be sure, there are still key terms to be tried in that damn Google engine.

My own immediate family had a plastic couch covering, all the way up until about the mid-seventies. Shit, when it finally came off a velvet red couch due to its yellowing and cracking at the corners, the feel of it was like fuckin' heaven!

But those oil-dripping statues...those were reserved for the hardcore relatives from Staten Island, for sure.

I was definitely in a search-and-write mood last night. I wish I could do this all the time, but eh, such is a teacher's life. I love it that you love this kind of blog- they're fun to write!
Comment by SydTheSkeptic on February 1, 2010 at 10:24am
@Suz- still doing the research cuz I never really found anything difinitive- just a whole lot of speculation, methinks. I'm very curious as to why people generally believe it's an Italian thing...Mom says that custom slip-covers were an Italian thing and that plastic just replaced them, but I'm determined to find the facts, lol.

@Sara- LMAO!! Too funny Sara!!!

and yeah, scary, too.

My Staten Island relatives definitely had something like that!!
(Dee, if you're watchin'- Aunt Milly!!!)
Comment by Smokescreen on February 3, 2010 at 1:30pm
Back in the day I used to visit my cousins from Puerto Rico. They had a very nice house and it was kept immaculate. Four kids and no dirt in the house. But they had the plastic covered couch. Hell now that I think about all the living room furniture had plastic over it. It was great looking furniture but I refused to sit on it. So every time I stayed there I would sit on the floor thinking what good are a couch and chair if you can't use them?
At least a lamp shade covered in plastic still shades the light. :-)
Comment by NatureJunkie on February 17, 2010 at 6:02pm
I agree with the people who believe it is a poor, working-class thing, and "...a feeling of not deserving new things, an inability to use or enjoy them."

My father came into a small inheritance when I was a kid, and in addition to several things he bought for our own house, he bought my grandmother a set of new living room furniture. I'm sure it was the only new or good furniture she ever owned, and she left the plastic on it for the rest of her life. It always made me sad that she could never enjoy it in complete comfort.


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