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An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Dustless-Duster

Title:     The Dustless-Duster
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

There are beaters, brooms and Bissell's Sweepers; there are dry-mops, turkey-wings, whisks, and vacuum-cleaners; there are--but no matter. Whatever other things there are, and however many of them in the closet, the whole dust-raising kit is incomplete without the Dustless-Duster.

For the Dustless-Duster is final, absolute. What can be added to, or taken away from, a Dustless-Duster? A broom is only a broom, even a new broom. Its sphere is limited; its work is partial. Dampened and held persistently down by the most expert of sweepers, the broom still leaves something for the Dustless-Duster to do. But the Dustless-Duster leaves nothing for anything to do. The dusting is done.

Because there are many who dust, and because they have searched in vain for a dustless-duster, I should like to say that the Dustless-Duster can be bought at department stores, at those that have a full line of departments--at any department store, in fact; for the Dustless-Duster department is the largest of all the departments, whatever the store. Ask for it of your jeweler, grocer, milliner. Ask for "The Ideal," "The Universal," "The Indispensable," of any man with anything to sell or preach or teach, and you shall have it--the perfect thing which you have spent life looking for; which you have thought so often to have, but found as often that you had not. You shall have it. I have it. One hangs, rather, in the kitchen on the clothes-dryer.

And one (more than one) hangs in the kitchen closet, and in the cellar, and in the attic. I have often brought it home, for my search has been diligent since a certain day, years ago,--a "Commencement Day" at the Institute.

I had never attended a Commencement exercise before; I had never been in an opera house before; and the painted light through the roof of windows high overhead, the strains of the orchestra from far below me, the banks of broad-leaved palms, the colors, the odors, the confusion of flowers and white frocks, were strangely thrilling. Nothing had ever happened to me in the woods like this: the exaltation, the depression, the thrill of joy, the throb of pain, the awakening, the wonder, the purpose, and the longing! It was all a dream--all but the form and the face of one girl graduate, and the title of her essay, "The Real and the Ideal."

I do not know what large and lofty sentiments she uttered; I only remember the way she looked them. I did not hear the words she read; but I still feel the absolute fitness of her theme--how real her simple white frock, her radiant face, her dark hair! And how ideal!

I had seen perfection. Here was the absolute, the final, the ideal, the indispensable! And I was fourteen! Now I am past forty; and upon the kitchen clothes-dryer hangs the Dustless-Duster.

No, I have not lost the vision. The daughter of that girl, the image of her mother, slipped into my classroom the other day. Nor have I faltered in the quest. The search goes on, and must go on; for however often I get it, only to cast it aside, the indispensable, the ultimate, must continue to be indispensable and ultimate, until, some day--

What matters how many times I have had it, to discover every time that it is only a piece of cheesecloth, ordinary cheesecloth, dyed black and stamped with red letters? The search must go on, notwithstanding the clutter in the kitchen closet. The cellar is crowded with Dustless-Dusters, too; the garret is stuffed with them. There is little else besides them anywhere in the house. And this was an empty house when I moved into it, a few years ago.

As I moved in, an old man moved out, back to the city whence a few years before he had come; and he took back with him twelve two-horse wagon-loads of Dustless-Dusters. He had spent a long life collecting them, and now, having gathered all there were in the country, he was going back to the city, in a last pathetic, a last heroic, effort to find the one Dustless-Duster more.

It was the old man's twelve two-horse loads that were pathetic. There were many sorts of things in those twelve loads, of many lands, of many dates, but all of one stamp. The mark was sometimes hard to find, corroded sometimes nearly past deciphering, yet never quite gone. The red letters were indelible on every piece, from the gross of antique candle-moulds (against the kerosene's giving out) to an ancient coffin-plate, far oxidized, and engraved "Jones," which, the old man said, as he pried it off the side of the barn, "might come in handy any day."

The old man has since died and been laid to rest. Upon his coffin was set a new silver plate, engraved simply and truthfully, "Brown."

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain, says Holy Writ, that we can carry nothing out. But it is also certain that we shall attempt to carry out, or try to find as soon as we are out, a Dustless-Duster. For we did bring something with us into this world, losing it temporarily, to be forever losing and finding it; and when we go into another world, will it not be to carry the thing with us there, or to continue there our eternal search for it? We are not so certain of carrying nothing out of this world, but we are certain of leaving many things behind.

Among those that I shall leave behind me is The Perfect Automatic Carpet-Layer. But I did not buy that. She did. It was one of the first of our perfections.

We have more now. I knew as I entered the house that night that something had happened; that the hope of the early dawn had died, for some cause, with the dusk. The trouble showed in her eyes: mingled doubt, chagrin, self-accusation, self-defense, defeat--familiar symptoms. She had seen something, something perfect, and had bought it.

I knew the look well, and the feelings all too well, and said nothing. For suppose I had been at home that day and she had been in town? Still, on my trip into town that morning I ran the risk of meeting the man who sold me "The Magic Stropless Razor Salve." No, not that man! I shall never meet him again, for vengeance is mine, saith the _Lord_. But suppose I had met him? And suppose he had had some other salve, _Safety_ Razor Salve this time to sell?

It is for young men to see visions and for old men to dream dreams; but it is for no man or woman to buy one.

She had seen a vision, and had bought it--"The Perfect Automatic Carpet-Layer."

I kept silence, as I say, which is often a thoughtful thing to do.

"Are you ill?" she ventured, handing me my tea.




"I hope you are not very tired, for the Parsonage Committee brought the new carpet this afternoon, and I have started to put it down. I thought we would finish it this evening. It won't be any work at all for you, for I--I--bought you one of these to-day to put it down with,"--pushing an illustrated circular across the table toward me.



No more carpet-laying bills. Do your own laying. No wrinkles. No crowded corners. No sore knees. No pounded fingers. No broken backs. Stand up and lay your carpet with the Perfect Automatic. Easy as sweeping. Smooth as putting paper on the wall. You hold the handle, and the Perfect Automatic does the rest. Patent Applied For. Price--

--but it was not the price! It was the tool--a weird hybrid tool, part gun, part rake, part catapult, part curry-comb, fit apparently for almost any purpose, from the business of blunderbuss to the office of an apple-picker. Its handle, which any child could hold, was somewhat shorter and thicker than a hoe-handle, and had a slotted tin barrel, a sort of intestine, on its ventral side along its entire length. Down this intestine, their points sticking through the slot, moved the tacks in single file to a spring-hammer close to the floor. This hammer was operated by a lever or tongue at the head of the handle, the connection between the hammer at the distal end and the lever at the proximal end being effected by means of a steel-wire spinal cord down the dorsal side of the handle. Over the fist of a hammer spread a jaw of sharp teeth to take hold of the carpet. The thing could not talk; but it could do almost anything else, so fearfully and wonderfully was it made.

As for laying carpets with it, any child could do that. But we did n't have any children then, and I had quite outgrown my childhood. I tried to be a boy again just for that night. I grasped the handle of the Perfect Automatic, stretched with our united strength, and pushed down on the lever. The spring-hammer drew back, a little trap or mouth at the end of the slotted tin barrel opened for the tack, the tack jumped out, turned over, landed point downward upon the right spot in the carpet, the crouching hammer sprang, and--

And then I lifted up the Perfect Automatic to see if the tack went in,--a simple act that any child could do, but which took automatically and perfectly all the stretch out of the carpet; for the hammer did not hit the tack; the tack really did not get through the trap; the trap did not open the slot; the slot--but no matter. We have no carpets now. The Perfect Automatic stands in the garret with all its original varnish on. At its feet sits a half-used can of "Beesene, The Prince of Floor Pastes."

We have only hard-wood floors now, which we treated, upon the strength of the label, with this Prince of Pastes, "Beesene"--"guaranteed not to show wear or dirt or to grow gritty; water-proof, gravel-proof. No rug will ruck on it, no slipper stick to it. Needs no weighted brush. Self-shining. The only perfect Floor Wax known. One box will do all the floors you have."

Indeed, half a box did all the floors we have. No slipper would stick to the paste, but the paste would stick to the slipper; and the greasy Prince did in spots all the floors we have: the laundry floor, the attic floor, and the very boards of the vegetable cellar.

I am young yet. I have not had time to collect my twelve two-horse loads. But I am getting them fast.

Only the other day a tall lean man came to the side door, asking after my four boys by name, and inquiring when my new book would be off the stocks, and, incidentally, showing me a patent-applied-for device called "The Fat Man's Friend."

"The Friend" was a steel-wire hoop, shaped and jointed like a pair of calipers, but knobbed at its points with little metal balls. The instrument was made to open and spring closed about the Fat Man's neck, and to hold, by means of a clasp on each side, a napkin, or bib, spread securely over the Fat Man's bosom.

"Ideal thing, now, is n't it?" said the agent, demonstrating with his handkerchief.

"Why--yes"--I hesitated--"for a fat man, perhaps."

"Just so," he replied, running me over rapidly with a professional eye; "but you know, Professor, that when a man's forty, or thereabouts, it's the nature of him to stouten. Once past forty he's liable to pick up any day. And when he starts, you know as well as I, Professor, when he starts there's nothing fattens faster than a man of forty. You ought to have one of these 'Friends' on hand."

"But fat does n't run in my family," I protested, my helpless, single-handed condition being plainly manifest in my tone.

"No matter," he rejoined, "look at me! Six feet three, and thin as a lath. I 'm what you might call a walking skeleton, ready to disjoint, as the poet says, and eat all my meals in fear, which I would do if 't wa'n't for this little 'Friend.' I can't eat without it. I miss it more when I am eatin' than I miss the victuals. I carry one with me all the time. Awful handy little thing. Now--"

"But--" I put in.

"Certainly," he continued, with the smoothest-running motor I ever heard, "but here's the point of the whole matter, as you might say. _This_ thing is up to date, Professor. Now, the old-fashioned way of tying a knot in the corner of your napkin and anchoring it under your Adam's apple--_that's_ gone by. Also the stringed bib and safety-pin. Both those devices were crude--but necessary, of course, Professor--and inconvenient, and that old-fashioned knot really dangerous; for the knot, pressing against the Adam's apple, or the apple, as you might say, trying to swallow the knot--well, if there isn't less apoplexy and strangulation when this little Friend finds universal application, then I 'm no Prophet, as the Good Book says."

"But you see--" I broke in.

"I do, Professor. It's right here. I understand your objection. But it is purely verbal and academic, Professor. You are troubled concerning the name of this indispensable article. But you know, as well as I--even better with your education, Professor--that there 's nothing, absolutely nothing in a name. 'What's in a name?' the poet says. And I 'll agree with you--though, of course, it's confidential--that 'The Fat Man's Friend' is, as you literary folks would say, more or less of a _nom de plume_. Isn't it? Besides,--if you 'll allow me the language, Professor,--it's too delimiting, restricting, prejudicing. Sets a lean man against it. But between us, Professor, they 're going to change the name of the next batch. They're--"

"Indeed!" I exclaimed; "what's the next batch going to be?"

"Oh, just the same--fifteen cents each--two for a quarter. You could n't tell them apart. You might just as well have one of these, and run no chances getting one of the next lot. They'll be precisely the same; only, you see, they're going to name the next ones 'Every Bosom's Friend,' to fit lean and fat, and without distinction of sex. Ideal thing now, is n't it? Yes, that's right--fifteen cents--two for twenty-five, Professor?--don't you want another for your wife?"

No, I did not want another for her. But if _she_ had been at home, and I had been away, who knows but that all six of us had come off with a "Friend" apiece? They were a bargain by the half-dozen.

A bargain? Did anybody ever get a bargain--something worth more than he paid? Well--you shall, when you bring home a Dustless-Duster.

And who has not brought it home! Or who is not about to bring it home! Not all the years that I have searched, not all the loads that I have collected, count against the conviction that at last I have it--the perfect thing--until I _reach_ home. But with several of my perfections I have never yet reached home, or I am waiting an opportune season to give them to my wife. I have been disappointed; but let no one try to tell me that there is no such thing as Perfection. Is not the desire for it the breath of my being? Is not the search for it the end of my existence? Is not the belief that at last I possess it--in myself, my children, my breed of hens, my religious creed, my political party--is not this conviction, I say, all there is of existence?

It is very easy to see that perfection is not in any of the other political parties. During a political campaign, not long since, I wrote to a friend in New Jersey,--

"Now, whatever your particular, personal brand of political faith, it is clearly your moral duty to vote this time the Democratic ticket."

Whereupon (and he is a thoughtful, God-fearing man, too) he wrote back,--

"As I belong to the only party of real reform, I shall stick to it this year, as I always have, and vote the straight ticket."

Is there a serener faith than this human faith in perfection? A surer, more unshakable belief than this human belief in the present possession of it?

There is only one thing deeper in the heart of man than his desire for completeness, and that is his conviction of being about to attain unto it. He dreams of completeness by night; works for completeness by day; buys it of every agent who comes along; votes for it at every election; accepts it with every sermon; and finds it--momentarily--every time he finds himself. The desire for it is the sweet spring of all his satisfactions; the possession of it the bitter fountain of many of his woes.

Apply the conviction anywhere, to anything--creeds, wives, hens--and see how it works out.

As to _hens_:--

There are many breeds of fairly good hens, and I have tried as many breeds as I have had years of keeping hens, but not until the poultry show, last winter, did I come upon the perfect hen. I had been working toward her through the Bantams, Brahmas, and Leghorns, to the Plymouth Rocks. I had tried the White and the Barred Plymouth Rocks, but they were not the hen. Last winter I came upon the originator of the Buff Plymouth Rocks--and here she was! I shall breed nothing henceforth but Buff Plymouth Rocks.

In the Buff Rock we have a bird of ideal size, neither too large nor too small, weighing about three pounds more than the undersized Leghorn, and about three pounds less than the oversized Brahma; we have a bird of ideal color, too--a single, soft, even tone, and no such barnyard daub as the Rhode Island Red; not crow-colored, either, like the Minorca; nor liable to all the dirt of the White Plymouth Rocks. Being a beautiful and uniform buff, this perfect Plymouth Rock is easily bred true to color, as the vari-colored fowls are not.

Moreover, the Buff Rock is a layer, is _the_ layer, maturing as she does about four weeks later than the Rhode Island Reds, and so escaping that fatal early fall laying with its attendant moult and eggless interim until March! On the other hand, the Buff Rock matures about a month earlier than the logy, slow-growing breeds, and so gets a good start before the cold and eggless weather comes.

And such an egg! There are white eggs and brown eggs, large and small eggs, but only one ideal egg--the Buff Rock's. It is of a soft lovely brown, yet whitish enough for a New York market, but brown enough, however, to meet the exquisite taste of the Boston trade. In fact it is neither white nor brown, but rather a delicate blend of the two--a new tone, indeed, a bloom rather, that I must call fresh-laid lavender.

So, at least, I am told. My pullets are not yet laying, having had a very late start last spring. But the real question, speaking professionally, with any breed of fowls is a market question: How do they dress? How do they eat?

If the Buff Plymouth Rock is an ideal bird in her feathers, she is even more so plucked. All white-feathered fowl, in spite of yellow legs, look cadaverous when picked. All dark-feathered fowl, with their tendency to green legs and black pin-feathers, look spotted, long dead, and unsavory. But the Buff Rock, a melody in color, shows that consonance, that consentaneousness, of flesh to feather that makes the plucked fowl to the feathered fowl what high noon is to the faint and far-off dawn--a glow of golden legs and golden neck, mellow, melting as butter, and all the more so with every unpicked pinfeather.

Can there be any doubt of the existence of hen-perfection? Any question of my having attained unto it--with the maturing of this new breed of hens?

For all spiritual purposes, that is, for all satisfactions, the ideal hen is the pullet--the Buff Plymouth Rock pullet.

Just so the ideal wife. If we could only keep them pullets!

The trouble we husbands have with our wives begins with our marrying them. There is seldom any trouble with them before. Our belief in feminine perfection is as profound and as eternal as youth. And the perfection is just as real as the faith. Youth is always bringing the bride home--to hang her on the kitchen clothes-dryer. She turns out to be ordinary cheese-cloth, dyed a more or less fast black--this perfection that he had stamped in letters of indelible red!

The race learns nothing. I learn, but not my children after me. They learn only after themselves. Already I hear my boys saying that their wives--! And the oldest of these boys has just turned fourteen!

Fourteen! the trouble all began at fourteen. No, the trouble began with Adam, though Eve has been responsible for much of it since. Adam had all that a man should have wanted in his perfect Garden. Nevertheless he wanted Eve. Eve in turn had Adam, a perfect man! but she wanted something more--if only the apple tree in the middle of the Garden. And we all of us were there in that Garden--with Adam thinking he was getting perfection in Eve; with Eve incapable of appreciating perfection in Adam. The trouble is human.

"Flounder, flounder in the sea,
Prythee quickly come to me!
For my wife, Dame Isabel,
Wants strange things I scarce dare tell."

"And what does she want _now_?" asks the flounder.

"Oh, she wants to _vote_ now," says the fisherman.

"Go home, and you shall find her with the ballot," sighs the flounder. "But has n't she Dustless-Dusters enough already?"

It would seem so. But once having got Adam, who can blame her for wanting an apple tree besides, or the ballot?

'T is no use to forbid her. Yes, she has you, but--but Eve had Adam, too, another perfect man! Don't forbid her, for she will have it anyhow. It may not turn out to be all that she thinks it is. But did you turn out to be all that she thought you were? She will have a bite of this new apple if she has to disobey, and die for it, because such disobedience and death are in answer to a higher command, and to a larger life from within. Eve's discovery that Adam was cheese-cloth, and her reaching out for something better, did not, as Satan promised, make us as God; but it did make us different from all the other animals in the Garden, placing us even above the angels,--so far above, as to bring us, apparently, by a new and divine descent, into Eden.

The hope of the race is in Eve,--in her making the best she can of Adam; in her clear understanding of his lame logic,--that her _im_perfections added to his perfections make the perfect Perfection; and in her reaching out beyond Adam for something more--for the ballot now.

If there is growth, if there is hope, if there is continuance, if there is immortality for the race and for the soul, it is to be found in this sure faith in the Ultimate, the Perfect, in this certain disappointment every time we think we have it; and in this abiding conviction that we are about to bring it home. But let a man settle down on perfection as a present possession, and that man is as good as dead already--even religiously dead, if he has possession of a perfect Salvation.

Now, "Sister Smith" claimed to possess Perfection--a perfect infallible book of revelations in her King James Version of the Scriptures, and she claimed to have lived by it, too, for eighty years. I was fresh from the theological school, and this was my first "charge." This was my first meal, too, in this new charge, at the home of one of the official brethren, with whom Sister Smith lived.

There was an ominous silence at the table for which I could hardly account--unless it had to do with the one empty chair. Then Sister Smith appeared and took the chair. The silence deepened. Then Sister Smith began to speak and everybody stopped eating. Brother Jones laid down his knife, Sister Jones dropped her hands into her lap until the thing should be over. Leaning far forward toward me across the table, her steady gray eyes boring through me, her long bony finger pointing beyond me into eternity, Sister Smith began with spaced and measured words:--

"My young Brother--what--do--you--think--of--Jonah?"

I reached for a doughnut, broke it, slowly, dipped it up and down in the cup of mustard and tried for time. Not a soul stirred. Not a word or sound broke the tense silence about the operating-table.


"Well, Sister Smith, I--"

"Never mind. Don't commit yourself. You needn't tell me what you think of Jonah. You--are--too--young--to--know--what--you--think--of--Jonah. But I will tell you what _I_ think of Jonah: if the Scriptures had said that Jonah swallowed the whale, it would be just as easy to believe as it is that the whale swallowed Jonah."

"So it would, Sister Smith," I answered weakly, "just as easy."

"And now, my young Brother, you preach the Scriptures--the old genuine inspired Authorized Version, word for word, just as God spoke it!"

Sister Smith has gone to Heaven, but in spite of her theology. Dear old soul, she sent me many a loaf of her salt-rising bread after that, for she had as warm a heart as ever beat its brave way past eighty.

But she had neither a perfect Book, nor a perfect Creed, nor a perfect Salvation. She did not need them; nor could she have used them; for they would have posited a divine command to be perfect--a too difficult accomplishment for any of us, even for Sister Smith.

There is no such divine command laid upon us; but only such a divinely human need springing up within us, and reaching out for everything, in its deep desire, from dust-cloths dyed black to creeds of every color.

This is a life of imperfections, a world made of cheese-cloth, merely dyed black, and stamped in red letters--The Dustless-Duster. Yet a cheese-cloth world so dyed and stamped is better than a cloth-of-gold world, for the cloth-of-gold you would not want to dye nor to stamp with burning letters.

We have never found it,--this perfect thing,--and perhaps we never shall. But the desire, the search, the faith, must not fail us, as at times they seem to do. At times the very tides of the ocean seem to fail,--when the currents cease to run. Yet when they are at slack here, they are at flood on the other side of the world, turning already to pour back--

". . . lo, out of his plenty the sea
Pours fast; full soon the time of the flood-tide shall be--"

The faith cannot fail us--for long. Full soon the ebb-tide turns,

"And Belief overmasters doubt, and I know that I know"

that there is perfection; that the desire for it is the breath of life; that the search for it is the hope of immortality.

But I know only in part. I see through a glass darkly, and I may be no nearer it now than when I started, yet the search has carried me far from that start. And if I never arrive, then, at least, I shall keep going on, which, in itself maybe the thing--the Perfect Thing that I am seeking.

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: The Dustless-Duster