Victorian style  ..............  Illustrated Architecture Dictionary .............. Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary

Victorian rooms

Excerpts from
  Victorian American: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915
Thomas J. Schlereth,
Pub. 1991

On this page, below:

Historic setting

Front hall

Back hall



Second parlor / Drawing room / Music room / Sitting room / Living room

Dining room

Ice box and Refrigerator

Note: The examples listed below are found on Buffalo Architecture & History website - NOT in Schlereth's book.

Historic setting

The period 1876 to 1915 saw a major shift in housing standards and family ideals. The first standard, the Eclectic Manse [large, imposing residence], with its ornate decor, numerous rooms, and domestic clutter, came under attack.  In its place, architects, builders, and feminists argued for a more modern, progressive, Comfortable House.  Reformers who advocated building California bungalows instead of Queen Anne villas similarly pressed for household equipment that would be simple, easy to clean, labor saving and efficient.  - Pages 116-117

Front hall

Upon entering a typical Eclectic Manse, a visitor encountered a a front hall, usually six to eight feet wide and twelve to twenty feet long, or considerably longer if it ran the length of the house. Its decor indicated the character of both the dwelling and its inhabitants. Decorating books recommended bright colors, a dado and a rail, and hand stenciling or wallpaper.  Most front halls before 1900 included a staircase to the second story.

A fully furnished front hall contained a hall stand, hall chairs, and a card receiver. A family's articles of personal costume (hats, coats, parasols, or umbrellas) bedecked their hall stand.  Here clutter was class. Hall stands often had seats, where messengers, solicitors, and unexpected visitors rested while awaiting instructions. If the hall stand had no seat, other furniture, such as leather upholstered settees or a single straight side chair, might be provided. - Page 117

Back hall

Large homes also had back halls and backstairs. As Kenneth Ames noted, Victorian architects often divided the front hall from the back with  a real or symbolic barrier - "a door, lower ceiling, narrower passage, or change in wall or floor coverings" - thus separating the formal from the functional. These two passageways segregated daily traffic: rowdy children and servants to the back and adults and visitors to the front; ordinary chores, such as carrying dirty laundry or slop buckets were confined to the rear, whereas dramatic descents to meet family members and guests demanded the front stairs. - Page 117


Opposite the hall, behind closed doors and closed shades, lay the showplace of the Eclectic Manse: the parlor, sometimes called the "the first parlor," "the sitting room," "the front parlor," or "the front room."

Parlors of some type of "best room" transcended social class, economic status, or geographical location .

They served as a stage for special domestic events (marriages, wakes, clergymen's calls, holy day and holiday celebrations), as the repository of a family's treasured possessions, and as the exhibit space in which the lady of the house demonstrated her (and, by association, her family's) artistic and cultural refinement.

Men and women knew where to sit, since parlor furniture was gender distinctive. Gentlemen's chairs were thronelike, higher than lady's chairs and with arms. Ladies chairs lacked arms (in part to accommodate their full skirts) and were designed to reinforce the era's postural requirements of women - to sit upright, away from the chair back, with one's hand folded in one's lap. Children sat similarly in side chairs.

Designers created a special furniture form, the étagere, to house the numerous figurines, plants, artwork, heirlooms, and bric-a-brac that were commonly displayed on pedestals and mantels.

In the parlor the Victorian woman had a semblance of a room of her own.

In an economy of expanding consumer choice, home furnishings came and went as never before, thus necessitating attic and basements.

In the 1880s, factories in Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan, turned out ornate lines of inexpensive but "fancy" furniture for a working-class market. 


The front room of a working-class home commonly contained an overstuffed parlor set (a lady's and a gentleman's chair and perhaps side chairs), a draped center table, and wall-to-wall carpeting.

In addition to furniture, whatnot shelves, and bulky chiffoniers, the immigrant family's front room


Although well outfitted, country parlors saw limited use. The farm family lived mostly in the back kitchen.  In the 1850s, the progressive agricultural press began a long campaign to transform the seldom-used parlor into a cheery family sitting room ... As one agricultural historian demonstrated, the percentage of parlorless plans for farmhouses after 1880 substantially increased, particularly when the Grange movement endorsed the campaign for informal sitting rooms. - Pages 118-122

Country parlors might also contain a bed, since workers' parlors often doubled as sleeping rooms. Such sleeping facilities might be folding beds stored elsewhere during the day or a stationary wood bedframe, piled high with feather comforters.

A middle-class cult of the fireplace  emerged concurrently with, and, in part, because of the practicality of central heating. Well publicized in fashionable magazines, the colonial fireplace returned to the middle-class parlor, replete with romantic inglenooks or brightly tiled hearths. Elaborately carved mantels, a few in marble but most in painted and incised wood, provided urban and suburban parlors with a ritual center.

Home owners did not seem to mind if hearths came with artificial logs, were often gas fired, or hid a furnace register.

Carved and galleried overmantels became a place to display small sculpture, vases, or chinoiserie.
- Page 122
Second parlor /  Drawing room / Music room / Sitting room / Living room

This space might have a plain ceiling, walls finished in plaster or in less ornate paper, and a cheaper, sturdier carpet.

Another circular or oval table centered on the family's activities.

Unlike the formal parlor, the second parlor was more child oriented. In fact, the room sometimes doubled as a nursery because of its proximity to the kitchen. By the turn of the century it was sometimes called the children's playroom or the family room. Here the family entertained itself by reading, playing board games, or singing around a reed organ or an upright piano. - Pages 122-123

Dining room

A dining room, another formal space prior to the residential reformers' reorganization, was both a private place for family meals and a public room in which the family enacted mannered rituals of dining with guests. The room's sideboard and the main table competed for attention and space. Each was designed to carry the most ample culinary largess, as well as to exhibit the family table linen, carving set, china, stemware, and silver. Less affluent families could ape a wealthy table service when electroplating and other technologies brought "silverware" within the budgets of more households.

Working class homes sometimes included dining rooms, but their inhabitants often used them only on holidays or special occasions. - Pages 124-125

Ice box and Refrigerator

A well-equipped kitchen of the 1880s would also contain a patented icebox or ice chest, frequently located on an outside wall so the ice-delivery man could regularly deposit fresh ice in the box from the back porch and need not enter the home. Families also kept their iceboxes in the pantry, the basement, or a carriage house. Root cellars, well pits, and spring houses also served as coolants in the winter.

Refrigerators (a term coined by a Maryland farmer, Thomas Moore, in 1803 for his invention of a double-walled box for storing perishables with ice) became available only in the late 1910s. General Motors marketed its first Frigidaire in 1918 and it eventually became so popular that many people erroneously used this trade name as the generic term, calling all electric or gas refrigerators "frigidaires." - Pages 126-127


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