The Parlor


“So far as space is concerned,” wrote Sereno E. Todd, a widely read advocate of the virtues of rural living, “most people in the country should reverse the order of their parlors and their kitchens. Most farmers erect a nice and expensive house, with a costly parlor or two, and furnished with beautiful carpets, window shades, and other adjuncts of a parlor, and go look into the—almost sacred—apartment about once a week … What is the use of having a house without making fair and respectable use of it?” And Mr. and Mrs. Stockton, who wrote about the home in the 1870’s, encompassed all American households when they asked: “Was there ever an American woman who, furnishing a house, did not first lay aside the money for the parlor? A parlor must be, even if after it come the deluge.”

If the cost of furnishing the parlor was nearly always enough to take a husband’s breath away, its spiritual demands were even greater. It was the showcase of gentility, and its elaborate code of manners was filled with pitfalls for the ill-bred or the unwary. It was in the parlor that the most formal moments of family life were endured—the formal call (known as a “morning” call if it took place anytime between eleven A.M. and five P.M.), the tea party, the evening reception, the dreadful ten minutes while guests gathered before the dinner party, the hushed and lugubrious conversation when a member of the family had died, the proposal of marriage. The writers of books of etiquette had advice to offer on every aspect of behavior in the parlor, every situation, every innuendo. With indignation, with humor, or with the quiet, indulgent tones of an older and wiser friend, they anticipated every possible social gaffe. There were a great many American ianiilies who looked upon their parlors as an indispensable anchor which held their households in the social stream, but who were unsure just how one should behave in them. It was at people like these that the behavior books were aimed, and there were rules, rules, rules.

Nothing was more difficult about the parlor, for instance, than the problem of how to get into it gracefully and get out of it without fumbling. Emily Post in her first etiquette book in 1922 said, “Perhaps the best instruction would be like that in learning to swim. ‘Take plenty of time, don’t struggle, and don’t splash about!’ Nearly a century earlier Mrs. Farrar in The Young Lady’s Friend had felt constrained to note that on entering the parlor,

Some girls have a trick of jiggling their bodies, (I am obliged to coin a word in order to describe it); they shake all over, as if they were hung on spiral wires, like the geese in a Dutch toy … It robs a lady of all dignity, and makes her appear trifling and insignificant. … It must have originated in embarrassment, and a desire to do something, without knowing exactly what; and being adopted by some belle, it became, at one time, a fashion in New York, and spread thence to other cities.

The problem was by no means merely a feminine one. The anonymous author of The Ladies’ Indispensible Assistant, which also included instructions for gentlemen, took a less humorous view than either Mrs. Post or Mrs. Farrar of this critical social moment: “You leave your overcoat, cane, umbrella, &c., and if the call is of any length, your hat in the entry. A graceful bow, a pleasant smile, an easy way of paying compliments, and suiting them to each person, no lesson can teach.” The author, presumably a woman, added:

It is well to know how to enter a room, but it is much better to know when and how to leave it. Don’t stand hammering and fumbling, and saying “Well, I guess I must be going.” When you are ready, go at once. It is very easy to say, “Miss Susan, your company is so agreeable, that I am staying longer than I intended, but I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you again soon; I wish you a good morning,” and bowing, smiling, shaking hands, if the hand be proffered, you leave the room, if possible without turning your back; you bow again at the front door, and if any eyes are following you, you still turn and raise your hat in the street.

Hundreds of thousands of words were written about proper parlor conversation. The books outlined dialogue for brief, fifteen-minute calls, which consisted merely of exchanging compliments, and listed suitable topics for longer interchanges. They also indicated those topics considered socially taboo. To engage in an argument was, of course, the very nadir of taste and breeding, though the argument might be about the name of a rose or the quality of a piece of ribbon or lace. Gentlemen were cautioned not to talk politics in the presence of ladies (though they often did), because in this area ladies were expected to be both uninterested and ill-informed. Religion and moral questions were to be avoided as well, for they led, according to The Illustrated Manners Book, “to angry, endless, and useless contests.”