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Good Housekeeping

Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850–1930

by Katherine C. Grier
University of Massachusetts Press, (out of print)

I was recently shown a house whose interior was being renovated. The house was in a prosperous part of the city, and I was curious to see what sort of changes and alterations had been specified by owners who had enough money to have a wide range of choices. It was not the interior decoration itself that concerned me, although like most people I am a voyeur when it comes to the houses of strangers—especially rich strangers. Interior decoration is customarily thought of as merely an illustration of good or bad taste—or of fashion; it is more than that. The embellishment and arrangement of a home are a graphic (and sometimes symbolic) representation of public and private cultural attitudes to domesticity and family life. More interestingly, they are also an indication of how these attitudes are changing.

As we walked up the garden path I could hear the sounds of hammering and the whine of an electric saw. I enjoy visiting building sites. To the average onlooker, used to the ordered anonymity of office bureaucracy, or to the featureless regularity of the factory assembly line, a building site appears disorderly and chaotic. In fact, there is organization, but of a sort different from the uniformity of the corporate workplace. Instead there is a loose orchestration of many separate tradesmen, working side by side but not necessarily together. In this aspect, a building site—especially a small building site—has changed little since the Middle Ages. Journeymen still ply their separate trades—no company men here. No industrial robots either; work is still done largely by hand, or at least with hand-held tools.

Inside the house, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers were busily at work. Plywood covered the floor, and everything was shrouded in a thin film of white dust. A plasterer on a ladder was touching up a molding; an older man in overalls stood at a table-saw, cutting strips of wood flooring; two other workers—electricians, to judge from the tool belts slung around their waists—were conferring over a set of blueprints that had been spread out over a make-shift trestle table. A well-dressed woman, obviously the owner, surveyed this activity with what appeared to be a mixture of pride and trepidation.

Since a friend of mine lived in a matching house next door, I was surprised to see little that resembled the original structure. The interior was being transformed—walls moved about, skylights added, new services installed. The ceilings were perforated with new downlights, the windows had been replaced, so had the front door. The scope of these changes suggested the need for a major reconstruction, as if the house were the survivor of some earlier, pretechnological period whose antiquated standards of comfort and convenience would no longer do. My impression of the exterior facade hardly suggested great age, however, and this suspicion was confirmed by my guide—the house was barely twenty-five years old.

I walked around the house and my attention was caught by the enlarged bathroom adjacent to the master bedroom. Even in its unfinished state I could see that this would be an impressive room. It contained not only a window but a new, large skylight. In the center of the room was a commodious and very elaborate bathtub; pipes sticking out of the floor suggested an assortment of additional, as-yet-uninstalled, plumbing fixtures. The wall surfaces were to be entirely covered by mirrored glass and marble; the cost of the marble alone, I was told, was over twenty thousand dollars.

The kitchen was less sybaritic. Its cabinets and work counters were purposeful and businesslike, but slightly bloated, and with just enough luxury to take the edge off their laboratory-like efficiency. It reminded me of the interior of an expensive German sedan. The similarity was not accidental; like most prestigious cars, stylish kitchen paraphernalia is European: German cabinets and electric appliances, French food processors and cooking pots, Italian espresso machines and pasta makers, and British porcelain. A Swedish Aga stove stood in one corner of the kitchen. It was a complicated affair with round stainless-steel lids covering the cooking range. The sixty-year-old design had the frumpy chic of a Saab 93.

I have dwelt on these two rooms at some length, since so much care and money had obviously been expended on them. Bathing and cooking are familiar domestic activities, but the degree of emphasis that had been given to them here—as in so many other, less expensive, houses—is something new. In the past, even in grand houses, the bathroom was generally a small, utilitarian space. Often, it was a converted closet or spare room. It was rarely adorned, indeed, a decorated bathroom was considered to be a decadent extravagance, and slightly sinful; that is why the luxury bath—filled with soap bubbles—was the customary setting for the Hollywood vamp.

Kitchens, too, were left plain, but for different reasons. Rich people did not cook—they had servants for that. Housewives spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, but, like the laundry, this room was considered backstage. It was not a place for guests; proper people did not eat in the kitchen. Hence it was not a room that required décor; at best, the 1950s kitchen could be “cheerful.” Serious interior decoration was reserved for the public parts of the house, especially the living room.

Just before leaving the house I was shown the blueprints, and as I leaned over the trestle table looking at the plans, I realized that I was standing in what would be the living room. There was a small fireplace—a vestigial reminder of the family hearth—but otherwise it exhibited no special architectural features, not even a picture window. There were no striking materials, no marble, no imported cabinetry. Although the furniture was absent, I could imagine that the finished room would resemble what used to be called a sitting room—it would be comfortable, but modest and unpretentious.

The presence, or absence, of décor, and its density or sparseness, are a barometer of the fortunes of different parts of the house, a sign of which rooms have increased in status, and which have fallen. According to this measure, it was obvious that the living room of this house had a secondary position—both functionally and symbolically. This shift, of size and degree of embellishment, from the living room to other parts of the house, is not untypical of new North American houses. It is difficult to say how far it will go. The living room may persist in a diminished form, just as the foyer is a reduced version of the once-spacious entrance hall. Or, in a decade or two, the living room may disappear altogether, to be replaced by a combination of kitchen and “eating area,” by a “media room,” or by some sort of family room.

Some commercial builders are already calling the main living space in the house the “great room,” a new name for a new use. This is not merely a question of designation, nor would the passing of the living room be an unprecedented occurence; rooms have frequently come and gone. Jane Austen’s heroines chatted together in breakfast rooms, which were small rooms for morning entertaining; contemporaneous French ladies had intimate conversations in their boudoirs. They also had dressing rooms, which were small sitting rooms. We store clothes in walk-in closets, but during the nineteenth century, “closet” referred to a small private room like a study. Georgian houses had one or two large drawing-rooms, successors of the “withdrawing” room. In the early 1900s, smoking rooms were popular, so were billiard rooms. Not long ago, most American houses had a TV room—sometimes called a den—which lasted only as long as there was but one set in the house. Suburban bungalows also had “rec rooms,” but that was before ping-pong was replaced by Donkey Kong.

The fall from grace of the living room should come as no surprise, for it is a relatively recent arrival, dating from the turn of the century. The living room has its roots in the Victorian parlor, as Katherine Grier makes clear in Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850–1930. This erudite study, which could have been subtitled “The Rise and Fall of the American Parlor,” traces the fortunes of this room from its emergence in the mid-nineteenth century to its ascendancy, and concludes with the eventual replacement of the parlor by the modern living room. Grier pursues this analysis by examining many sources—literary, commercial, and photographic—but the particular concern of her study is upholstery; the loose textile furnishing of rooms, which includes seating furniture, but also draperies, curtains, and carpets.

The choice of upholstery was not accidental. This book was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name that was held last year at the Strong Museum, in Rochester, New York, and furniture and draperies are obviously attractive and accessible items for public display. At the same time, it makes sense for a historical study to concentrate on upholstery; after all, interior decorators were originally called “upholsterers,” and textiles were important in the furnishing of Victorian parlors, which were crammed with brocade, chenille, plush, chintz, velvet, satin, and lace. This concentration on upholstery also permits the author to explore subjects such as the technology of textile manufacturing and marketing in considerable detail, which would not have been possible in a more general study.

If I have one complaint about this interesting book, it is with Grier’s prose, which is often scholarly and didactic to the point of dullness. This listless style is symptomatic, unfortunately, of a certain kind of art-historical book—what Harold Rosenberg once called the “exhibition-as-art-book”—which museums publish to give intellectual weight to attendance-building exhibitions. There is also the problem of a book that has grown out of a Ph.D. dissertation, and whose young author has not discovered the literary freedom that release from the academy can bring. One waits for personal opinions, and for humorous asides—furniture can be quite funny—but in vain. There are none of the quirky insights here that make reading Mario Praz’s reflections on décor such a delight.

The parlor in a Victorian-American home was the “best” room in the house. It was where the family met on formal occasions, and where visitors were entertained, uses which superficially resembled those of a modern living room. In another way, however, it was different, for the parlor also represented a social ideal, and it was one that originated outside the home. As Grier points out, domestic parlors were preceded by “public parlors”; we still speak of ice-cream parlors, and parlor cars. Public parlors, including women’s parlors, and so-called family parlors, were a common feature of hotels, steamboats, and trains in the second half of the nineteenth century. These parlors had an important symbolic function—they were a sign of middle-class gentility, refinement—and separateness. Ordinary folk got their hair cut in barbershops, proper ladies and gents went to tonsorial parlors. It was this sense of class division that the parlor was intended to convey.

Like home exercise machines, or bigscreen video, which first appeared in public establishments and later migrated to the home, the parlor was made to seem desirable by printed promotional material, etiquette books, and assorted domestic manuals—as well as by manufacturers and upholsterers, who encouraged new styles such as French and Turkish, and less expensive, factory-made, furniture. It would be a mistake, however, to judge the parlor as merely a commercial vehicle for a burgeoning industrial society; it was more than that. What distinguished the domestic parlor from the earlier drawing room was not only the quantity of furnishings, but that these were used almost exclusively in a symbolic fashion.

Furnished in the proscribed manner, the parlor conveyed a range of middle-class messages: probity, refinement, sensibility, beauty. Ideally, the parlor was to be used only for special occasions. In larger houses this was accomplished by having two parlors: one at the front, and one at the back of the house. The back parlor was a more casual sitting room for everyday use; the front parlor was only opened a few times a year. It is easy to make fun of the stuffy, unused parlor, but it was kept closed not out of Victorian parsimony, but rather to emphasize its special character, and to underline its isolation from the outside, public world. In that sense, it resembled an infrequently visited religious shrine.

The cultural functions of the parlor implied a certain level of formality and decorum, of what were called parlor manners. This was not a place for fun and games except, of course, parlor games. Women wore uncomfortable corsets and bustles; men wore stiff collars and waistcoats in all weather—gentility had its price. At the same time, a countercurrent began to be evident in American life. The invention of inexpensive, spring-seat chairs, lounges, and sofas coincided with a growing relaxation in posture and general behavior. According to Grier, this preference for comfort, particularly in sitting furniture, epitomized an inherent conflict in American middle-class values that was played out in the parlor.

After the turn of the century, the parlor began to go out of fashion. Partly this was a result of the relaxation of manners, and of methods of self-presentation in the home. Partly it was the result of functional necessity. As servants became scarcer, and houses and apartments became smaller, it was difficult to accommodate separate, formal parlors. As early as 1900, in a model house designed for the Ladies’ Home Journal, Frank Lloyd Wright showed the public rooms separated only by wide, open doorways. This practice, which became common, encouraged a more unified décor, in which the rooms were all of a piece. It was the precursor to the “open plan” that combined all public functions into a single space—the living room.

The living room reflected a different sensibility. It was simpler, less cluttered, more convenient for women who now had an increasingly active life outside the home. It was also more personal than social. Grier suggests that growing car-ownership had a part in the decline of the parlor, since the automobile served as a “portable facade” that publicly expressed social standing—a Chevrolet family or a Buick family. Cars, and car travel, also diverted time, attention, and money away from parlor life.

The mutation of parlor into living room occurred slowly, and it is by no means complete. Many houses in rural America still have a front parlor that is reserved for special occasions—weddings and funerals. The separation of casual family rooms and living rooms, the latter filled with slip-covered furniture, is also a continuation of the parlor tradition. Even the location of the living room, facing the street, is a reminder of the traditional front parlor.

It is Grier’s intriguing and original thesis that the parlor exemplified a tension in the American psyche between an emerging consumer society and middleclass sensibilities. The parlor may have disappeared, but the tension persists. She writes in the concluding paragraph:

Being middle class—having that state of mind both compelled and repelled by consumption as a form of rhetoric, seeking a balance between culture and comfort—may be a fundamental component in a dynamic consumer society.

The house that I visited represented this state of mind in different but recognizable ways. The preference for a more casual and relaxed comfort had continued, hence the devaluation of the living room and the shift to the informal kitchen and eating space. At the same time, the locale for self-presentation, too, had changed. Kitchen appliances were the new carriers of domestic status: so are German cabinets rather than Turkish upholstery, granite counters instead of lace antimacassars.

Just as the parlor manuals counseled aspiring Victorian cosmopolites, a modern primer such as Terence Conran’s The Kitchen Book proposes a variety of kitchen styles—country house or farmhouse, modernistic or traditional—to suit the owners’ self-image. Much of what constitutes the fashionable kitchen does not necessarily have anything to do with cooking or food preparation per se, and, as in the parlor, the tension between culture and comfort continues. The stylish gadgets are not always a convenience, the prestigious décor can interfere with the work going on. A sensible working kitchen, such as that of Julia Child, does not resemble the interior of an expensive automobile; it is more like the jumble of my local mechanic’s garage, tools conveniently at hand, neat visual effects disturbed by the complex choreography that is required of a good cook.

Perhaps the most significant shift has taken place in the luxuriously appointed bathroom, which could be called a “bathing parlor,” for it, too, appears to be a shrine. But a shrine to what? Is the emphasis on more relaxed bathing a reflection of the charged schedules of working couples; is the hot tub the place where they meet? Is the personal bathing parlor another sign of the further privatizing of the home? One thing appears certain. In the bathing parlor, the tension between culture and comfort, between restraint and desire, appears to have been temporarily resolved, emphatically in favor of the latter. It is truly a place for self-presentation—on oneself, to oneself. A fitting sign of our self-absorbed, individualistic, decade.

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