The parlor was a room found in many homes throughout the 19th Century, particularly during the Victorian Era. We’ve seen them in historical fiction in books and on the big screen- but what are they? Why don’t we have them now? How did that change? Let’s look into the parlor and see what historical facts we can see there.
1. The parlor was the social center of the home.
Originally the parlor was an ancient design of monasteries where monks and nuns could meet with people and have conversations while maintaining the strict rules of the monastery or nunnery. The word ‘parlor’ comes from the French root that means ‘to talk’. It’s related to the word ‘parley’.
As the middle class rose during the 18th and 19th centuries, middle-class homeowners added a variety of rooms to their houses like the nursery and the parlor. Some of these served multiple purposes, but one reason was to demonstrate social status. The parlor came into use as a private home’s social center. Courting couples met in the parlor. Women had each other to tea in their parlors. The finest furniture and exhibitions of artistic taste were displayed in the parlor as conversation pieces.
The parlor served for major life events as well. When a family member died, it was often common practice to use the parlor for the wake instead of the bedroom where these things used to take place. Family and friends would visit, extend condolences, and sometimes stayed through the night watching over the deceased. When funeral parlors (see the shift in usage?) became the practice, the home parlor lost some of its significance.
2. Parlors had to change with society.
This is why parlors fell out of usage: other entities, many of them businesses, took over some of the services that parlors had provided. Funeral parlors took over the care of the dead. Dating couples wanted to get away from the prying eyes of family and so they went on dates elsewhere (and without chaperones!). The new amusement parks, restaurants, and then movie theaters became escapes for dates and families. Staying at home started to look like the least attractive choice for an evening.
Losing the support of family during courting gave rise to other issues that daters had to face. Families with little experience with death now faced situations that were not the average experience of earlier eras. Materialism has only changed its expression from rich velvet to shiny chrome and now to handheld technology.
3. Technology changed how people lived.
The strict Victorian codes of social conduct came under attack from a variety of sources. As advertisers and trend-setters looked for the next ‘new thing’, they realized that meant moving away from the ‘old’ Victorian way of styles, society, and building. Technology was becoming the latest influence through electricity, telegrams and telephones, and the horseless carriages. War equalized people from various social strata as nothing else could do.
This led to many innovations. Servants became fewer and gadgets became more frequent. The rise of radio and then television significantly shifted what people did in their homes’ shared areas. Society relaxed many social mores dictating clothing, courting, entertainment, and family activities. The parlor morphed into something we all recognize: the living room.
Here families gathered to listen to the radio, not so much to each other. Here a young man met the parents before he took his date ‘out on the town’. Here friends had coffee, Tupperware parties, and later movie marathons. Even using the word ‘parlor’ could date a person as old-fashioned.
The cultural shift was gradual but permanent. In some regions, the word is still used in terms of ‘funeral parlor’, ‘ice cream parlor’, and ‘beauty parlor’. Other areas have replaced the word ‘parlor’ with words like ‘shoppe’. The parlor stands as a monument to the rise of the middle class. Early photography often captured parlor life and these are worth seeing now, through the internet.