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The Parlor

July 2024
19min read

You entered it only rarely, and you weren’t meant to be comfortable there. But every house had to have one, no matter how high the cost

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.

“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.”

Ladies and gentlemen of the day were cautioned that the art of conversation was not to be taken lightly or acquired easily. It required “a cultivated mind, richly stored with a variety of useful information; a good taste; a delicate sense of propriety; a good use of language; and an easy and fluent expression.” To achieve this artistic effect Harvey Newcomb, the author of How to Be a Lady, published in 1863, provided eleven rules, among which were: Avoid affectation (“it will expose you to ridicule”); Avoid low expressions (”a dialect peculiar to low people”); Avoid provincialisms (“For example, in New England, many people are in the habit of interlarding their conversation with the phrase, ‘You see.’”); Avoid unmeaning exclamations (such as “O my! O mercy! &c.”). But the meat of all manners-manual advice about conversational decency was to avoid talking too much about one’s self and one’s personal problems. Late in the century the forbidden topics of polite conversation were reduced to what one elderly lady of my acquaintance used to call “The five D’s”: they were Dress, Diseases, Domiciles, Descendants, and Domestics. It is a great deal more difficult to discover what the mentors of manners thought were suitable subjects for conversation than what were not. The weather, of course, was safe. So was the opera. It was polite to enquire about a visitor’s children, though even this had to be undertaken with discretion, as Miss Leslie cautioned:

As mothers are always on the qui vive, (and very naturally,) be careful what you say of their children. Unless he is a decidedly handsome man, you may give offense by remarking, “The boy is the very image of his father.” If the mother is a vain woman, she would much rather hear that all the children are the very image of herself. Refrain from praising too much the children of another family, particularly if the two sets of children are cousins. …

It was considered dangerous in the highly mobile society of America to ask questions that might remind a woman that she came from “humble” origins. It was a cliché at the turn of the century that one should not ask a prosperous San Franciscan who his grandmother was: the odds were that she had been a madam. Similarly, in the middle of the century, it was considered risky to discuss household affairs with newly rich women because “Women who have begun the world in humble life, and have been necessitated to give most of their attention to household affairs, are generally very shy in talking of housewifery, after their husbands have become rich, and are living in style, as it is called. Therefore, do not annoy them by questions on domestic economy. But converse as if they had been ladies always.” There were also taboos against gossip, of course, but few women either ill- or well-bred paid much attention to them. “It is one of the greatest miseries of our life,” wrote a woman who called herself “Daisy Eyebright,” the author of A Manual of Etiquette, “that scandal is the standing dish in society, and calumny stalks abroad with perfect boldness and impunity.”

The ritual of the “call” was an absolutely essential part of nineteenth-century manners, its propriety taken for granted, its uses very nearly universal. Even in the back country in the 1830's, making calls was an essential part of a woman’s day. The famous British traveller Captain Frederick Marryat, visiting Detroit in 1837, when there was not “a paved street in it, or even a foot-path for a pedestrian,” found that “the muddy and impassable state of the streets has given rise to a very curious system of making morning and evening calls.” Detroit was then a town of many log cabins, but it was not without its proprieties. “A small one-horse cart,” Marryat recorded, “is backed against the door of a house; the ladies dressed get into it, and seat themselves upon a buffalo-skin at the bottom of it; they are carried to the residence of the party upon whom they wish to call; the cart is backed in again, and they are landed dry and clean.”

Books of etiquette disagreed on many details of making calls, but all agreed that they should be made. The morning call was generally a visit of about fifteen minutes; less than that was rude, more was inconsiderate of the person being called upon. “First calls” were paid on new arrivals after a “suitable” interval had been allowed them to settle their new homes. “When should a lady call first upon a new and desirable acquaintance?” asked Mrs. M. E. W. Sherwood in Manners and Social Usages. “Not hastily. She should have met the new and desirable acquaintance, should have been properly introduced, should feel sure that her acquaintance is desired. … Too much haste in making new acquaintances, however—‘pushing,’ as it is called—cannot be too much deprecated.” It was, of course, the prerogative of the lady being called upon to decide whether she was “at home” or not. In the country, where callers might well have come some distance by carriage, it was considered rude not to be “at home” and, worse than that, to be unfriendly. But in the city it was a lady’s privilege to receive callers or not, so long as she exerted discretion and was “at home” more often than not. In no city was calling more elaborate or more of a social burden than in Washington. “The American woman is making an heroic effort, here as elsewhere, to do what is expected of her,” wrote the author of Social Usages in Washington during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. “A lady in official life sometimes devotes four afternoons in the week to the business of paying calls, making as many as thirty or even fifty in a single day.” This kind of calling was merely “dropping cards” on people, an onerous task that had nothing to do with friendship or hospitality, and was merely a kind of tribute that women were expected to pay to the demons of etiquette.

The use of calling cards grew to ridiculous proportions during the nineteenth century, and the rules for using them became so elaborate that scarcely anyone could master all the nuances and idiosyncrasies. “However laughable it may appear to some persons, to see bits of pasteboard with names on them, left at the doors of houses,” wrote Mrs. John Farrar early in the century, “it is a most convenient custom, and the only way of being sure that your call will be known to your friend.” Mrs. Farrar, a sensible woman with humor, would have been astonished at what eventually came to be the tyranny of the card. Forty years later the anonymous author of Social Etiquette in New York devoted two chapters to the use of cards, one for gentlemen and one for ladies, and it was a solemn matter indeed. The discourse began:

To the unrefined or underbred person, the visiting-card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it, combine to place the stranger whose name it bears in a pleasant or disagreeable attitude, even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position. The higher the civilization of a community, the more careful it is to preserve the elegance of its social forms.

Mark Twain was certainly one of “the unrefined or underbred” whom the author had in mind. Five years earlier, in The Gilded Age, Twain, who took special delight in needling the socially pretentious, had written of the use of cards in Washington:

Mrs. A pays her annual visit, sits in her carriage and sends in her card with the lower right-hand corner turned down, which signifies that she has “called in person;” Mrs. B. sends down word that she is “engaged” or “wishes to be excused”—or if she is a parvenu and low-bred, she perhaps sends word that she is “not at home.” Very good; Mrs. A. drives on happy and content. If Mrs. A’s daughter marries, or a child is born to the family, Mrs. B. calls, sends in the card with the upper left-hand corner turned down, and then goes along about her affairs—for that inverted corner means “Congratulations.” If Mrs. B.’s husband falls down stairs and breaks his neck, Mrs. A. calls, leaves her card with the upper right-hand corner turned down and then takes her departure; this corner means “Condolence.” It is very necessary to get the corners right, else one may condole with a friend on a wedding or congratulate her upon a funeral. If either lady is about to leave the city, she goes to the other’s house and leaves her card with “P.P.C.” engraved under the name—which signifies, “Pay Parting Call.”

One can almost hear the author of Social Etiquette in New York sneering and saying “Tsk! Tsk! Doesn’t he know that P.P.C. stands for ‘pour prendre congé?’ ” The language of etiquette, like the decoration of the parlor, was French. In fashionable circles the “party call,” which one omitted to pay on a hostess within a week of a party at the cost of social ostracism, was called a visite de digestion.

It was on the manners of the parlor that writers about etiquette concentrated their principal fire, though the manners of the dining room and of the street came in for their fair share of comment. The parlor was, after all, the principal private room in which public manners were most on display, and it was the place where guidance in proper behavior was presumed to be most needed.

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.”


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.

But this time her dream house was not built around a parlor—elegant, formal, sweet-smelling, and immaculate, a place to sit with your ankles neatly together; now she wanted a place where you could put your feet up, a place to stretch out, not a place to sit bolt upright clutching a tea cup. It took a feminist revolution to make women see that there was some sense in men’s attitude toward the parlor after all.

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