Saturday, August 24, 2013

Researching the Setting for "Marry in Haste"

     My second mystery, Marry in Haste, will have a
secondary plot that takes place in 1893, and its setting is a Victorian house I used to live in when I first moved to Monmouth, Illinois, in 1968. My previous post described the front two rooms and today I'm imagining the remainder of the first floor.

     Visitors to the McCullough House in 1893 saw the public hallway and the front parlor. But beyond that parlor was a second family parlor that was used as a sitting room for family-oriented activities. It was considered a private part of the home, used just by the family. Often furniture in this parlor consisted of castoffs from the front parlor as furniture was replaced. The north wall held a fireplace that probably had a small clock and china or candles on the mantle. Perhaps copies of Godey's, Peterson's and The Household graced a small table next to a rocking chair or easy chair. These magazines printed monthly columns on decorating, furniture, floor coverings, and other household hints. As time went by, the family might have turned this second parlor into a nursery. When we lived in the house in 1968, this second parlor was combined with the front parlor into one massive living room with no dividing wall.

     In 1968, the west side of this family parlor had a door that went into a bedroom and small bathroom. It is likely that in 1893, this room was a library/office for the owner of the house. It was a gentleman's retreat with an outside entrance on the west side of the room. The large closet and the bathroom, both there in 1968, were probably areas in 1893 that held only occasionally needed books and articles. It is possible the small bathroom was a water closet in 1893. The occupants of the house were wealthy enough to have inside plumbing. But bathing back then was done in a larger room on the second floor. 

The office was very masculine with hunting or nature scenes on the dark, painted walls. Built-in bookcases held both books and files of information from the
businesses he owned. In fact, he probably had a safe to hold important documents. A low table for books and magazines and an easy chair and footstool added to his comfort. The largest item in the room was a heavy mahogany desk. Even now, it is easy to imagine the owner of the house, sitting at his desk or reading in his chair, while all the activity of the household is only a hum beyond his inner sanctum. The huge, formal staircase that rose from the front hallway went partly over this room. Occasionally, he might hear his wife or children walking up the front staircase.

     North of the second parlor was the dining room, a pleasant room separated from the parlor by pocket doors and from the kitchen on the west by a doorway whose opening was probably hidden by a free-standing screen. With the kitchen so close, this room would have been very hot, especially in the summer.The dining room had its own entrance on the east side of the house. This room was used for breakfast, afternoon teas or luncheons for the lady's friends, and evening dinners. A large dining room table sat below a hanging light. A built-in or standing china cabinet was on the north side of the room, used for the myriad pieces of flatware, stemware, and china. Still lives of fruit and a chair railing lined the walls, and a sideboard sat against the west wall near the kitchen entrance. In 1893, the family ate large meals. Breakfast, for example, consisted of cooked potatoes, bread, cooked or raw fruit, and beef, fish, or ham. Meat was a huge staple of any meal.

The kitchen was west of the dining room. In 1968, it seemed a tiny room to sustain such a huge household. Somewhere in the past, someone had divided the kitchen into two rooms, the smaller area on the north being a breakfast nook with a built-in table and benches. But in 1893, the breakfast nook was probably a pantry with an outside door and small porch which held the ice box. This made it easier for the ice delivery since it was outside. The kitchen also had an outside door on the west side. If you turned left at that door you walked up the servant's stairway to the upper two floors. Turn right and a set of stairs went outside. Inside the kitchen were a coal or wood-burning stove; two tables (one
for food preparation and one for service); one or more wet sinks; and a tall, cylindrical, hot water heater for boiling water for laundry and cooking. It is very likely this household would use the "latest gadgets" in the kitchen--things like meat grinders, butter churns, and coffee grinders. A shelf containing cookbooks, home manuals, and all-purpose household encyclopedias with the latest advice was within arm's reach.

     The kitchen was a beehive of activity. The servants did washing or sent it out to be done on Mondays. (Even when I was growing up in the 1950s, the law said you couldn't burn anything outside on Monday because it was "wash day" and people hung clothes out to dry on clothes lines in their back yards.) Bread baking took a full 24 hours between rising and punching down and baking. Besides cooking, the mistress and her servants canned food in this room, an activity leading to aching backs on hot, humid afternoons. It is likely that the two influential families who lived in this house (see earlier post) had several servants who had rooms on the third floor. They would have spent a great percentage of their days in this kitchen.

Alas, we had no servants in 1968 to cook or do the laundry. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Victorian Homes: Public Spaces

Part of my second mystery, Marry in Haste, will take place in a large Victorian home in 1893. I lived in such a house when I first moved to Monmouth, Illinois in the 1960s. In my last post I discussed the history of the W.W. McCullough house, and now I'm continuing that thread with a post about two of the rooms in the house: the front hallway and the front public parlor. Both were meant to impress because the worth of a woman and the wealth of a man back then were measured by the state of their home. After extensively researching the houses and furnishings of that time, I can imagine what the McCullough house might have looked like in 1893.

W.W. McCullough's house at 402 W. Broadway would have been
impressive. It contained three floors and a full basement with a staircase in the front going up to the bedrooms and a ballroom, and stairs in the back for the servants. [Besides the front entrance, this photo shows an entrance on the west side of the house that went into a library/office. The entrance was gone when I lived there in the 1960s.]

At the main entrance, visitors, facing north, walked up the six porch steps to a large, wooden front door with a round, brass bell knob. They first brushed the dirt and dust from their shoes since the streets and sidewalks were not yet bricked this far west of the Square. Then they pulled on the knob to ring an inside bell, summoning a servant. According to the city directories of that time, servants were of various ethnicities, some of their last names being Blusma, Martin, McCleary, Quinlan, and Wennerstrom.

The front hallway--designed to impress--had a high ceiling, which afforded the opportunity to use fashionable, leaded windows high on the west wall and a hanging light fixture. The visitor faced a wide staircase whose carpeting continued the same dark, richly colored Brussels carpet on the floor of the hallway. Walnut railings and woodwork with ornamental carvings decorated the staircase. At the first landing, a large vase sat in the corner with tall ferns. A family member reached the landing, turned right, and followed another set of stairs to the second floor. The walls of this front hallway were painted a light color with wooden wainscoting and a chair rail dividing the tall walls into thirds.

In the hallway were three critical items: a hall tree, a chair, and a card receiver. The hall tree had curved arms to hold canes, umbrellas, and walking sticks. Also, a space for hats and coats surrounded a mirror on the hall tree where a caller could check her appearance before meeting the family. A chair was placed nearby so a visiting servant might sit and wait for an answer to a message he'd delivered. Sometimes the chair was actually part of the hall tree.

The card receiver was often silver-plated and sat on a small stand.
From 1870-1910, calling and card leaving rituals were crucial for women "of society." Ladies would "call" in the afternoon. If the owner was "at home," the visitor left two of her husband's cards on the receiver but kept her own. If the lady of the house was "not at home," the visitor left all three cards. The response might be an actual visit from the lady of the house or a written note delivered by a servant. 

A set of beautifully carved pocket doors opened to the visitor's right and led into a front (or public) parlor. In the late 1960s, when I lived in this house, the downstairs was a massive room that went from the front to the back of the house with no barriers. But in the late 1800s, the downstairs contained a wall across the middle of the living room, separating a public parlor and a private, or family, parlor. Let's consider what the front parlor might have looked like.

A Victorian parlor in Galena, Il.
First, it was designed to make a strong impression of wealth, health, moral values, and happiness, and it was cleaned daily. It had a chandelier--probably gas-lit by the late 1800s. Gas lighting was in use during this decade and the wall sconces were still apparent when I lived in the house in the 1960s. Other lighting came from south and east windows that were draped in large-patterned lace curtains. The walls would have been painted in light tints--cream, pearl, olive, or gray--or might have been wallpapered in a delicate scroll or vine pattern. On the floor was a combination of Brussels carpet with colored rush matting around the edges of the room.

A table generally graced the center of a Victorian parlor and on it was a leather-bound, hefty, family Bible, along with other treasures. A corner etagere displayed artifacts the family had collected: shells, figurines, and dried flowers. As for the furniture, the front parlor held gentlemen's chairs (high backs with arms) and side chairs. Ladies' chairs had no arms and, thus, no back support. This allowed women to position petticoats and skirts and encouraged the female posture requirements of that day. Gender defined by furniture! Often the chair backs would be covered with
washable doilies and antimacassars to keep them free of hair pomade. They placed the furniture symmetrically against the walls with small and large works of art hung just above them. This helped balance the high ceilings. Mirrors, portraits, and family photographs decorated the room and also free-standing easels or pedestals held paintings and prints. The chairs were made of mahogany and the tables topped with marble.

The east wall of 402 was rounded outward about halfway to the dining area on the north end of the house. This was probably the point at which a wall divided the front and back parlors in 1893. 

My next post will imagine the rest of the main floor in 1893: the back parlor, dining room, kitchen, and library.