Fun with the Victorians

December 20, 2007

Here’s some cool snippets from Candace M. Volz, in her article, “the Modern Look of the Early Twentieth-Century House” (in American Home Life: 1880-1930 which I am returning to the library today). This should find its way into the housing history section.
Due to the prevalence of communication by train, mail, telephone and telegraph during the _________, not to mention the pervasive influence of plan books, house styles began to be universal across the country and less subject to regional variations. Even the Georgian influence had been most notable on the East Coast and common in other parts of the country only in homes of the upper class. Victorian styles, on the other hand, were relatively uniform throughout the US.
The second half of the nineteenth century had seen upper and middle class households engaging in, “a complex lifestyle that involved rooms for special uses, large flatware and china services with many specialized pieces, and numerous furnishings designed for special needs.? Although this had been de rigueur among the wealthy, in the early Victorian period a combination of affordable goods, produced with Industrial Revolution technology, and immigrant labor as domestic help made the formal lifestyle available to most of society from the lower middle class up.
It was not uncommon for a middle class home to boast any or all of the following specialty rooms: “music rooms, reception rooms, conservatories, sitting rooms and butler’s pantries?, as well as one or two small bedrooms for live in servants.

Oh, don’t worry … it continues. On, to find out more about the death of porch living and “earth closets” keep on keepin’ on!

The Porch!
Volz traces the decline of the functionality of a front porch to the increased noise of traffic associated with the advent of the car. “As automobiles became the transportation of choice, the noise the generated caused the decline of the front porch as an outdoor living area. With the advent of sun rooms and other indoor/outdoor living areas on the side of the house, only a token small entry porch remained at the front door.? By the 1950’s the function of the porch as outdoor living space for the family had been removed to the back of the house and reincarnated as the patio.
The entry hall is a good example of changing house plans and the social meanings they carried. In the Georgian or Federal house, the area associated with the front entrance was a long hall which “completely bisected, and was the central axis of, a very symmetrical floor plan.? What did this mean for living? The Victorian entrance hall was more likely to be an asymmetrically located small room immediately around the area of the front door. The main stair hall was still central but no longer opened into the back of the house. In more expensive variations it housed an elaborate formal stair and even a small sitting area, perhaps with a fireplace. There would then be a back stair used by servants. The entrance hall-room allowed visitors to the house to be controlled – domestic servants could filter out undesirable guests while the family remained undisturbed in a parlor at the back of the house. This social divisiveness was expressed in the highly segregated plans of Victorian houses but it was only possible through the plentitude of cheap domestic labor. By the early twentieth century the appeal of factory work (which gave both more money and more freedom) and the near halt of immigration reduced the pool of domestic help to the point where few but the wealthiest families could support the lifestyle required by Victorian houses.
The American Woman’s Home, which included chapters on The Christian Family, A Christian House, Healthful Drinks, Cleanliness, Clothing, Good Cooking, Early Rising, Domestic Manners, Good Temper in the Housekeeper, Habits of System and Order, etc etc as well as more specifically architectural advice was a guide intended to be an instructional manual for a woman running her own home.
The book provides descriptions of daily activities and helpful advice on everything from cleaning stains off marble to caring for sick children to ‘earthclosets’ and their proper maintenance. But it also gives a fairly specific description of the proper “Christian House,? which is according to Beecher, “a house contrived for the express purpose of enabling every member of a family to labor with the hands for the common good and by modes at once healthful, economical and tasteful.? It is not a book of architecture, it is a recipe for appropriate living and the chapter on the Christian home bounces back and forth from images, descriptions and dimensions of the floor plan to organizational layouts for the food in the pantry and descriptions of how to hang pictures in the front hall.
More important than the specifics that Beecher gives regarding the architecture is simply the level of specificity. The implication is that there is an appropriate way to each of the things she describes and that all housekeepers should strive to meet it. Beecher’s stated goal was to increase the importance of a woman’s role in the world by treating it as profession of equal status with those of men. Accordingly, she wished to detail a rigidly detailed system of guidelines which could be used to judge this new profession of womanhood. In the process Beecher was affirming and reinforcing the increasing complexity of life (of entire lifestyles and not just of home designs) which was manifest in the Victorian manner of building and using houses.


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