The Victorian Parlor

What is the Victorian Parlor? What are its Associated Customs?

Many things have changed since Queen Victoria sat on the throne of England. One of these is the parlor, and the customs associated with it.
By Earl Hunsinger

In the Victorian Era, when a young man had an interest in a young lady, he asked if he could call on her. This may be a foreign concept to the younger generation. Maybe I should explain. He didn't text message her. He didn't ask for her phone number. He asked whether he could call on her at her home. This involved coming to her house, sitting a modest distance away from the young lady, and conversing politely, perhaps in the presence of a chaperone. Often this was done in a room of the house called the parlor. This was appropriate, since the English word parlor comes from a French word that means "to speak."

In Victorian times, the parlor was the best room of the house, reserved for special occasions, or special visitors, such as the aforementioned suitor. It contained family photographs and other treasured possessions. It might have contained an organ or piano. Vases, statuettes, lamps, and dried flowers would have revealed the family's social position and taste. The parlor table would have proudly displayed the family Bible. The furniture, while the nicest that the family could afford, was made for looks rather than comfort.

During the nineteenth century, people found that they had more leisure time than the previous generations had enjoyed. This led to the creation of various forms of recreation, including games played indoors. Since these were often played in the family parlor, they became known as parlor games. Some of these involved logic or word play. Others relied on dramatic skill, such as in charades. Formal musical recitals could also have been held in the parlor.

Often, the family parlor was also used for a custom that many today would find strange, even macabre. When a family member died, they were laid out in the parlor. Neighbors and friends would bring food and pay their respects. In some areas, they would have a wake or stay up all night with the body.

The twentieth century brought immense change to every aspect of the society. Radio, movies, and eventually television changed the way families viewed entertainment. Rather than conversing and interacting with family and friends, they began to sit passively and absorb whatever was presented. Funeral customs also changed. People began to take their loved ones to professional funeral parlors rather than lay them out themselves.

As the world changed, parlors began to be used less and less. Or, perhaps it would be more correct to say that they either died or their use began to change. One option when customs changed was to just get rid of the parlor. Why build a house with a room that was never used? If you already had a parlor, why not turn it into something else? The other option was to change the way you thought of the parlor. To encourage this, and in an attempt to erase the picture of its other use, the term living room began to be promoted. Comfortable furniture began to replace showpieces and the family began to use the room for less formal purposes.

Today, few remember the days of the parlor. Usually the word is only associated with ice cream parlors, beauty parlors, and, of course, funeral parlors. While probably few would desire to return to the days of home wakes, the parlor games and formal, not to mention modest, courting of the Victorian Era certainly had a charm that's missing in today's world.