What do our living spaces say about us? What do they say about our society as a whole? I recently read Karen Halttunen’s essay “From Parlor to Living Room: Domestic Space, Interior Decoration, and the Culture of Personality” and found myself asking these questions to myself. While Halttunen provides many answers in the piece, it was published in 1989 and is discussing home decoration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What about today?
I’ve copied an excerpt from Halttunen’s essay below, and then written a few reflections. I think this is a great point to jump off from into bigger conversations about American culture, history, and society.
A number of recent popular books with titles such as What Your House Tells About You, What Do you Say to a Naked Room?, and Psycho-Decorating make the central assumption that interior decoration is an important expression of personality These manuals explain, for example, that while glass-top tables reveal aggressiveness, burled wood indicates a strong sense of social justice, and patchwork quilt patterns betray a tendency towards self-criticism. They teach us to read the signs of material troubles, sexual impotence, or insecurity about shortness of stature in the homes of our acquaintances. They offer “Self-Discovery Testing” so we can learn about our sense of space, color preferences, emotional tendencies, and personal style before we redecorate, and this avoid costly mistakes. And they warn us that the perils of self-ignorance in interior decoration are not merely financial: “Narcissistic attitudes, defects in identification, oral and anal aggressions, latent homosexuality, a deeply rooted sadomasochistic pattern- any or all of these neurotic phenomena may come bubbling to the surface” when a woman ventures to redecorate without first knowing who she is. Finally, modern interior decoration manuals indicate that “the living room is the general identity room” of the house, where the expression of personality is the most important. Psycho-Decorating, for example, offers “Pictures of Living Rooms of Different Personalities,” including Achieving, Deferent, Exhibitionistic, Dominant, Heterosexual, and Friendly living rooms. A man informs a woman seated next to him in a bar, in a New Yorker cartoon of 1978, “I’ve tried to express myself clearly, but for a truly definitive statement of me you’d have to see my new living room.”
In American cultural history, the living room and the concept of personality both emerged at about the same time. The living room replaced the parlor as the most important room in the middle-class house around the turn of the century, and personality displaced character as the dominant conceptualization of the self also in the years around 1900. This essay explores the historical relationship between the new social space and the new modal self by tracing the transition from a Victorian domestic culture, which focused on the parlor as the most important area for the demonstration of character, to an early twentieth-century domestic culture, which focused on the living room as the place to express personality. The new organization of middle-class domestic space around 1900 is shown to be a critical mechanism for the making of what historian Warren Susman called “the culture of personality” in America. This essay also demonstrates that the appearance of “personal decorating”- the effort to decorate houses as the expression of personality- between 1900 and 1930 shaped a new understanding of the meaning of domestic things that has proved crucial to the emergence of mass consumer society in the twentieth century…
Within this highly specialized domestic layout [American domestic architecture c. 1840-1870], the most important arena for the expression of character was the parlor, which Godey’s Lady’s Book called “the face of the house- the most noticeable part- and that from which visitors take their impressions of the whole.” Here family and visitors formally met and laid claim to character through a careful adherence to the elaborate social conventions of Victorian etiquette. This “genteel performance” required a careful separation of the parlor stage from the private regions of the house; the kitchen and its environs, including the back staircase, were hidden from sight so that the back regions of the house might be preserved for relaxation from the rigorous demands of formal Victorian conduct. Even the front stairway was placed unobtrusively to indicate that visitors were not welcome upstairs. The parlor was also protected from the public street by the front hall, which “ceremonialized the coming and going, the entry and exit of the members of the household and their guests,” serving as the testing zone where the social claims of would-be visitors could be evaluated and those deemed unworthy of entrance might be turned away.
The same moral aesthetic that shaped the exterior style of the middle-class home also informed Victorian views of interior decoration, especially with respect to the parlor. If the natural setting of a country home exerts moral influence, according to an essay entitled “The Ethics of Home Decoration,” then “the moral effect of interior home-decoration is still greater.” Christian domesticity was stated most explicitly in the wide range of religious objects and icons used in nineteenth century home decoration, including pious mottos in needlework, wooden and wax crosses made to resemble marble, parlor organs, family Bible stands, Marian shrines, and prie-dieux. Furniture in the Gothic style- armchairs, tables, lounges, hallstands, and even bedroom sets and stoves- reinforced this image of the Christian home. Bit the moral characteristics of the nineteenth-century parlor are not always immediately evident to the late twentieth-century eye. Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, in The American Woman’s Home (1869), asserted, “The decoration of houses…contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility.” They went on to extol the virtues of buff wallpaper with maroon bordering, muslin curtains, green chintz upholstery and lambrequins (horizontal swatches of fabric draped over the tops of windows, doors, shelves, and mantels); chromolithographs such as Barefoot Boy and Sunset in Yo Semite Valley; and plaster-cast statuettes. They also encouraged the use of a variety of “natural” objects, including picture frames of pinecones, moss, and seashells; hanging baskets for plants; climbing ivy trained around the cornice; and the “Ward case,” a large terrarium furnished with ferns, shells, trailing arbutus, and partridge berries, which offered “a fragment of the green woods brought in and silently growing.” For the Beecher sisters, such a decorative scheme was moral simply because it was beautiful; the chromolithographs and statuettes provided aesthetic uplifting, and the introduction of nature into the home offered its moral influence upon the character of those present…
The suburban architecture of the housing boom that occurred between 1890 and 1930 both reflected and enforced [a] new middle-class understanding of the social function of the house. In response to both the new minimalist aesthetic and the demand for more economical housing, the ready-cut housing industry- largely responsible for the boom that approximately doubled home ownership in many communities- provided house plans that were simple in form and compact in layout. In the first major change in floor plans since the mid-eighteenth century, the entrance hall dwindled and, in many houses, disappeared entirely; the vestibule was transformed into a mere closet; and the front and back parlors were merged into a single living room, which was often entered directly through the front door. By 1910 the typical two-story house had a first-floor plan consisting of living room, dining room, and kitchen. In many plans, the living room opened directly into the dining room through a wide doorway or the two rooms were fully combined. Gone was the back stairway that had concealed from the eyes of respectable guests the activities of household servants; the dramatic decline in the number of servants employed in middle-class households and the shift from live-in to live-out help made less necessary the rigid separation of the back regions of the house to the front. The person most likely to usher a visitor directly into the living room of the new suburban house was not a servant, but a member of the family…
Between 1900 and 1930, Wilson’s [Henry L. Wilson in his 1910 Bungalow Book] characterization of the living room as a place of warmth and comfort came to he widely shared. The new living room essentially combined the functions of two more specialized Victorian rooms: the parlor, where outside visitors were received; and the sitting room, where the family gathered in privacy, protected from the intrusions of outsiders by the vestibule, hall, and parlor. But in the living room, family recreation clearly took precedence over the entertainment of guests, despite its openness to invasion from without. If the parlor was the “face” of the house, the living room was repeatedly called “the heart of the house,” “just the sort of cheerful, cozy, sunny, restful place you will be glad to turn to whenever the occasion arises.” Most important, as one interior decorating manual after another intoned, “the living room is meant to live in.” It thus required an entirely different approach to interior decoration.; there was to be “no striving for effect.” House Beautiful explained this new aesthetic in 1898: the drawing room, that “old gold-and-brocaded over-decorated horror of yesterday,” was a “show-room” that violated the very concept of “home.” But at last, this writer continued, it was understood that “one of the first requisites of making a home out of a house is staying in it as much as possible; living things in to shape, as it were, and making them adapt themselves to look like one.”
Here was the entering wedge of “personal decorating.” Arbiters of home decoration in the 1880s and 1890s had frequently emphasized the importance of individuality and offered dozens of ways to achieve it: homemade objects, stenciled walls, photographs and albums, travel memorabilia, architectural mottoes (for example, A Man’s Home Is His Castle carved over the fireplace), and the transformation of objects for new uses. Not until the late 1890s, however, was the term personality generally used to characterize the summum bonum of home decoration. As expressed by House Beautiful in 1899, people were “beginning to see that houses and furniture, no less than dress and manners, must become a part of that unspoken language by which we communicate out tastes and ideas; in short, that the expression of personality is the thing to be aimed at.” The truly lived-in house, whose heart was in the right place- in the living room- was a house that expressed not the character, but the personality of its residents.
By 1930 the concept of the “personality of homes” had become commonplace in interior decoration. Its development over time and its historical relationship to the living room may be traced through an examination of three of the most important works on interior decoration during this period: novelist Edith Wharton and Boston architect Ogden Codman’s Decoration of Houses (1897); Elise de Wolfe’s House in Good Taste (1913); and Emily Post’s Personality of a House (1930). Although The Decoration of Houses was expressly directed at the wealthiest classes, it sold well for many years because of the growing middle-class interest in interior decoration. Its central argument was “only a return to architectural principles can raise the decoration of houses to the level of the past.” Since interior decoration should properly be considered a branch of the architectural art, any ornamentation that disguised or ignored the main lines of a room was in the poorest taste. Wharton and Codman were especially critical of such late Victorian standbys as overdressed windows, portieres, lambrequins, drapery around the fireplace, excessive bric-a-brac, and any object for a purpose other than its original one….
Although color and period furnishings were the two most important components of the new personal decorating that emerged between 1900 and 1930, interior decorators offered a number of other techniques for expressing personality in the home. One was the art of the “personal touch,” using a few smaller articles such as pictures, photographs, objects of sentimental value, even ceramic pieces, or flower arrangements, to make a personal statement. Any item that signaled personal hobbies or tastes- books, sporting prints, boat models, musical instruments- was believed to assist the domestic expression of personality. Post offered her readers an illustration of a “delightful room with a hunting personality,” whose dominant decorative motif of a fox hunting, detailed down to the foxtails hanging on the wall, was clearly intended to express something important about the man of the house…
The new interior decoration that accompanied this reorganization of middle-class domestic space made its own contribution to the culture of personality by offering a new understanding of the meaning of domestic things. Ironically the full emergence of mass consumer society in the early twentieth century did not usher in a period of domestic accumulation for its own sake- called “conspicuous consumption” by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). The new living room was itself a product, in part, of the post-Victorian revulsion from the riotous materialism of the late nineteenth-century parlor. For the arbiters of interior decoration in the first decades of this century, less was more. But even as middle-class Americans began to foreswear the indiscriminate accumulation of domestic things, they were attributing more and more power to those things they chose to display. As the irrepressible Elise de Wolfe announced in 1913, “I believe most firmly in the magic power of inanimate objects!”- powers of magnetism, vitality, aura, and personality. Her love of mirrors is particularly revealing: “Whenever you can manage it, place your mirror so that it will reflect some particularly nice object,” because “so much: of a house’s charm is the effect of skillfully managed reflections.” Clearly, de Wolfe’s mirrors not only doubled the impact of the particularly nice objects” carefully placed in front of them; they also reflected the interior decorator herself, standing before them in admiration of her choice.
Emily Post stated most directly the new connection between personality and domestic things: “The personal method of furnishings is to build each room on those objects that belong to each of us; things that would subtract from the sum of our personality were they taken away.” The replacement of the parlor with the living room had collapsed the distinction between the public and the private self; the new focus of interior decoration collapsed the distinction between the self and the commodities surrounding it. The New Interior Decoration graphically expressed this view in 1929, noting “this desire to adorn the place in which we live” is “an assertion of personality: like the wax comb of the bee and the thin web of the spider, our homes are in a sense a projection of ourselves.” The stuff of interior decoration outwardly may take the form of sofas and tables, curtains and paint, but in reality, in the twentieth-century view, it is material spun out of the personal psychic gut of those who consumer such domestic things.
As I read Halttunen’s words about the transition from parlor to living room, from character to personality, my mind drifted to today. Are we still living in a society where living rooms and personality describe us best, or are we moving on to something else? I wonder if we are moving towards a post-personality world? And what trait will future historians say defines the 21st century? I don’t have the answer, but I do have a few ideas on how we might find out.
My first thought that we need some careful research on the ‘zoom room’ and the impact of video conferencing on homes. Many of us used Zoom, Skype, Teams and the other online videochat services before the pandemic, but now its ubiquitous. Everywhere. And many people have gone from zooming on their couch or kitchen tables to having dedicated space in their homes just for meeting virtually with the outside world. In late 2020 one real estate website wrote ” This is 2020! …the hottest new trend in home features isn’t a fancy finish or in-demand appliance. Instead, it’s the Zoom room: a dedicated space in your house where you can easily and comfortably attend videoconference calls with co-workers, help the kids log on for remote schooling, or enjoy virtual check-ins with family. In fact, some real estate agents and sellers are actually touting Zoom rooms in their listings.” Early in the pandemic I liked following the “Room Rater” twitter account and its reviews of people’s backgrounds while broadcasting from home. (Its always potted plants and lighting that get you!)
We will need a good study of zoom rooms and post-pandemic interior design trends, especially homes that are intentionally designed for work-from-home workers, youtubers, twitch streamers, and anyone else who makes a living communicating virtually.
I’ve also been thinking about how background and location play such an important part in the media we consume today. Though the virtual landscape is still dominated by celebrities and professional influencers today, there is a growing portion of viral and home-grown content that people enjoy. When YouTubers record in their homes what does their background look like? What are they using camera effects, editing, and props to convey?
I’m also thinking about the shows and movies we watch today. It seems like the sitcoms of the past almost often had an iconic living room where characters spent a lot of their time. Just think about Rachel’s living room in Friends or Archie and Edith’s in All in the Family. What now? Looking at changing locations inside and outside the home where fictional characters hang out could be telling.
Connected to this thought, maybe a scholar of the future should look at our consumption of shows and other things like social media, blogs, apps, game, and everything else that’s online. You can probably learn just as much about life in the 21st century from the apps on our phones, the bookmarks on on our browsers, and the subscription services we purchase as you can from the things we use to physically decorate our homes.
You can go down the rabbit hole here- since so many people have their own personal digital devices today (do many families still share one TV or one computer anymore?), being online is a weird liminal space where a person can broadcast and be broadcast in many different ways. What are people posting on their social media feeds (could you consider these places a virtual living room of sorts?) versus what things are they keeping private in their browser histories instead? When you’re on social media and other online spaces, are you in a digital public square or a digital living room? Its a weird combination of the public and private spheres and its also a thing entirely its own. I’m sure there are many good studies of this already, and I’m sure there will be many more.
So, I will end this rambling piece by saying that I hope I live long enough to see good historical analysis of early 21st century society and culture. And also, if anyone has any suggestions on how I can improve my own zoom background (I work from home a few days a week and have a little corner that I decorated just for zoom calls), let me know!