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.


  1. Interesting. So that's why doilies on furniture came about!

  2. I did check that out, Lourdes, and it is true that they were invented to protect fine furniture. Learn something every day!

  3. I didn't know you lived there!