Parlors seem obsolete to many of us today. Wealthy individuals with wealthy friends seem to be the only people who would bother with a parlor. The furniture is uncomfortable and the room is cold, uninviting, and must remain pristine at all times, in case a guest drops by. Unlike today, in the mid-nineteenth century, during the Victorian period, a parlor with a parlor suite was a necessity for any good, middle-class household.

Mount Hope Parlor

Parlor in Mount Hope, a Victorian house in Falls Church, Virginia
Photo appearing in May 22, 2010 Washington Post article titled “Falls Church house is Victorian through and through”

During this time, John Henry Belter opened a furniture factory in New York City where he specialized in Rococo Revival furniture. This style was extremely popular with decorators of middle-class homes because its ornate carvings, high-quality wood, and popular fabric coverings echoed ideals of luxury that were coming from France. People that wanted one of the best parlor suites for their homes purchased furniture from Belter, where a seven-piece set cost them anywhere from $750 to $1250 – a small fortune at the time.

The parlor was the first room that guests saw when they entered the home, making it a social facade where a family showcased its wealth and tastes. The traditional seven-piece suite almost always included a sofa, a gentleman’s chair (an upholstered armchair), a lady’s chair (an upholstered armless chair), and four small chairs (usually only the seat was upholstered).  However, there were also other types of seating furniture that could be included in addition to the basic set or in replacement of another piece.

The méridienne is one such piece. It is a small sofa, on average measuring 37” high by 35” wide by 17.5” deep, as opposed to most of Belter’s sofas, which were approximately 50” high by 60” wide by 25” deep. It may have replaced a traditional lady’s chair, as it is armless and would have been used by a young lady in a dress with a crinoline skirt: popular at the time, but wide and difficult to sit in. The French word méridienne roughly translates to afternoon break. As its name suggests, it would have been a comfortable seat to take an afternoon rest, which young lady’s commonly did in the Victorian period.

DSC00134

Méridienne, John Henry Belter (1804 – 1868), New York, NY, c. 1860, rosewood laminate, silk, H. 38.5”, W. 41.5”, D. 22”, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY, N0177.1974

Today, we still see the remnants of the Victorian parlor in many of our modern houses – the room with the expensive furniture where children are not allowed to enter for fear that they will break something or make a mess. In some households, this is a formal dining room, where the heirloom china is stored and the table is always set with the best cutlery and fine cloth napkins. In other homes, this is the living room, with a formal sofa and a well cared for coffee table on which no one would dare rest their feet.

Why do we still keep these rooms around? Wouldn’t they be better used as a spare bedroom, a child’s play room, or an extra storage room? Perhaps we still maintain some of the Victorian ideals by creating a private place where the public is welcome to come get a glimpse of our social facade.

– Cyndi Tolosa, Cooperstown Graduate Program 2015

Further Reading:

Katherine C. Grier. Culture & Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-Class Identity, 1850-1930. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

Marvin D. Schwartz, Edward J. Stanek, and Douglas K. True. The Furniture of John Henry Belter and the Rococo Revival. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981.

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