The 19th century in the United States started out as period of major political strife with little attention to the development of furniture. Sure there was the Federal period and the Empire period, but those were more adaptations to style than innovation in form.
There were other things to worry about: There was the War of 1812. Then there was the
Mexican War, followed by the Civil War.
After the Civil War things settled down a bit and the population’s focus turned inward to social status and function. This was the high Victorian period, and one of the primary considerations in all subjects was the topic of gender. The urbanization of much of the country no longer required primary emphasis on agricultural skills from many of the inhabitants, and new role models and social functions developed because of the shift.
In proper Victorian society the world was divided into two halves – male and female – and each gender was assigned a space.
The outside world belonged to the men. It was the place where commerce was conducted, work was carried out and money was made and exchanged. The inside, the interior of the house, belonged to the women. This is where food was prepared, children were born and reared and personal items were cared for and stored.
With two such radically different areas of operation, the transition from one domain to the next could surely be traumatic — almost to be considered an intrusion by the principal of the area entered.
That is where the concept of the foyer or hall came into play in Victorian house design. This was neutral territory. It didn’t really belong in either gender’s domain and was used to prepare for entry into the next area. Outdoor coats had to be removed or put on. Gloves came on or off, as did overshoes, shawls and hats. But where to put them? This storage problem prompted the first piece of furniture specifically designed for the foyer: the hall stand or hall tree. It was a purely 19th century contrivance with no precedent in form or function other than just hooks on a wall.
Early versions of the hall stand all had the same three components: coat hooks, a mirror and an umbrella stand. By this time, just after mid century, the umbrella had become a common accessory for the middle class and the hall was the logical place for its storage since it was an “outside” thing but did need to come inside. The coat hooks reflected the
need for proper attire for both inside and outside and became the keeper of the outside garments on the inside of the house. But the limited number of hooks, usually six or so, arranged around the mirror demonstrate that this was not an annex to the coat closet for long-term storage. This was simply a stopping point for those outer garments in transition. The mirror was used extensively throughout better Victorian homes and reflected the cultural fixation with personal appearance. It was appropriately placed in the hall to insure a proper appearance for entry to the inside.
Some hall stands had one more feature: the shelf or table for gloves, books or a card receiver.
Hall stands reached their zenith in the Renaissance Revival style of the 1870s. The importance of a good first impression translated to size in a hall stand and the Renaissance period offered a very nice arrangement of size, convenience and opulence for the Victorian well-to-do at the beginning of the fourth quarter of the century.
Hall stands of the style, as well as other furniture of the period, made by Berkey & Gay of Grand Rapids can be seen in “Late 19th Century Furniture by Berkey & Gay,” published by Schiffer. By the late part of the century the “Golden Oak” period was dawning, and the elegance of the Renaissance, as well as the importance of the hall stand, were beginning to fade. By 1920 the hall stand was all but gone, replaced by a common coat rack in the corner by the front door.
But the hall had another function: In addition to being the transition area it was also the waiting area. One had to be invited into the interior of the house by a resident of appropriate rank. While it was important to be polite to anyone, regardless of rank, there was a definite seating priority. Persons of equal or greater social ranking than the owner of the house were invited in immediately. Those of lower rank, especially delivery people and messengers, were not invited in and waited in the hall. It was incumbent on the owner to provide seating, but it was not required that the seating be comfortable. They wouldn’t be there that long.
Thus hall seating took on an especially austere look with flat, straight wooden chairs or stools with no padding or the hard plank seat sometimes incorporated into the hall stand.
For more information about quaint Victorian customs regarding gender and lifestyle, take a look at “Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture” (Temple University Press, 1995) by Kenneth Ames. Ames is Chief of Historical and Anthropological Surveys of the New York State Museum and was formerly Chair of the of the Office of Advanced Studies at the Winterthur Museum.
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