Thursday, October 1, 2015
A Linen Closet as Fine Art
I stumbled upon this illustration on Google images and it immediately grabbed my attention. The fact that it was not currently copyrighted meant that I could use it which seemed enticing. From the way the shadows cast by the folded sheets create a 3D quality to how the lighting is done to give the nurse an almost ethereal quality really is just fascinating. The photographer must have had a light source within the linen cabinet. A spectacular view of a really ordinary place.
I learned this photograph was taken in February 1943 by a well known industrial photographer, Robert Yarnall Ritchie. One of his main interests was aviation and aerial photography, but he illustrated a variety of other subjects.
Not surprisingly, this was commissioned by a linen mill, Pepperill Manufacturing at Saro River Falls in Bradfford, Maine. The company was named after Sir William Pepprill a Maine soldier and industrialist. There primary product was sheets and blankets and production was ceased in 1949.
We used to make up "bed packs" and stack them at right angles to one another for easier handling just like the photo illustrates. A bed pack consisted of two flat sheets (fitted sheets were not available), a draw sheet and a pillowcase. The bedpacks were meant to have everything necessary to make a complete bed. The "loose" linen was on the other side of the closet and consisted of individual items like towels, washcloths, and separate sheets.
The hospital where I trained frequently experienced an uncertain supply of certain linen items. We sometimes would run out of either towels or draw sheets. This prompted nurses to create top secret secondary linen closets in unexpected locations like under sinks in nurses bathrooms or in patients cupboards. It was not unusual to reach for a bottle of IV fluid in the supply room and have a cascade of drawsheets come raining down. Old school nurses would do anything for the comfort of their patient even if it wasn't "according to Hoyle." We were always doing something for a patients well being and prefacing the intervention with the explanation "I know it's not exactly according to Hoyle." If there was something we could do to make a patient more comfortable, it was done.
Another nice use for a linen closet was as a sort of meditation chamber to collect your wits after something catastrophic jangled your nerves. Having the walls lined with acoustic dampening linen made the closet a very quiet place even on the busiest of floors. For the full benefit turn out the light, and you have a very peaceful, quiet place to collect your wits before the next disaster unfolds. There are plenty of washcloths to mop up tears so let yourself go.
Linen closets were also an olfactory oasis in a land of putrid, nostril burning smells. The sweet, clean smell of fresh linen was a stark contrast to typical hospital odors. This always worked out well. Most foul smelling events like massive code browns made a trip to the linen cabinet mandatory. It was common to linger in the linen closet and take time to "smell the sheets" before facing unsavory olfactory events. Linen closets really could be the pause that refreshes.
Decades ago linens did not ever travel far from the hospital. There was no contracting out of linen services and everything form laundering, folding and preparation was done right in the hospital building. Our hospital laundry was located in a separate building right smack dab in the middle of a U shaped hospital complex. It was easily identified by the constant output of white clouds of steam. When the linen was worn out it was repurposed into rags or things like scultetus binders. Linen never left the hospital.
I find myself gazing at this photo for long periods of time and really appreciate Robert Yarnall Ritchie for creating such a beautiful image from a different time.