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Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-Class Identity, 1850-1930.

By Katherine Grier (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. xii plus 267pp. $45.00/cloth $22.50/paperback).

Katherine Grier's sophisticated study of the rise and fall of the Victorian parlor provides a fascinating window onto the cultural values that guided middle-class habits of consumption during the second half of the nineteenth century. In this slightly abridged version of an earlier publication, this well-written and well-illustrated book vividly describes the appearance and texture of the parlor. Making an important contribution to our understanding of material culture and domestic life, Grier uncovers a rich symbolic world beneath what contemporary eyes might dismiss as the fussy, cluttered, and dusty exterior of the Victorian parlor.

Grier's nuanced analysis of parlor furnishings and upholstery reveals a "critical tension in Victorian culture" between middle-class aspirations toward what she calls culture and comfort. (p. 2) Associating culture with gentility and cosmopolitanism and comfort with family-centered values stressing sincerity and moderation, Grier shows how these two constellations of thought framed questions about consumption, etiquette, and self-presentation. As the best room of the house and an emblem of middle-class respectability, the parlor was a space where families presented their public faces on various formal social occasions. The parlor, however, also tried "to retain the identity of a family sitting room," creating a dilemma for those who strove to reconcile the competing goals of cultured self-display and sincere domestic comfort. (p. 3) "For consumers with the means and space," Grier observes, "the way to give both social ritual and family life their due was to have both kinds of rooms, a 'best parlor' or 'drawing room' where they could express their hard-earned, hard-learned parlor selves, and a sitting room for their more private familial selves." (p. 116)

According to Grier, interest in creating parlors within private households was initially stimulated by the proliferation of commercial parlors in first-class hotels, photographers' studios, steamboats, and fancy railroad cars. Contact with such commercial spaces introduced new members of the middle class to the "material vocabulary of gentility" and taught them to associate parlorlike settings with civilized living. (p. 52) As a "parlor consciousness" took root around mid-century, thousands of middle-class Americans poured their financial resources into outfitting parlors with furnishings and personal mementos that denoted refinement and cultivation. Purveyors and consumers of parlor furnishings prized visual intricacy, "rich" and "polished" appearances, and the "softening" effects of upholstery - all deemed expressions of refinement. As Grier argues, the Victorian preoccupation with "softness," "finish," and "elegance" - the preoccupation with removing all rough edges - was as evident in the material world of the parlor as it was in the realm of social behavior and etiquette.

Particularly fascinating is Grier's discussion of how parlor etiquette and women's fashions constricted Victorian conceptions of domestic comfort, even as new technologies and new forms of upholstered furniture seemed to invite bodily relaxation. Despite the introduction of spring-seat upholstery, overstuffed lounges and rocking chairs, the rules governing parlor deportment demanded erect posture and scorned lounging as bad manners. Women's undergarments also compelled self-restraint in the parlor. Constrained by corsets, stiff crinolines, and bustles, women had no choice but to sit straight and perform their roles of arbiters of refinement.

A variety of factors contributed to the parlor's waning influence in the early twentieth century. By the 1910s and 1920s, smaller living spaces, new outlets for discretionary spending, and the changing burdens of housewives had all diminished interest in creating and maintaining parlors. The cultural authority of the parlor declined as it came under increasing attack for being artificial, germ-prone, wasteful of family resources, and - perhaps most damning of all - uncomfortable. Though the middle-class ideal of creating a domestic haven persisted, new ideals of comfort called for more relaxed standards of self-presentation. Strict posture and the formal call came to be seen as pompous and old-fashioned. More valued were informality, spontaneity, and bodily comfort. Signaling a shift in both the aesthetics and social function of domestic spaces, housing reformers and tastemakers now championed the multipurpose living room, stripped of the parlor's visual intricacy and pretensions to conveying a family's cultivation. In serving the dual role of a public room and the principal family room, the modern living room instead strove to express the individuality and personality of the modern family.

Grier's explanation of the distinction between Victorian parlors and the modern living room is less satisfying than her explanation of the parlor's decline. Although she asserts that "something more fundamental" than a change in physical appearance was at stake, she hints suggestively but vaguely when she claims that "a different dynamic tension, between the dwelling and the world beyond," informed debates about the living room. (p. 221) Is she invoking the specter of television and mass culture here, or something else entirely? When one contemplates the coffee table books and objets d'art that adorn many a modern living room, one wonders, too, how far modern families have actually departed from Victorian practices of conveying a cultivated social facade. Some readers might wish that Grier had done more to highlight women's roles in constructing and dismantling the Victorian aesthetic of refinement. After all, it was women who were charged with the tasks of choosing parlor furnishings, supervising parlor upkeep, and preserving parlor ritual. But these minor quibbles really only point to new avenues of inquiry that Grier's research has opened up.

What makes Grier's book such a compelling contribution to American cultural history is how she illuminates the tension in middle-class thought between the need to display cultivation and the injunction to consume in moderation. For it is precisely these complexities and ambiguities of middle-class identity - "having that state of mind both compelled and repelled by consumption" - that helped to forge a dynamic consumer society. (p. 221) An exemplary model of material culture analysis, this book will find an enthusiastic audience among students of consumer culture, domestic life, and Victorianism.

Lisa Jacobson

University of California, Santa Barbara
COPYRIGHT 1999 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Jacobson, Lisa
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1999
Words:985
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