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victorian parlorThe Parlor’s Coolest Trick: Its Very Own Vanishing Act
by Marjorie Dorfman

Whatever happened to the old fashioned parlor? Where did it go and what lies in its stead? Can we ever bring it back and…should we? Read on for a new perspective on an old fashioned idea.

The merest mention of a parlor conjures images of a time that is no more. Even though the terms "ice cream parlor" and "beauty parlor" are commonly used today, these do not come immediately to mind. In the Victorian sense of the word, ghosts of love thwarted and unfulfilled abound amid pressed flowers, ruby walls, Empire sofas and furnishings of walnut and mahogany. Prim young women adorned with tortoise combs and cameos primp long satin skirts as they reign upon love seats fashioned from the richest fabrics. They speak in the language of flirtation, conveying their feelings and conducting themselves without the use of words. Gloves, fans, parasols, calling cards and flowers were all a part of this archaic communication, which often took place in the parlor. After all, the word "parlor" does come from the the French word, "parler", to speak.

lady's fanThe manner in which a Victorian lady twirled her fan told its very own special tale. If it was in her right hand, she was saying to whoever was watching, "I love another." If she placed it over her right ear, the meaning was, "you have changed." If the handle of her fan was held to her lips, her secret message was, "Kiss me". Drawing it across her eyes says, "I’m sorry." A glove worn on the left hand with the thumb exposed asks, "Do you love me?" while biting the tips means, "I want to get rid of you." The young suitor who has come to call bringing a bouquet of white roses has told the object of his affection that "he is worthy of her". He cannot sit too close without a significant loss of propriety, not to mention the chagrin of an unwanted chaperone. And he had better watch the young lady closely for any shifts in attitude or in this case, fan or glove.

The days of oblique lusting, stiff manners and even stiffer people suffering from exaggerated morality are thankfully gone. The modern cultural cosmos has emerged with its own obsessions, attitudes and problems between men and women, and who’s to say which is any the less exhausting? A room, like most people, should only be judged by the times in which it is lived in. Although the parlor represents a unique time in history, it might survive a comeback, not unlike an aging star upon the silver screen. Needless to say, it could never encompass the same scope, personality and fame that it once did.

During the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth century, the parlor served as a primary gathering place where family members convened for entertainment and other diversions from the rigors of career and homemaking. Wealthier families sometimes had more than one parlor; one for family guests and the other for friends and/or gentlemen’s or ladies’ parlors. Many different activities occurred in this special room including hosting tea parties and other social functions, singing and playing music, performing magic lantern shows, simple magic tricks, and a myriad of parlor games, like Twenty Guesses (Twenty Questions) and Charades, two hand me downs to today’s game world. Victorian families were among the first ever to be blessed with abundant leisure time and among the last to pass that time without benefit of radio or television.

lady's hatThe front parlor, located just off the foyer, was the showcase of a family’s possessions and a prime indicator of their tastes and social status. The parlor table often displayed family photographs and the Bible. Also commonly found were chairs, bookshelves, an organ and the sofa. In the Victorian era, clutter meant class (I guess this means that I would have been some classy lady had I been alive back then). The woman of the house was often responsible for outfitting the parlor with expensive, exotic and novel items, such as vases, lamps, statuettes and dried flowers.
top hat lady
Where has the parlor gone and is it in the same place where all the flowers went in that folk song by Peter, Paul and Mary back in the 1960s? Why is it no longer found in homes? Well for one thing, people’s needs and means of entertainment have changed over the years. First there was radio and then television, both of which required rooms big enough to accommodate a seated audience; the whole family, including children, pets and an assortment of snacks and beverages. Television changed the focus of attention from people watching other people to people watching whatever the other people in the room were watching. (Huh?) All of the old parlor games and tricks were really means of communication. Today as lights go out, a movie comes on and all is hopefully quiet and non-challenging for a little while at least.

Hence, the parlor became an anachronism; a dinosaur without means of perpetuation, nourishment or purpose. Empire sofas and love seats made way for more comfortable seating. Recliners replaced the old ponderous armchairs. Bookcases and display cabinets supplanted the more ornate vitrines and curio cases of another softer day. Elaborate end tables curtsied and exited for the grand entrance of more functional "coffee tables". As the parlor lost its way, it lost the character of what it once was. It couldn’t help it. Things became larger and more complicated. The way people lived in rooms changed so what choice did the parlor have, the poor little thing? Actually, it does live on vicariously today in the same way perhaps as the organ from a deceased donor lives on in the recipient: sort of as an extension of its former self. Whether it is called a living room, family room, den or parlor, a room by any other name is well, still just a room, I guess.

parlor seat A man named Ian Frazier says that as far as he knows he wrote these following rules of etiquette for the modern living room. They seem to apply to the old parlors as well. Here are just a few universal no-nos from his laws of forbidden places.

1. Of the beasts of the field and the fishes of the sea, and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room.
2. Of the hooved animals, broiled or ground into burgers, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the cloven-hoofed animal, plain or with cheese, you may eat, but not in the living room.
3. Of the cereal grains, of the corn and of the wheat and of the oats, and of all the cereals that are of bright color and unknown provenance you may eat, but not in the living room, neither may you carry such therein.
4. Of quiescently frozen dessert and of all frozen after-meal treats, you may eat, but absolutely not in the living room.
5. Of the juices and other beverages, yes, even of those in sippy-cups, you may drink, but not in the living room, neither may you carry such therein
6. Indeed, when you reach the place where the living room carpet begins, of any food or beverage there you may not eat, neither may you drink. But if you are sick, and are lying down and watching something, then you may eat in the living room.

victorian card tricksAnd so the parlor of yesteryear made a graceful exit as it bowed to the needs of an ever-changing societal family structure. Can it ever return? Who knows? (Besides the Shadow, that is.) That old television and new DVD player might look a bit incongruous next to a mother-of-pearl encrusted organ, not to mention how improper the wilder side of many a living room party may seem under or even near the Family Bible open to the pages describing Sodom and Gomorrah! Perhaps it shall always be a gilded memory that flickers only in the mind’s eye. I have no idea how I would prepare for a parlor off the foyer of my home, since I don’t even have a foyer in my house. I suppose my love for "things" would help me find a way. After all, like so many modern Americans, clutter is my business, my only business!

Did you know . . .

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