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Artifacts and Fiction - Workshop in American Literature
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Home > Discipline Tutorials > Domestic Architecture overview > Domestic Architecture: Slide 12
Discipline Tutorial: Domestic Architecture
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serial: #3609
Anonymous, DESIGN FOR $600 COTTAGE (1883) courtesy of Cornell University, Making of America Digital Collection.

Many nineteenth-century Americans believed that their parlor was the most important room in their house. A formal space set aside for social ceremonies such as receiving guests or hosting tea parties, the presence of a parlor signified the refinement and comfort of respectable family living. Parlors were generally designed for display rather than use, and usually contained furnishings and decorations that cost more than the objects in the house that were intended for everyday use. Plans like the “Design for the $600 Cottage” reveal that a parlor was perceived as necessary even in the most humble and inexpensive of homes.

In this floorplan, the parlor is the first room people entering the house would see, a position that signals its public purpose. The “living room,” positioned at the back of the house, would presumably be the space where the inhabitants would cook and do most of their everyday “living.” That a house with only four rooms should designate one of them as a place for display and hosting guests—and thus force its occupants to confine their everyday pursuits to other spaces—testifies to the tremendous cultural importance of possessing a parlor.

In Mary Wilkins Freeman’s story “The Revolt of Mother,” Sarah Penn is so frustrated by her family’s small parlor-less house that she defies her husband and moves her household into the barn he has constructed for livestock. Her uncharacteristically rebellious behavior is explained and justified in part by her desire to host a wedding for her daughter within a formal parlor, a desire that many of Freeman’s readers would have found understandable and sympathetic. Interestingly, the exterior of the house featured in the “$600 Design” resembles a barn in its design. As the illustration makes clear, a little gingerbread trim and a front parlor could lend middle class respectability to even the simplest structures.

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