Common Sense Antiques: Step into my parlor …

One of the most frequently seen arrangements of seating furniture in an antique shop or at a show is the ubiquitous “parlor set.” It seems to usually consist of a rather poorly constructed small scale love seat and a couple of more-or-less matching chairs, one of them probably a rocker. Not much to look at and not much to get real excited about. But looking at a set like that is like looking at a small bird and trying to imagine the gigantic, majestic dinosaur from which it originated.

That skimpy little parlor set is the last hurrah of a great Victorian tradition begun in the middle of the 19th century used to codify the station, place and rank of each member of a family. At the height of the Victorian era it was important to divide the world into three sectors, those of the male, those of the female and those that were neutral. In general the great outdoors was the male realm. That’s where work was done, money and food were acquired and safety was assured. The interior of the home was feminine where food was prepared and children were raised. But there were neutral areas of the interior like the foyer, which was a transition area from outside to inside and the parlor or sitting room where guests were received and the family formally arranged itself in order.

This was not a space normally used during the everyday activities of the household. This was a space for “formal” sitting when the family was on display, usually while entertaining a visitor or relative. Elegance and posture were more important than the actual furniture but it didn’t take long for furniture to follow the form and reinforce the required postures and positions. The formal parlor suite appeared in mid century and most major cabinetmakers of the period took a shot at producing a memorable set or two. Foremost among these were such luminaries as Belter, Meeks, Jelliff and slightly later Hunzinger and Pottier & Stymus, among many others.

Most original formal sets consisted of seven pieces – the sofa, the main focus of the set, the gentleman’s chair, the lady’s chair and four smaller side chairs. The sofa was reserved for the most important non-family member in the seating order. It offered the greatest variety of positions and postures yet remained anonymous within the group. The other chairs were assigned seating. The gentleman’s chair was almost as imposing as the sofa, with a high back, a wide seat and padded armrests. And no one else dared sit there even in his absence. The lady’s chair was much less imposing as was befitting her rank in the family, at least to outsiders. Her chair was smaller with a lower, narrower back and much lower, if any, arms. The arms were seldom padded and were downward sloping. They were not meant to be used to support the lady’s arms. That was the job of her lap. The remaining four chairs most often were armless side chairs with open, low backs, reserved for much lower status attendees.

The form reached its height in the 1870s and declined in popularity after that but it didn’t really fade away until after the turn of the century. As it faded out the composition of the set changed slightly as did the characteristics of the individual elements. Newer sets included fewer pieces. The 1902 Sears catalog shows five, four and three piece sets with the three piece versions most prominently displayed. The sofas became two-seaters and all the seating was relatively smaller than previously. But the gender distinction remained with one chair notably larger and more imposing than all the others and with one chair obviously in a secondary position but superior to all others except the largest one.

The incorporation of the rocking chair into a parlor set came via a long and circuitous route. The rocker is acknowledged as having been developed in the 18th century even though some examples of rocking furniture, especially cradles, existed well before that. By the middle of the 19th century the rocking chair was a decidedly feminine piece of informal furniture and certainly was not seen in the parlor. And the use of rocking chairs by men was seldom seen and rare even though Abraham Lincoln was sitting in a rocker when he was assassinated.

The rocker was not a generally accepted cross-gender article of furniture until late in the century when porch rocking became fashionable and men became aware of the comfort and comfortable with the notion of rocking. Rockers then made their way into the study and eventually crept into the remnants of the declining parlor set as a commercial venture.

Eventually the hard rocker was supplanted by the new technological wonder of the late 19th century, the platform rocker. These modern wonders had stationary platforms which supported curved rockers suspended by coil springs producing an effortless motion with no noise (usually) and with no damage to wood floors or expensive carpets caused by “rocker creep” or crushing by the wooden arcs. In some places these rockers were even referred to as “carpet rockers.”

So the three piece parlor set on display at the corner shop is merely a trace of the original concept of  formal seating used to properly display the rank of family members in the mid 19th century. 

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