The Parlor

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To most Americans the parlor, in its stiff and overstuffed heyday, was a gesture of culture and civilization in a nation that was still more than half wilderness. It was the counterpart of the British colonial’s dinner jacket in the jungle, and America was a very different sort of jungle then than now. When Sir Charles Lyell, the distinguished geologist, visited the United States in the 1840’s he was moved to write, “I had sometimes thought that the national motto should be ‘All work and no play.’” In some respects the parlor sought to deny this. It was a determined grab for the symbols of civilized living, and it is not surprising that in a society that was restless, ambitious, and materialistic the parlor—which represented calm, dignity, continuity, and culture—should have been set aside, its double doors firmly shut and its blinds drawn against the incursion not only of the sun but of the hurly-burly of daily life.

The parlor was not just a room in the house, but a room in a world apart, a reminder that life was not entirely made up of slop jars and broad axes, counting rooms and street hawkers. In the country and city alike it was a sort of island filled with treasure to which one could retreat on very special occasions for refreshment. It was a sanctuary of family memories, treasures brought back from travels, precious objects preserved by forebears, presents from lost friends, mementos of anniversaries, the record—in the family Bible—of the dead and the quick. Down upon all this, ancestors stared sternly out of gilt frames. To all intents and purposes the parlor was a reflection of America’s determination to achieve “the good life.”

But, though no room in the American home in the nineteenth century was more tenderly cared for, fussed over, or jealously protected, no room came in for more abuse and criticism. It was at once the highly polished apple of the housewife’s eye, the butt of rude jokes, the pride of the family, and the target of the architect and the domestic reformer. It was the upholsterer’s and decorator’s gold mine, and, by the same token, the bottomless pit of the family budget. It set husband against wife, daughter against father, and swain against maiden. It was a chamber of horrors for restless children, a rack of boredom for tired men, a family chapel for the sanctification of the household lares and penates.

The parlor, a room in which to have conversation, not only derived etymologically from the French verb parler, but took its airs and graces from what was called in the early part of the last century “the French taste.” In polite urban circles anything French was considered more fashionable than anything English, and it was not until late in the century, when the word “parlor” had become the butt of ridicule and rich Americans were buying titled Englishmen as husbands for their daughters, that the British expression “drawing room” came into polite usage in America. In general the parlor meant a room set apart for formal occasions; for entertaining acquaintances, rather than intimate friends, and clergymen on their rounds of parish calls. The word was ubiquitous, and even in the log houses of the frontier, which consisted of two square cabins joined by a breezeway or dog-trot, the room in which the family entertained guests (as opposed to the “family room,” where the family cooked and ate and some of it slept) was called the parlor. In it were such treasures as had survived the trek from the East … a strip of Brussels carpet, a few pieces of real china, and a clutch of wax flowers in a bell jar.

Fashions in the decoration of the parlor changed considerably as the century progressed, though the spirit of the room remained constant. From the columned and gently tinted simplicity and restrained elegance of the Greek Revival parlor of the 1830’s and the formality of the Gothic furnishings so warmly recommended by Andrew Jackson Downing, whose word on taste in the 1840’s was law, it erupted in the fifties in plush and velvet. It became a bower of fringe and needlepoint, cabbage roses and lambrequins, ottomans and little spindle chairs on which a lady might perch daintily in her crinoline and beribboned satins but on which a man hardly dared to risk his bulk. Even late in the century, when the “artistic craze” was foisted on Americans by Charles Eastlake and furniture became solid, dowelled, and “sincere,” the spirit of the parlor changed scarcely at all. It remained the island of formality in a turbulent sea of family comings and goings.

The trouble with the parlor—and to a great many serious-minded people it was a grave trouble—was that the island occupied far too large a part of the family sea and, even more deplorably, far too large a part ot the budget. One might expect such extravagance of the social butterflies and fops who lived in cities. Harper’s Bazar in the 1860’s flew into a rage of indignation because so many families in New York spent a third of their incomes renting houses at fashionable addresses and had only enough money left to make a splurge in the parlor and dining room and leave the rest of the house in a state approaching squalor. But it seemed downright immoral of the farm family, not only the bulk but the backbone of the nation, to indulge in silly notions of the same sort. And yet such was too often the case.