The Victorian Parlor: aka The Chamber of Horrors

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This past week I wrote a scene in which my cowboy hero was forced to sit in a formal parlor. It was during the 19th century age of clutter which meant the front room was filled to capacity with ornate furniture, needlepoint cushions, framed photographs, musical instruments, and enough froufrou to create a dusting nightmare. The poor man in my story couldn’t move without knocking over a beaded fringed lamp or a delicate music box. Worse, he had to trust his six foot parlor6two bulk to a spindly chair since no “sincere” furniture existed.

Parlors Were Never Designed for Comfort

A proper parlor had one purpose and one purpose alone; to showcase a woman’s gentility to all who entered.

In his book Domesticated Americans Russell Lynes describes the parlor as a chamber of horrors for children. “It (the parlor) set husband against wife, daughter against father and swain against maiden.” It also took a lump out of the family budget.

A Hostess Must Avoid Any Allusion to the Age, Personal Defects or Ill-manners of Guests

No one really knew how to act in a parlor and this unleashed a steady stream of articles and books on the subject. Not only were people counseled on how to enter a parlor without “Jiggling their bodies” but how to leave it.  Phrases, such as”What-d-ye call it,” “Thingummy,” “What’s his name,” or any such substitutes for a proper name or place were to be avoided at all costs.

Go Already!

The Ladies Indispensable Assistant explained the rules of exiting in great detail. “Don’t stand hammering and fumbling, and saying ‘Well I guess I must be going.’ When you are ready go at once.”

parlor2Parlor rules existed for every possible situation, even courting. Never was a man to sit with his “arms akimbo” or strike an awkward pose. Nor was he to enter a parlor without the lady’s invitation.

God Made Weather to Give Us Something to Talk About

Visitors were cautioned against talking about religion, politics, disease, dress or, heaven forbid, one’s self. Cookbook and etiquette writer Miss Leslie wrote that inquiring about a hostess’s children was to be done “with discretion.” Saying that a son “was the very image of his father,” could be offensive if the father was not a handsome man. Even then the visitor could be treading on ice if “the mother was vain and wished the children to look like her.”

Sparlor1everal things happened to make the parlor with its endless rules fall out of favor. Women were admitted to college and soon after entered the work force. No longer was a woman judged by her parlor but rather by her contributions to society.

The westward movement should also receive credit for putting sanity into the home. Though some pioneer women tried to carry the tradition westward, many soon learned the folly of such ways—much to their husbands’ gratitude.

 

Not all parlors died a quiet death. Some lingered into the twentieth century. As a child, I remember our next door neighbor’s parlor—and yes, that’s what she called it. Everything in it including the lampshades was covered in plastic which made a crinkling sound if you wiggled. Did any of you spend time in such a room?

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Margaret Brownley
Margaret has published more than 40 books and is a N.Y. Times Bestselling author and past Romance Writers of America Rita Finalist. She writes historical novels set--where else?--in the Old West! A Match Made in Texas is available for pre-order now. Margaret's stories also appear in the 12 Brides of Christmas, Pioneer Christmas and Second Chance at Star Inn collections. Not bad for someone who flunked 8th grade English. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.

17 Comments

  1. Margaret, I always enjoy your posts. Thank you for sharing. I really never experienced a formal parlor but have taken many historical home tours and taken in these beautiful homes of their times.

  2. Hi Melanie, thank you! Hey, we have something in common. I enjoy looking at historical homes, too.

    Most of the homes I’ve toured have been tastefully decorated so it’s hard to judge the historical value. I usually depend on old photographs for my research.

  3. Seeing pictures of these chambers of horrors, the horror for my always came in the atrocious floral wallpaper. The paper itself would be so bad, except that when you paired it with the clutter of figurines, vases (with more flowers), and endless knick-knacks it was sensory overload. I don’t know how people could still stand when they entered such a room. I think vertigo would send me into a swoon.

  4. Karen, you’re so right about the wallpaper. It often clashed with the floral draperies, pillows and needlepoint. Now we know why so many parlors had a fainting lounge. lol

  5. Margaret, this is so interesting. And funny. Made me laugh. I’m sure many a cowboy would rather have entered a snake den. He’d have been much more comfortable. I’ve only seen parlors in museums. Darn it! I’m missing out.

    Congrats on the upcoming release and huge congratulations on winning the National Readers’ Choice Award for best inspirational!!!

  6. Linda, I think you’re right about the snake den. Trust me, you’re not missing out. We talk about simplier times but I’m not sure that such a thing existed.

  7. Hi Margaret! Loved this. My mother used to cover her living room furniture with plastic. Never understood that, but that sofa was pristine its entire life. Great blog today!!

  8. Hi Charlene, I haven’t done any research on this, but I wonder if the plastic coverings had something to do with the depression. My mother-in-law draped all her furniture in plastic, too, and saved every piece of string. I once tossed a gum wrapper in the trash and she dived in after it. She then showed me how to save the foil. The depression left a deep mark on her.

  9. We had neighbors with a ‘good’ living room.
    We were NEVER allowed in there. It wasn’t ornate so much as just beautiful. CLEAN. Untouched.
    No such thing in our house. We needed every inch. The notion of having a spare room no one used unless they had company over was very strange and foreign.
    Sliding pocket doors and we just never even peaked inside, absolutely forbidden.
    I thought it was very cool and rich and fancy. And yes, her couch and lampshades were always covered in clear plastic. She must have taken it off for company though, right? Surely.

  10. Mary,

    I don’t know if they took the plastic off for guests. No one ever took the plastic off for me.

  11. What a fun post! I immediately began imagining all the fun scenes I could write taking place in such a room. And I especially enjoyed the photos – thanks!

  12. I don’t think I have ever had the “pleasure” of being in a parlor. I have always imagined parlors to be the equivalent of formal living rooms, rather than family rooms. However, in my childhood home, we had a living room, where we lived, in fact, rather than a sanitized home, we had a home where you could tell people lived. It was always comfortable and “lived-in.” I had friends that lived in what a thought to be “sanitized” homes, nothing seemed lived in and everything was spotless. I prefer living in a house, rather than a showplace.

    I am truly thankful, God chose the current era to place me.

  13. Hi Winnie, I’ve been having a blast writing my scene. It’s amazing what inspires us authors.

  14. i loved the post. I can just imagine a cowboy in such a room. An ornery steer would be much preferred. I have been in homes with almost this kind of room. My cousin has one but she does have room to move around in it. It’s not covered in plastic either. I’ve been to homes with lots of nick-knacks too. I guess I can’t imagine having all this room without being able to move in it. I’m looking forward to your book.

  15. Hi Dora, I can’t imagine living in a “sanitized” house. Never lived in one; never wanted to.

    Have a great weekend.

  16. Hi Connie, I think any man would have trouble in such a room, but especially a man who’s more at home in the great outdoors. It was a fun scene to write.

    Have a great weekend!

  17. One of a friend’s home had what qualified as a parlor even if it was’t called one. The children were not allowed to enter it. You came in the front door and an archway right in front of you led to the room. There was a velvet rope like you see in theaters across the entrance and one across the doorway that led to the kitchen on the other side. Only on rare occasions, when the mother had special company, did she use the room and then only for the company and herself. Even the dad wasn’t allowed in the room except on these special occasions.

    I can remember older relatives and friends having fancy parlors with the victorian feel. I have one decorated in victorian furniture, but it is very much lived in and not overly cluttered with froufrou, books everywhere, but no froufrou. If you have ever tried to sit in the oval back and other victorian chairs, they force you to sit up straight and keep a very proper posture.

    Thanks for a look into the parlous and the rules people were expected to live by.

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