The Anglo-American parlor in the years between 1754 and 1829 was a domestic chamber dedicated to sociability, status consumption, and display. Early a material expression of genteel social status, the parlor after the American Revolution became a symbol of what the historian Richard L. Bushman, in The Refinement of America (1992), terms middle-class "respectability." "Parlor" is derived from the French parler (to speak, to talk) and referred both to the chamber created in medieval European monasteries for interaction between residents and the public and to the private room for intimate conversation set apart from the great hall in manor houses. By the mid-eighteenth century, the parlor housed both purposes and bespoke the cultural and social aspirations of its temporary inhabitants.
From the earliest British settlement in what would become the United States through the Age of Jackson, the great majority of families were housed in one- or two-cell houses. In these houses the hall was an all-purpose room, accommodating nearly all of a family's activities. The sleeping parlor, or best chamber, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries served as the master bedroom and housed a family's prized furniture in the typical two-cell (hall-parlor plan) house. Spaces located in the full or half-story above these chambers were used for sleeping, storage, and other household activities. This pattern continued nationally for a majority of Americans into the early nineteenth century, but an important trend, charted through probate inventories, was the removal of beds from the parlor. This signaled the reorientation of this space. No longer accommodating to work or sleep, the domestic parlor was dedicated to leisure pursuits and entertaining.
The popular perception of the parlor is that of the formal room of a colonial gentleman's or merchant's house. Accessed directly from the outside or through an entry hall, the parlor was situated to offer the best views through its windows and to offer visitors the best of what the household possessed. In such a larger house, the parlor—with its walls, ceiling, and floor well finished; its windows curtained; its location at the front of the house—was decorated in the latest fashion and filled with the accoutrements of genteel sociability: furniture (particularly chairs), mirrors, carpets, portraits and other pictures, and books. Throughout the period the furniture was arranged against the walls, facilitating easy cleaning.
Occasion dictated the movement and use of the parlor's furniture as etiquette increasingly dictated the occasion. Perhaps it was the heterosocial tea party ("taking tea") that best symbolized parlor culture. Taking tea was an exercise in gentility. Bodily deportment was tested by chairs that straightened posture and required that feet be planted squarely on the floor for leverage. The tea ceremony required dedicated tea tables and equipage—china pots, cups and saucers, slop bowls, sugar snips, sugar bowls and creamers, silver spoons, white linen napkins and tablecloths—all of which tested the participant's knowledge of decorum (let alone the poise). Tea parties were events dedicated to polite cosmopolitan conversation, to musical performance, and to card playing. (Card tables were another specialized furniture form arising in this era.) By the 1820s the domestic parlor had become established as a marker of class as early industrialization of textiles, furniture, and ceramics brought the material symbols of genteel culture into the economic reach of middling Americans, who in turn claimed—albeit unevenly—not only its trappings but also the cultural power of gentility.
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Shirley Teresa Wajda