If you’ve read the other articles, pertaining to color and design, that related what the critics felt was right or wrong, well, this is a slice of real life.
The drawing room, or as it was sometimes known in America, the reception hall, was the center of the house, it showed your status, your gentility, your good taste. It was not the living room of today, that role was filled more by the Victorian dining room. Decorating the drawing room was treading a fine line. You did not want to live ‘below your station”, that would be very bad, very damaging. On the other hand, you didn’t want to be seen as trying too hard, that could be worse. You wanted your room to be ‘handsomely furnished’, but not ‘showy’. Not living up to your income was bad, trying too hard was worse, and living above it was the greatest sin of all.
Charles Darwin’s granddaughter wrote about her aunt and uncle; “They were well off and lived in style and comfort; but it was neither for the style nor the comfort that Aunt Sara really cared. Her religion was Duty, and it was her duty to her position and her class to live like that. It was Right, for instance, for people of
her kind to keep a carriage and horses. This was not a manner of speaking: she truly felt it a Duty.” In Charles Dickens’s book OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, a character says….”we have come into a great fortune, and we must do what’s right by our fortune; we must act up to it“.
You were expected to spend a certain percentage of your yearly income on home furnishings, the more you made, the higher your percentage should be. Of course, it’s like buying a diamond engagement ring. They say you should spend X% of your income to buy your sweetie a ring. There are some who do and some who say “ are you crazy?”
Another interesting point was that a man was expected to provide his bride with a fully furnished house equal to her parent’s home. This is why so many men put off marriage, they just couldn’t afford it. A couple might court for years while the prospective groom kept trying to make more money.
In the beginning of the Victorian era the things they bought to fill their drawing rooms, or as they were more often known in America, the parlor, or best parlor, were ………sofas, ottomans, upright chairs and easy chairs, stools, ladies’ writing desks, console tables, work tables, sewing tables, occasional tables, and screens. And the must-have, the round drawing room table. Chairs were getting heavier and more comfortable, coil springs were appearing. Easy chairs were either standard or ladies’ chairs, which were smaller, had a more upright back, and had lower arms to accommodate full skirts. Also, the furniture they bought generally lasted the rest of their lives. Their children would remark how long lasting and ugly they were.
In the 1860’s and 70’s men began writing about home design. This was a signal that it had become a serious subject. There wasn’t good taste or bad taste, it was just right or wrong. A writer of the day said; “..let us not consider what is handsome or effective or taking to the eye, but what is suitable to the husband’s position.”
Charles Dickens’s granddaughter, Gwen Raverat wrote about her family; (which had a slightly different order of preference ) “ When they bought an armchair they thought first of whether it would be comfortable, and next of whether it would wear well; and then, a long way afterwards, of whether they themselves happened to
like the look of it.
Design experts began to condemn imitation finishes, such as a varnished paper that was meant to look like marble and was rather widely used. There were many articles written on the subject of “gross shams and vulgar imitations “, “shams of all kinds are to be objected to” ,”If you are content to teach a lie in your belongings,
you can hardly wonder at petty deceits being practiced in other ways.” But people seemed to be buying quite a few of these sham, veneered articles. You could get plaster stag heads, painted to look like the real thing, and put them up to give your room a baronial air.
In small English terrace houses the front door opened into a small hallway that led to two rooms that were often linked by a wide doorway so they could open into one another. The back room was generally a family used room, for dining or any other daily activities. The front room was the drawing room or parlor, which was kept only forthe best furnishings. In a larger town home, the drawing room would take an entire floor, usually the English first floor, or in American terms, the second floor. The ground floor, or American first floor would be for the dining and morning rooms. This was apparently done so that guests could proceed gracefully down the stairs, by rank, to dinner. The set up in an American city row house would be similar. By the way, the front door generally opened into a hallway or vestibule.
Vestibules were widely used in the Victorian era, on both sides of the ocean. They kept the cold air from rushing through the house every time one opened the door. In a middle class American row home, you might have a parlor or drawing room in the front, then a dining room with a back parlor, or family sitting room behind it.
The ideally decorated drawing room changed over time, but they were high ceilinged rooms and usually rather long, and always had the best household furnishings in them. At one point it was exceedingly stylish to use a lot of ‘drapery’ and bows. Some people carried this to excess.. An American visitor, looking for rooms in London was appalled by what she saw, “….the flower pots were draped, and the lamps;
there were draperies round the piano -legs, and round the clock; and where there were not draperies, there were bows…… the only thing that had not made an effort to clothe itself in the room was the poker, and by contrast it looked very nude.” H.G.Wells remembered the lower middle class sitting rooms of his childhood,” ….something was hung about or wrapped round or draped over everything. There was bright-patterned muslin round the gas-bracket……round the mirror over the mantel, stuff with ball-fringe along the mantel…..”. Mrs.Panton, an interior decoration pioneer, who wrote many books on the decoration and proper upkeep of the home, suggested that the piano (a Victorian drawing room necessity ) might be coveredwith serge, felt or damask “….edged with an appropriate fringe….which thus makes it an excellent shelf for odds and ends of china and bowls of flowers.” The music stool could be covered with fabric and sheet music stored in a cupboard with a cloth covering it with ornaments “scattered” on top. If one had a grand piano, “..a good arrangement in the bend” would be a big palm in a brass pot or stand or a table with plants and books and a couple of chairs placed in a “conversational manner” with another stool in front of them with yet another plant on top. “This gives a very finished look to the piano” .. A couple of years later she suggested that an upright piano be turned so it’s back faced the room, and it be covered with a curtain hanging from a rod across its back. A piece of Japanese embroidery
could be placed on top, some framed photos, a cup for flowers and a few ornaments..
No one wanted to be thought of as old fashioned. They seemed to be constantly wanting to redecorate because the furnishings of the past looked so ugly and dated. At the same time, no one wanted their stuff to look brand new, that would be so vulgar. What a dilemma. By the way, one of the biggest crazes to hit came in the 1890’s. It was the ‘cozy corner’. They’d set up a niche with small sofas, cushions ,
draperies, knick-knacks, stools…whatever would fit into the space. This was found on both sides of the Atlantic, and continued in the US in a slightly different look into the 20th century by adding many cushions and shawls and perhaps a hanging brass lamp and renamed a Turkish corner.
A Mrs. Haweis told of an unfortunate man who tried to join his partner in order to take her in to dinner. He crossed the room……”knocking over the chair next to him, and arriving at his destination with a fringed antimacassar neatly fastened to one of his coat buttons. He then backed into a small table, on which stood some books and photographs, and only saved this, to send another spinning; this time smashing the whole concern and depriving me of my pet flower-holders. …But the worse was yet to come; in one heroic effort to get away from the scene of the disaster he backed once more into a ‘whatnot’ full of china .” Her solution was not to get rid of her clutter, but to be sure that the tables and objects upon them were solidly
weighted and anchored from then on.
In some lower middle class their drawing room or parlor was used by the family only on Sundays. What they did there might differ widely family to family. There was a religious revival in the early 19th century both in Britain and the United States. Changes came about because of its influence. In England in the 1850’s the Lord’s Day Observance Society began to lobby for a total shutdown of all public civic life on Sundays. They did manage to get Sunday postal service stopped for a few months. What was successful was their mission to close “ national properties” on Sundays. Parks, museums and zoos were closed. Concerts were forbidden, bands were no longer allowed to play on Sunday.. Those who were well off could still find ways of entertaining themselves, but the working class, who had one day a week to enjoy themselves and the fresh air were forbidden to. In 1854 a booklet was published that illustrated the things that most people would consider acceptable, but that the
Sabbatarians wanted to prevent ; family walks in the park, excursions on the river, fish dinners in Greenwich. The author pointed out that the Sabbath society, by preventing music, dancing and fireworks and other entertainment ensured that the day would be devoted by many to ‘decorous hard drinking”.
In the 1890’s Gwen Raverat’s family could not play cards, sew or knit, not because her parents felt that it was wrong to do these things on Sunday, but that it set a bad example for the maids. On the other hand Sunday was approve for being “at home” to visitors, never mind that the servants had to come home after their half day off and clean up.
The gloomy Sunday was a reality, however, for many Victorian families, even those who were not particularly religious, just because it was at the time the “proper” thing to do. In one not especially religious family, for example, all entertainment after church was forbidden , and even reading could only be from appropriate religious material, or books that had stories to improve your moral fiber. There were even separate toys that were saved only for Sundays for the younger children. One of these commonly seen was a Noah’s ark with animal figures. One little boy was reproached by his slightly older brother for un-Sunday conduct. He made a stable with his animals instead of properly marching them up the ramp two by two into the ark in the acceptable manner.
As people became more prosperous, and manufacturing methods improved, toys became more common in middle class households. Weekday toys were so much more interesting than Sunday toys.. On Weekdays you could play with toy soldiers and little horses with removable harness and little carts with filled with tiny wooden planks. There were rocking horses and horses on wheels that you could gallop down the street. There were barrel organs that you put punched metal cards into that played music.. There were dollhouses and toy theaters, tea sets, dolls and dolls furniture, toy bricks, pull toys and reins. I even saw an ad for these reins. They were leather, one child would be the horse and the other the driver. A magic lantern was a magnificent Christmas gift the children of one family received, with over 100 slides from pictures of cathedrals to comic drawings.
Not only were children getting more toys, but the adults were gaining more possessions themselves. Their drawing rooms contained things like lamps, footstools, fire screens, candlesticks, clocks, mirrors, workboxes, sewing boxes, figurines of all description, paintings, etchings, drawings, photographs, drapery, china, ceramics, mineral displays, fossils, boxes, fans, feathers, wax fruit, plants, stuffed animals (The kind that go on the wall) , scrapbooks, books, albums, pressed flowers, magic lanterns, birdcages, fern cases, aquariums, trays, musical instruments, vases, cushions, stereopticons, ink wells, table covers, antimacassars, doilies and mats. Not to mention the things the lady of the house may have made herself, like the framed floral display made out of human hair. No wonder it took hours to clean a drawing room.
a hair wreath, the black hairs came from a horse's mane
Some interesting points to remember about some of the dangers of the Victorian era. Wallpaper…..many colors were produced with the use of poisonous dyes. Green papers were especially dangerous, as were lilac, pinks, some blues and ‘French gray’, they all contained arsenic. This was one reason why a “change of air” was so beneficial to invalids. They were slowly being poisoned at home, then taken to the seaside, where they would start to improve, but when returned to their poisonous environment, they would sicken again. Clothing also contained arsenic. In 1862 there was an article in The Times on how to detect arsenic on fabric by using a drop of ammonia, but the test never caught on. In the 1890’s women were still being warned about arsenic in their clothing.
To help keep dirt and airborne infection from entering the house in good weather through open windows doctors recommended that curtains be replaced with blinds, known in America as shades. Stained glass and leaded glass windows became popular because you could get rid of window coverings, yet have privacy. In spite of health concerns, many still preferred window coverings. One might have lace or muslin
curtains topped with heavier draperies and perhaps a swag, plus Venetian blinds or roller blinds or shades. The sun was usually kept out because the dyes used in that era were susceptible to fading.
Fireplaces and mantles were prime areas for decorating in the drawing room. They would put ornamental screens in front of them in summer, in winter too for that matter, if there was no fire in the grate. A common way of decorating the ‘hole’ was with paper curls. One woman described the long silver paper curls in their bedroom grate. There was even a lesson printed in a decorating book of how to cut up muslin into strips, with fringe, and spread it gracefully over the hearth. As for the mantle, the simplest decoration might be a mantle clock flanked by candlesticks with a few ornaments. Remember also that a large mirror was invariably placed over the mantle. A common way to make room for all the bric-a-brac was to enlarge the mantle
with a board, draped with fabric and then another structure of shelves, brackets, etc. would be built up on top.
Middle class and up women who had a staff of servants had a great deal of leisure time which they filled by doing all sorts of fancy “work”. They made more hand embroidered slippers, spectacle cases and watch cases , etc. than they knew what to do with. They decorated their homes with them, gave them as gifts, sold them at church bazaars…… There were instructions on how to make decorative guitars out of
cardboard and silk scraps, beaded pen wipers, that of course could never be used to wipe the nib of a pen because they were covered in beads. There were ornamental frames for matchboxes. An interesting point was that a great many of the things these women made were totally useless. A very commonly made gift throughout the era was a pincushion. Sometimes it would be downright huge and decorated with patterns and sentiments made out of hundreds of pins. Of course, you wouldn’t dare actually mar its loveliness by sticking a random pin in it.
A craze that swept 1850’s Britain, and probably the USA was Pteridomania, or fern collecting. Women would buy and collect all sorts of varieties of ferns. They would buy glass cases to grow them in, books to write lists in of what kind of ferns they had. They would make spatter pictures, a sort of reverse stenciling, or perhaps wreaths of pinecones, seeds or acorns. Below you can see illustrations of some Victorian ladies' handiwork.
a bouquet of spring flowers and grasses
a cone wreath
a spatterwork design to be used for cushions, screens, portfolios, etc.