The Parlor

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But the parlor did not die quietly all at once and without a prolonged whimper. It had to be beaten to death with words, some of them indignant and some humorous. The attacks on the extravagance of the parlor, its size as compared with other rooms in the house, and its status as a sort of family museum only for special use started early in the century. By the 1870’s the Victorian parlor began to give way to the “artistic” parlor which gloried in the quaint and the exotic. Cozy comers and Turkish nooks, piled with cushions and decorated with cattails and peacock feathers, with brass pots and taborets inlaid with mother-of-pearl, drove out formality and ushered in romantic notions. One writer on the home called it “Yankee rococo,” but whatever it was it combined clutter with comfort and substituted polite sensuousness for the straightspined piety of a few decades before. People looked back with few regrets at the time when the parlor was a “temple of form and fidgetiness,” when “the children were watched with lynx eyes lest they should displace or soil something,” and when the entertainment of friends was a social discipline. Even the manners books relaxed in their attitudes, and though they continued to give advice on every conceivable aspect of social deportment, they no longer thought it essential for a young man when he married to get rid of all his bachelor acquaintances lest his bride find them unsuitable to invite into her parlor.

But such habits of mind as the parlor represented are not easily shaken, nor are objects once thought beautiful or special or associated with times of happiness or tragedy quickly cast aside for the new and fashionable. One does not have to look far today in nearly any part of the country for a parlor in which at least the echoes of a century ago are still alive. There are still, after all, a great many men and women whose childhood was lived in the late Victorian era; in their houses the television set now sits next to a whatnot and the radio is planted on a rosewood table with carved and twisted legs. Their forebears still watch them from gilt frames and they still cherish their green-shaded student lamps, long since wired for electricity. Fashions in decorating are continually nudging each other out of the way, but manners have a way of persisting, and people whose manners were tempered in the fire of the parlor are as dignified as they ever were.

“We are fast becoming a parlorless nation,” wrote Lillian Hart Tryon nearly fifty years ago. “The accidental limitations of space and of service in modern life, and the increased expenses of buildings, as well as the noble intention of simplifying the house, have contributed to the result … The parlor now is relegated to the cold and viewless side [of the house], or is crowded into a corner of the hall, with two chairs and a palm. We could not get our parlors back if we tried, because we ourselves have changed … Life is too full to have patience with formalities. The cry of the time is for few friends and good ones.” But even more important than the shrinking house, its mechanization, and the shortage of service was the change that had gradually come over women. As the century turned they began to view the world differently, and to stride through it with a quickened pace.

The parlor had been not only the forum over which women presided but, except for the militant feminists, almost the only arena in which they faced the world outside their homes. When Harriet Martineau visited America in the 1840’s she had found only seven kinds of employment open to women—teaching, needlework, keeping boarders, working in cotton mills, typesetting, book-binding, and domestic service. Of these only teaching and, possibly, keeping boarders were considered respectable occupations for ladies. Toward the end of the century came a shift of heart and of opportunity. The professions of law, medicine, and architecture grudgingly opened their doors, if only a crack; offices wooed women to run the newfangled typewriter; the reputation of Florence Nightingale had made nursing honorable, and even being an actress was not considered as entirely disreputable as it had been only a few years before. Colleges like Vassar, Holyoke, Smith, and Bryn Mawr were determined to give women an education not only equivalent to that given to men but of precisely the same sort. All these developments had begun to make women impatient with the drudgery of housekeeping and the finicky world of the parlor. (“Only our failures marry,” said the militantly intellectual Miss M. Carey Thomas, first president of Bryn Mawr.)

The American woman was moving again. In the early years of the century she had followed her husband west over the mountains or along the still waters of the Erie Canal to the forests and the prairie, toting her chattels and as many symbols of civilization as her man and his wagon could manage. She had disappeared into the unfamiliar and the lonely, into the relentless winds of wide horizons or the stillness of trees. But by the end of the century she was moving into an entirely different world, a world made by men for men, a world of facts and figures, of eyeshades and roll-top desks, of buck passing and ledgers and letter presses. But it was a world as filled with adventure and with as many unfamiliar kinds of weariness, drudgery, and boredom as the wilderness had imposed on her mother a generation before.