The Evolution of a Room
Is the parlour just another Victorian room that is totally irrelevant to today’s homes? To understand how this room evolved into today’s living room and family, read on…
The Victorian Home
In Victorian times, visitors to private homes presented their card to the butler or servant. The caller was kept waiting in the entrance hall while their arrival was announced to the lady or gentleman of the house. If they were important enough, or known to the family, they would be invited into the parlour to wait for the arrival of the hosts.
The visitor was given ample time to admire the room. The parlour’s interior décor and choice of accessories exhibited the home owner’s wealth, social standing, intelligence, devotion to family, religious affiliations, and acceptance of new and modern ideas. All these qualities were revealed without a single word being spoken.
At the end of the 19th century, the parlour was the most lavishly appointed room in the house. Separated as it was from other rooms, it symbolized the public persona of its inhabitants. Opulence reigned. Hardwood parquet floors covered with oriental rugs, ornate plaster ceilings or medallions, intricately carved millwork, and gilt cornice boxes atop the windows showcased wealth. Even for those of more modest means, the parlour was a stage for the best that the homeowner could afford.
Window Treatments and Accessories
Window treatments included layers of heavy velvets, brocades, and laces trimmed with yards of tassels and fringe. Furniture suites were arranged into various conversation groupings, each anchored by a centre parlour table. Fancy wicker étagères, chairs, and occasional tables added an exotic touch as did a profusion of plants—palm trees and ferns being the favourites. Framed art and photographs, crystal-studded hand-painted lamps, urns, figurines, and art glass sparkled in the low light.
Entertaining in the Parlour
Larger homes often included a second or “back” parlour which was set aside for private family gatherings. The back parlour contained musical instruments, games, books, stereo viewers, stationery and a desk for writing letters, photo albums, scrapbooks, and autograph books—all for the family’s entertainment.
This back parlour was the inspiration for what is now known as the family room. Often the only thing that separated the front from the back parlour was a pair of sliding doors, a decorative grille or a set of tapestry panels. Early 20th century homes used colonnades to separate the rooms visually.
Eventually, however, the front and back parlours were combined to create one larger, more open room that was not physically separated from the rest of the house. It became known as the living room in the 1920’s.
The Arts and Crafts style influenced design and architecture in the 20th century. Interiors became simpler and the focus was on natural materials. Decorative, wooden beam ceilings replaced the ornate plaster ceiling from times past. Simpler motifs replaced busy wallpaper patterns. Ornate millwork gave way to simple flat, pilaster-style mouldings.
Colourful stained glass windows provided privacy and light which allowed the lady of the house to simplify window treatments. Plain lace sheers with fabric side panels replaced heavy layers of drapery. Hardwood floors still prevailed, as did oriental rugs, but rag rugs and needlepoint rugs became popular, as well.
The Living room today
Although the “living room” as it was now called, has become more accessible to family members, it has still retained its position as the “best room” in many homes. Many readers may recall, as children, going into homes where plastic sheeting covered the furniture and lamp shades in order to protect them against daily use.
Family rooms today tend to be an extension of the kitchen and do not impress the way a living room still does. The simple acts of cooking and cleaning create a super-casual feeling that may not always be appropriate.
Even now, more than 100 years later, the concept of having a parlour or “best room” reserved for guests is an idea that just doesn’t seem to want to disappear completely.