For our “American Advice” class at Lake Forest College, this week we are reading From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice, by Sarah A. Leavitt. Chapter One offers an extended discussion of parlors:
Domestic advisors disagreed violently with the general public on the subject of parlors. Although many suggestions given by domestic advice writers were followed, such as suggestions on room arrangements and craft ideas, the parlor was one subject that stayed in the realm of fantasy. No matter how hard they tried, and they did try, domestic advisors’ fantasy of the simplified, livable living room never replaced the appeal of the show parlor for most American families.
Middle class families in large cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Denver had access to richly upholstered chairs, gilded mirrors, carpets, and wallpapers and curtains of good quality. They hung paintings on the walls and arranged knick-knacks, such as vases and clocks, on their mantels. But the Victorian parlor was not only the bastion of the rich and urban. Frontier families, homesteading in Nebraska in the late nineteenth century, followed the same rules, installing different wallpapers, less fancy center-table lamps, and cheaper fabric for the curtains, perhaps, but the meanings of the rooms were the same. When domestic advisors criticized the parlors of the Victorian era, they looked not only to the middle-class residents of eastern cities, but also to the West…
The domestic advisors argued,
The parlor did not encourage family togetherness or love, but false opulence. ‘Who does not glance back,’ wrote Lida Clarkson in 1887, ‘almost with a shudder, at the old-fashioned times of stiff, uninviting rooms with cold, dead walls [and] horse-hair furniture?’ ‘The parlor should be the rallying point in daily family life,’ wrote Susan Anna Brown in her 1881 Home Topics. She criticized the use of the parlor as a ‘best’ room and advocated a ‘room in which centers the soul and throbs the heart of family life.’
(all quotations from page 31)
Did you grow up in a home with a room that no one was allowed to use? What do we make of the “family rooms” that are the selling points of new homes today, in an era in which high rates of family fragmentation arguably define us? And, what would 19th century domestic advisors make of today’s design magazines in which no photo spread is complete without a tousle-headed toddler bounding barefoot over the furniture?