How Many Decorate Their Parlor (or How Not to Do So)

by Calvert Vaux, 1857

The drawing-room, or best parlor...., although intended to be a strong point in every American house, is often made its least satisfactory feature. I have noticed one style, for example, which, in all probability, most of my readers have also seen. The walls are hard-finished white, the wood-work is white, and a white marble mantle-piece is fitted over a fire-place which is never used, as there is a stove in the room or a furnace in the house.

The floor is covered with a carpet of excellent quality, and of a large and decidedly sprawling pattern, made up of scrolls and flowers in gay and vivid colors.

A round table with a cloth on it, and a thin layer of books, in smart bindings, occupies the centre of the room, and furnished about accomodation enough for one rather small person to sit and write a note at.

A gilt mirror finds a place between the windows. A sofa, by courtesy so called, occupies irrevocably a well-defined space against the wall, but it is just too short to lie down on, and too high and slippery, with its spring, convex seat, to set on with any comfort. It is also cleverly managed that points or knobs (of course ornamental and French polished) shall occur at all those places toward which a weary head would naturally tend, if leaning back to snatch a few moments' repose from fatigue. The sofa is, indeed, the "representative" man of the room, and concetrates in itself the whole spirit of discomfort that reigns unmolested in every square foot of the aprartment.

There is, also, a row of black walnut chairs, with horse-hair seats, all ranged against the white wall. A console table, too, under the mirror, if I remember rightly, with a white marble top and thin gilt brackets. I think there is a piano.

There is, certainly, a triangular stand for knicknacks, china, etc., and this, with some chimney ornaments, completes the furniture, which is all arranged according to stiff, immutable law.

The windows and Venetian blinds are tightly closed, the door is tightly shut, and the best room, that I am now thinking of, is, in consequence, always ready for -- what? for daily use? Oh, no; it is in every way too good for that. For weekly use? No, not even for that -- but for company use; and thus the choice room, with the pretty view, is sacrificed, to keep a conventional show of finery that pleases no one, and is a great, though unackowledged, bore to the proprietors.

Such is one style of best parlor to be found in America; and though it is by no means universal, it is far too general for comfort. A drawing- room like this becomes a sort of quarantine in which to put each plague of a visitor that calls; and one almost expects to see the lady of the house walk in with a bottle of camphor in her hand, to prevent infection, she seems to have such a fear that any one should step within the bounds of her real every-day homelife.

All this is absurd. No room in any house, except, perhaps, in a very large mansion, ought to be set apart for company use only. If a reception-room for strangers is needed, it should be a small, unpretending room, certainly not the most agreeably situated apartment in the house, which should be enjoyed daily, for it is not the having any good thing, but the using it, that gives it its value. . . . .

A best parlor ought to express, in its proportions, colors, and arrangement of furniture, an agreeable, hearty, social welcome. The lady who studied her room when her guests had departed, afteer a lengthened and agreeable visit, so as to learn how the furniture had accommodated itself, as it were, to suit the social convenience of her friends, and who then modified her previous ideas accordingly, had the true artistic eye for beauty of arrangement, and certainly deserved to have a pleasant circle of acquaintances.

Text by Calvert Vaux, Villas and Cottages. A series of Designs Prepared for Execution in the United States, Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York, 1857, pp. 83-86.

Copyright © 2003 Sarah E. Mitchell