The Parlor


When Frances Milton Trollope, another noted English visitor, first arrived in Cincinnati in the late 1820’s she noted that “whatever may be the talents of the persons who meet together in society, the very shape, form and arrangement of the meeting is sufficient to paralyze conversation.” The trouble was that the men herded together in one part of the room and the women in another (a “trouble” that is still a common practice in many American households), and nothing seemed able to break the barrier between the sexes. Later Mrs. Trollope was surprised to discover that this segregation was equally prevalent in cities east of the Alleghenies.

The gentlemen spit, talk of elections and the price of produce, and spit again. The ladies look at each other’s dresses till they know every pin by heart; talk of Parson Somebody’s last sermon on the day of judgment, on Dr. T’otherbody’s new pills for dyspepsia, till the “tea” is announced, when they all console themselves together for whatever they may have suffered in keeping awake, by taking more tea, coffee, hot cake and custard, hoe cake, johnny cake, waffle cake, and dodger cake, pickled peaches, and preserved cucumbers, ham, turkey, hung beef, apple sauce, and pickled oysters than were ever prepared in any other country in the known world. After this massive meal is over, they return to the drawing room, and it always appeared to me that they remained together as long as they could bear it, and then they rise en masse, cloak, bonnet, shawl, and exit.

In New York, where dancing was often indulged in at evening parties, James Silk Buckingham found in the 1840’s that “the dancing was monotonous and indifferent; partly from languor, and partly, it is believed, from affectation of indifference, which is considered to be more genteel than vulgar vivacity.” It was gentility that was taking the fun out of life, and it was gentility that continued until the end of the century to make the parlor and its amusements the kind of tribulation that leisure enforces on those who believe, as Americans did, that only work was a virtuous occupation. The functions of the parlor were social “duties” rather than friendly pleasures, and the more onerous and complicated they became, and the more silver there was to be polished, the easier it was for the American woman to justify such use of her leisure. Only among the very rich was the observance of social amenities a full-time occupation that demanded not merely extensive knowledge of the rules but the self-assurance to flout them (and make new ones) and the generalship to plan and execute the elaborate strategy of social campaigns.

For most men the parlor was one of the trials of life that one was expected to make the best of, keep a stiff upper lip about, and try not to make a fool of oneself in. It was part of the sacrifice that the American male grudgingly granted was due his wife. To children the parlor was, of course, a place where they were to be seen and not heard, except when their mothers asked them to perform a newly learned piece on the piano for the benefit of a lady who sat stiffly with her gloved hands folded in her lap, or to show off a few French phrases they had just learned at school. They might “speak when spoken to,” but if they ventured to speak on their own, they were hustled from the room. Even the parlor games which children had enjoyed in the early part of the century became obsolete. To the lady of the house the parlor was, or was supposed to be, the expression of her refinement and the stage on which she displayed her breeding, her bibelots, her poise, and her culture.

The downfall of a room which placed such a burden on so many members of the family was bound to come sooner or later, in form if not entirely in substance. Many of the parlor’s social values were false, and its discomforts far outweighed its pleasures or even the returns it brought in social prestige. Moreover, its proprieties were so blown up as to menace the best qualities of frank and casual republican manners and hospitality. As America grew in power and importance and became less self-conscious about its cultural shortcomings, it felt less and less need to look over its shoulder to Europe for its standards of polite behavior.

Practical as well as cultural considerations helped restore a degree of balance as the nineteenth century drew to a close. For one thing, more and more people were living in cities, and a smaller and smaller percentage of city families were living in houses. In the East, by the 1870’s, the value of urban land had made the cost of building a “town house” prohibitive except to the rich, and as a result the apartment house began to appear. Only in expensive apartments was there a room that could be shut off exclusively for formal use, and the parlor became the sitting room for all of the family every day. Its furniture became more comfortable, its atmosphere more relaxed; the children were allowed to do their homework at the center table under a gas fixture which shed its bluewhite light from a ceiling chandelier. Even in large houses and expensive apartments the word “parlor,” identified with the parvenu wealth of the earlier part of the century, lost caste; now decorated with antiques imported from England and France and Italy rather than with American-made furniture, the parlor became the “drawing room.”