Through a prop room

One hundred and nineteen years ago, Jerome K. Jerome took a trip through a prop room. Jerome is an English writer who began his career as an actor. In the following excerpt, he gives a very comprehensive view of a props stock at this time period.

Between the yard and the stage was a very big room, containing so heterogeneous a collection of articles that at first I fancied it must be a cooperative store in connection with the theater. It was, however, only the property room, the things therein being properties, or, more commonly, “props,” so called, I believe, because they help to support the drama. I will give you some of the contents of the room haphazard as I recollect them. There was a goodly number of tin cups, painted black up to within half an inch of the rim, so as to give them the appearance of being always full. It is from these vessels that the happy peasantry carouses, and the comic army get helplessly fuddled. There is a universality about them. They are the one touch of (stage) nature which makes the whole world kin. They are used alike by the Esquimaux and the Hottenot. The Roman soldiery appear never to have drunk out of anything else: while, without them, the French Revolution would lose its chief characteristic. Besides these common cups, there were gold and silver ones, used only for banquets, and high-class suicides. There were bottles, and glasses, and jugs, and decanters. From these aids to debauchery, it was pleasant to turn to a cozy-looking tea service on a tray with a white table cloth: there was a soothing suggestion of muffins and domestic bliss about it. There was plenty of furniture, a couple of tables, a bedstead, a dresser, a sofa, chairs half dozen of them, high-backed ones, for “hall in the old Grange,” etc.; they were made by fixing pasteboard backs on to ordinary cane chairs. The result was that they were top heavy, and went over at the slightest touch; so that picking them up, and trying to make them stand, formed the chief business of the scenes in which they were used.

I remember the first time our light comedy attempted to sit down on one of these chairs. It was on the opening night. He had just said something funny, and, having said it, sat down, crossed his legs, and threw himself back, with all that easy, negligent grace so peculiarly his own. Legs were the only things that could be seen for the next few minutes.

Other “props” were, a throne, gorgeous in gilt paper and glazed calico; a fire-grate, stuffed with red tinfoil; a mirror, made with silver paper; a bunch of jailer’s keys; handcuffs; leg irons; flat irons; rifles; brooms; bayonets; picks and crow, bars for the virtuously infuriated populace; clay pipes; daggers made of wood; stage broadswords – there is no need to describe these, everybody knows them, they are like nothing else on earth; battle axes; candlesticks; a pound or two of short dips; a crown, set with diamonds and rubies each as big as a duck’s egg; a cradle empty, an affecting sight; carpets, kettles, and pots; a stretcher; a chariot; a bunch of carrots; a coster-monger’s barrow; banners; a leg of mutton, and a baby. Everything, in short, that could possibly be wanted, either in a palace or a garret, a farm-yard or a battle-field.

From On the Stage – and Off, by Jerome K. Jerome, 1891 (pp. 33-35)