There is, at some level, nothing you can really do about things acquiring stains or getting rid of them. I know this because I’ve lived with my husband for quite some time and though he is a very, very tidy person, he has caused the demotion of many of my favorite tablecloths: original status being “Good tablecloth, for nice dinners, formal events [or, what passes for formal around here]” to “everyday schmatta I throw on the table and it doesn’t matter anymore.” Understand: I am someone who owns many many tablecloths, but very few of them will work to cover our dining table. I acquired most of them in the days when the tables in our apartment were all pretty small, designed to seat at most four people. Then we were given my parents’ old dining table, which is this big formal monster that, fully extended, seats some ridiculous number of people. At its smallest, it seats six very generously. It requires table linens that are no joke to acquire or launder well. So the fact that over the years my (very finite number of ) large tablecloths have all been dotted with small holes and burn marks and food stains and, most gallingly, Angostura bitters — I try to not let this get to me too much. The “good” tablecloths get turned into “everyday” tablecloths pretty damned quickly.
Peg Bracken’s chapter on stains (and spots and blots and scars and dueling wounds) is very practical. She points out that by and large this kind of thing isn’t the disaster that most household manuals insist it is, and her attitude about spots and dents and things is usually, “well, you can try this, but I make no guarantees, and, really, just take it to the cleaner’s and hope for the best.” She makes no promises and is up-front about this, which is smart. What’s more, she encourages her readers to embrace the idea that a house is meant to be lived-in, and show it. “Never let your furniture get the upper hand,” she writes. This may be a meaningless sentiment in the age of IKEA furniture, but for people who have gone and spent four thousand dollars on a sofa, this is good to remember. I try to not agonize over the wear and tear on our furniture, almost all of which came to us second-hand (even the stuff that wasn’t originally my parents’). You can’t expect things to look picture perfect forever, especially if they were already old when you got them. We got our couch at the Salvation Army: it had been beautifully re-upholstered by its previous owner in a strange iridescent taupe velvet. I worried that it would wear very badly, but told myself that since we’d only spent $60 on it, it wasn’t the end of the world if the cat ruined it. Sure enough, in the years we’ve had it, it has been puked on (by the first cat) and clawed at (by the first cat and then the two cats that followed) and it shows no wear whatsoever; I expect it to last another ten years at least. The one problem it’s ever had was when a seam split a little on one of the seat cushions. I was unsure of how to handle this. I mentioned this to a friend whose mother is an interior decorator and she said, “Oh, that’s no big deal, you can glue it shut with Gorilla Glue.” Glue? This would never have occurred to me. So I bought a little bottle of Gorilla Glue and tried it out and it’s been two years and the cushions look fine. This is a Peg Bracken style solution: cheap, easy to do, and good enough for anyone who’s not looking to have their living room resemble a display at the Cooper-Hewitt.
There are books (and websites) that talk about home repairs and stain removal and things like this and they assume that one’s goal is a kind of perfection that most of us are never going to contemplate, let alone achieve. Bracken, as always, aims for the “good enough,” and the “good enough” is, in my experience, often much, much better than that. The best example of this I have is the problem (well-known to renters, I suspect) of wanting to hang something on a hole in the wall but not being able to because the hole in the wall’s gotten too big to hold a screw. Bracken’s tip, which I’ve used so many times it’s ridiculous, is that you can cram a little wodge of steel wool into the hole (use a toothpick to do this) and then put in the screw. It works like a charm. I used to keep a box of steel wool in the house not for its intended purposes — cleaning things — but to use to fill up little tiny holes in the walls.
Agonizing over stains is something I think should be done carefully and with measured reason. There are situations where it’s not worth any worry at all: most children’s clothes, I feel, should be stainable. If you really want an exhaustive reference on how to deal with laundering things (all kinds of things, not just clothes) the thing to do is turn to Cheryl Mendelson and embrace all tendencies you have toward obsessive-compulsive disorder for the length of time it takes you to solve your problem. But on a day to day basis: don’t let it get to you.
Or, you can take the pre-emptive position I took regarding the use of Angostura (which, it turns out, stains like a bastard, not that I knew this when my husband started adding it to his drinks all the time). I bought a relatively inexpensive wooden cutting board and stained it with Angostura. Now when he mixes drinks, he does it on the Angostura board, and if he drips Angostura on it, I don’t give a crap.