History and Rooms & Rooms Through History


Sitting, Living, Parlor, Drawing Rooms, Family, Study, Den:
Names and Functions of Rooms Change Over Time

The other week I mentioned in a comment that I wished someone would ask me about the difference between the kinds of rooms I mention above.  While no one asked, I decided it was an interesting topic.  I found it was interesting but not for the reason I thought I would be at the outset.

As Lucy Worsley’s IF WALLS COULD TALK demonstrates, the concept and function of the house and of each room in the house has evolved throughout time based on needs, availability, social standing and leisure time, and even technology.  While in the past, rooms may have had very formal designations, today we are much looser about what we call a room and it’s purposes.  But in the past our ideas of what a particular room was for may have been quite different.

For example, could you imagine when at any Inn you might be expected to not only share a room with a stranger but a bed as well?  The need and expectation of personal and private space is an idea that has developed throughout time.

In fact until fairly recently, any room in a home had multiple uses, If your home had but one room it did serve as every room; in many parts of the world it still will, when that is all that is available.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s I was involved with The Tate House Museum in Portland, Maine as a volunteer, then docent, gift shop manager and fundraiser, and finally as a board member.  The Tate House was built between 1750 1754 in what was then called Stroudwater a neighborhood of  Falmouth (now Portland), and was part of Massachusetts.

Another aspect of looking at houses/rooms/living spaces is that even our understanding of them after the fact, evolves over time.  For example, as a docent I was taught that we had a sitting room and a parlor in the museum but in the book on the Tate House Museum it was called the dining room, a name which denies it’s multi-purpose nature.  Our glimpses of the past are colored by our present.  As obvious as it is to me now, before I docented, I had never really thought about how the way we live now affects how we see history. If you think it doesn’t think about how you see people of another culture and for some reason don’t “get” why they do a certain thing (You could be looking at a different country, religion or even sexuality).  Who YOU are affects how you see others whether it is across time or cultural boundaries.

In the museum, the parlor was the formal room.  This was where Mrs. Tate might sit and entertain.  She might very well entertain her closer friends in the Parlor Chamber, the bedroom just above the parlor.  The Parlor was for entertainment and impressing guests. The Parlor, the room for impressing people, became the formal living room. That was how my mom regarding the Living Room when we were growing up.

The Sitting Room in the museum held the dining table.   In the vignette of my docenting time it also held the Captain’s desk and several chairs. In the time the house was active in its original purpose, the table may have been used for dining, or might have been spread with maps; the chairs when not in use, would have been pushed up against the wall.  In one event we did for the holidays, we presented the room with a game of whist.

The Tate House Museum, Portland, Maine
The Tate House Museum, Portland, Maine

When the Tates entertained, which with visiting sea captains and such, they probably did often, they probably supped in the Sitting room arranged for dining.  But after dinner the green baize cloth may have come out to sit upon that table fore the men to play at cards, or after a period of retirement to the parlor, the ladies may have joined the men to play whist.

But  that was colonial America, what does it have to do with the way people lived in Europe or England? Well, I can’t speak to the rest of the world, but I was also taught the Tate House was built like a London townhouse at the time and the Tates came over directly before its construction, not as colonials necessarily but as an agent for the crown. Around the world, the British Royal Navy employed agents to search out large trees to be cut and used as masts. So, the Tates would have been less removed from their homeland and more likely still more British than not.

According to Lucy Worsley the Drawing room, seems to have developed in the Tudor/Elizabethan period as a less formal space to which a public family could withdraw after their formal periods in the great hall, reception area or privy chamber (which was where a monarch might sit with his/her  friends).  The Withdrawing chamber became the drawing room and I guess this is what may have translated to what we now see as a family room.  The Sitting room of Captain Tate’s time might be the precursor to the multipurpose study or den, doubling as an office, a place to play cards or watch the game.  I would call it a “man cave” but I think that the study or den has become less masculine in more recent times.

My point here is that it is more need and fashion and societal norms that determine the function of a room more than an actual designation.  And, while reading historical fiction it’s important to remember that even the most diligent research is dependent on the materials at hand which may be contradictory.  What a room is called is probably the least important thing in most historical novels, unless the time period is totally off and the writer has assigned modern concepts to particular rooms in a character’s home. I think I am a stickler for a lot of things, but the fluidity of what rooms were called and what they were for is not a big thing for me. And, except in royal palaces there was nothing too cut and dried about which room was called which.

IF WALLS COULD TALK An Intimate History of the Home,  Lucy Worsley: Walker Books; February 28, 2012

TATE HOUSE CROWN OF THE MAST TRADE, Barry, William David with Peabody, Francis: National National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Maine, 1982  limited availability, or try Tate House Museum Portland: www.tatehouse.org 207.774.6177

OUR OWN SNUG FIRESIDE, Jane C. Nylander: Alfred A. Knopf, NY 1993

I don’t have this but it looks absolutely brilliant!
MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths [Second Edition]