As my collection of historical novels slowly expands, I found that I am always intrigued by one of the most definitive aspects of the aristocratic persons and those they deemed subservient: The Home.
If I had a choice of admission between a renowned art museum or a tour of a home built in the 1800s, I will always choose the latter. Walking through the cramped rooms of a 19th century townhome—oak batten paneling with ornate wallpaper and creaky hardwood floors—or climbing the stairs of a grand house—wide foyers, baroque ceilings and oversized portraits—would feel as though I’ve submerged myself into the time period. I would have walked the same halls as the previous owner and taken notice of the same rip in the pillow seams or cracks in the corner blocks. I would have stared through the same garden windows and brushed my fingers on the dog gate stairwell. Rather than standing six feet from an exhibit that’s another six feet from an entirely different exhibit, I can, for a split moment, imagine myself a Victorian.
Whether I am in the beginning stages of my own stories or browsing through old architectural books I make notes regarding the look and feel of the homes that could potentially belong to my characters. It’s as if I have a small inventory of houses on a private studio lot and I pluck one from its place for its adoption into the care of a character.
Photo courtesy of Pinterest: Click Here to View more Victorian Home Interiors on my Pinterest Board
This post is for your reference, as well as mine, when it comes to the structure of a home—specifically the individual rooms and their functions. I will be focusing primarily on the “upstairs” unless otherwise stated, and will cover the middle class and lower class living situations briefly. More detail will follow in future blog posts.
An upper class home (Big House, Grand House, Estate House, Country House) was mainly used by the aristocracy as their country residence outside of the London Season (the congregation of Parliament). These homes rested on the land they managed, the tenants being their primary source of income.
Here is a list of rooms you may encounter whenever you enter one of these big houses, all ranging in size and statement. Please keep in mind, that depending on a nobleman’s wealth and affluence, he may not have each of these rooms (or he may have more):
Gate House: This would be one of the first homes a visitor would encounter and would usually define the overall size and feeling of the main house. Gate Houses were either towers, small adobes or structures the size of a house in the suburbs. The Gatekeeper would stand watch (normally during working/visiting hours) and manually open the gate for visitors. In earlier times, and if the location of the country house was remote, there could be a mailboy running with an urgent telegraph or missive. The Gatekeeper, who would reside in the upstairs living quarters would wake from the knock on the door, grab a torch and guide the boy to the main house.
Main Entrance/Gardens: Although this is not a room, it can be considered its own space as it was overseen by the groundskeeper and his staff. Stone pathways guided coaches from the road to the front door and there was no lack of impressive statues, water features and flowers.
Stables/Mews: Stables were either built to the side of the house or behind (keeping them from view). In superior homes, there were mews, which were rows of courtyard-style stables for the horses. There were also carriage houses for the carriages of the owner and their visitors, and living quarters above them for the staff. Such servants might include the stableboys, horse breeders, groundskeeper, gameskeeper and their families and of course, those that belonged to guests. Later on, vehicles would replace horses and take shelter here.
These were usually built tall enough so that the driver could remain on the horse while entering the stables.
UPDATE: Carriage House/Coach House/Cart Shed: A room attached to the stables/mews that housed all the carriages and rigs. There are many different transportation mechanisms for the Victorian/Edwardian family (from one horse, to two horse to four horse). In a manor house, it was common for there to be a variety for guests, private use, servant use and prestigious social functions.
***Fun Fact: There were often hired hansom cabs that had faded ducal crests on the doors. That was because the nobility would sell these lavish rides if they needed the money or no longer had use for them.
UPDATE: Tack Room: a room in a stable building where saddles, bridles, and other equipment are kept. Honestly, some of them looked VERY nice.
The Hall/Great Hall/Entrance Hall/Entryway/Foyer: As a first impression, this room could not be neglected in decorations and oftentimes held the grand staircase or impressive floral arrangements. Upon the return of the master of the house, from a Season in the city or an extended business trip, the staff would either line the outside steps, the foyer or the staircase for their master’s inspection or simply to greet him formally. In some families, the staff would line here in the mornings, while the master of the house read a morning prayer from the Bible. I have read that there was often a bowl placed somewhere in the entryway. It’s function was to collect the calling cards and business cards of guests that had stopped by while the master/mistress of the house was away.
Drawing Room: A drawing room is similar to a southern family’s sitting room, in that it was primarily used for the entertainment of guests and social gatherings. It was usually located off the great hall so that guests did not have to travel through the house to get to it after their journey. Refreshments could be served here, and oftentimes there was a piano for before/after dinner recitals. Considering this was a place mostly for guests, personal items such as miniatures, trinkets and childrens’ toys were usually kept out of this room.
Dining Hall/Banquet Hall: Usually located near the drawing room considering guests used these two rooms the most whenever it was dinner time. Long mahogany and oak tables could easily fit over two dozen people. The room was often large enough to house multiple long tables in the case of a large party. The master of the house sat at the head of the table while the guest he considered most important (either by rules of etiquette or by his own choice) sat to his left. If he was married, the wife would sit elsewhere in order to entertain the other half of the guests. In the mornings, guests could help themselves to breakfast items that were displayed “buffet style” as they made their way out of bed. There were usually no formalities unless a Vicar was present, and in that case, the family might want to impress him and have him lead them in prayer before the guests began their day. ***Dinner guests often alternated, man, woman, man, woman with unspoken intervals of time speaking to the person on their left, and then, to the person on their right so that no one was excluded from conversation.
Billiard Room: Or the pool hall, or the room that held the pool/billiard table. This room could hold other things and double in function but it was mostly for billiards. Gambling was a primitive sport among Englishmen so a game of billiards after dinner was a good way for the men to relax. The women often went elsewhere for gossip and conversation.
Smoking Room: This room wasn’t a popular addition until the Queen and Prince Albert installed one of their own at the Isle of Wright in 1866. It was considered fashionable and undoubtedly masculine by design. Prior, gentlemen would have cigars on terraces or in the confines of a private study, but smoking rooms grew in popularity and became a designated area for the pungent smell of tobacco. In some homes, the smoking room was located on the side of the house that faced the stables with an additional outside entrance.
Withdrawing Room: This room was tricky to define by one particular function. In some cases, I read it was used predominantly by the mistress of the house. It was where she took her lady guests after dinner while the men stayed in the dining hall for a glass of port and cigars or played billiards. I’ve read it was a room similar to a man’s study, where she took her callers and visitors for private conversation. I’ve also read it could be a small room, off the drawing room, used for the family of the house in the case they were in need of a temporary retreat from their guests or party. A common element of the room, however, was privacy.
Parlor: This was another tricky room, as I find in many historical novels and architecture books that use the term interchangeably with the drawing room. If a southern family’s drawing room was the den, then the parlor would be the family room. Essentially, it was a place for the family to gather after dinner. The master of the house would read out loud to his family and the mistress and older house relatives would knit or use the sewing machine or practice the piano. This room was intimate, as the family would gather around the candle light/kerosene lamps/oil lamps/fireplace. There could be books in this room, sewing kits, sketchbooks, newspapers even toys if the family allowed the children to play here in addition to their nursery. To further emphasize the familial aspect of these rooms, some were named after the family’s surnames. For example: Grayson Parlor. An invitation to this room would be extended by the master or mistress of the house for family members and close friends to convene.
Receiving Room: Similar to the woman’s withdrawing room, this could be a designated space for guests to wait until the master/mistress of the house came to them. It could be a small sitting area or simply absorbed by the drawing room.
Breakfast Room/Tea Room: This room was usually positioned off the kitchen and used mostly in the mornings as the family’s private eating space if they did not want to utilize the dining hall. Tea was a staple in the 19th century, especially for ladies, and could be enjoyed anytime throughout the day really. But I’ve learned that the Tea Room/Breakfast Room was utilized mostly in the morning or in midday and usually in a room that welcomed the sun.
Morning Room/Formal Parlors: A general room used for family activities or casual receptions such as birthday parties, wedding parties, funerals, some public events, charitable functions. Sometimes, these rooms had small sitting rooms for the family’s private use if they needed to escape the festivities or if dowagers needed a quiet place to rest.
Gallery Hall/Long Gallery/Portrait Gallery: Like most English rooms, it does not sway far from its name. It is essentially a long hallway full of artwork, primarily, family and ancestral portraits. However, I was surprised the room had other functions aside from a showcase of one’s breeding. On poor weather days, the women of the house would use the space to walk back and forth for exercise. A child would play with his or her toys. A young man would practice his fencing or swordsmanship skills with his tutor. Or, bookshelves could stretch the entire length of the space, turning the room into a well-decorated library with comfortable seating.
Chapel/Private Chapel: Considering most Grand Houses were located in the countryside, very rarely did the family mingle in church with the commoners. Some did, often going to church with their servants. But in most cases they made use of their own private chapel. The chapel was also used for weddings or family funerals.
The Library/Reading Room: There is not much to say except private libraries were a staple for the wealthy as books were expensive to purchase and not all had access to tutors or schools. The aristocracy preferred book titles of influence and encyclopedias as opposed to novels. I am in no way saying they did not own/read novels, but the Englishman was often taught to gain something from their reading materials (something practical that they could use in business or recite on a whim for the sake of intelligent conversation and gentle debate). With so many impressive libraries, I often wondered if there were private librarians. A family of means could easily select and order their own reading materials but as far as what was in fashion or what was considered necessary is something I am hoping to explore further, especially after discovering women librarians were in existence in the 19th century and often suffered mental breakdowns at work.
Music Room: This was a mildly lit room with minimal furnishings and decorations as the room’s purpose was to enhance the acoustics of the instruments. The soprano part of the piano was usually positioned to face the audience, similar to a concert stage.
Art Room: Painting and sketching were popular pastimes for women of the upper class. From my studies, I’ve gathered that watercolors and oils were the most popular mediums outside of graphite and charcoal. This room wasn’t necessarily private considering guests and commissioned artists could use it if they pleased.
Ballroom: The ballroom was a place for dancing. This room, arguably the largest in a grand house, was necessary for London homes who wanted to entertain during the Season. The London Season was essentially a gathering of all nobility, thereby making marital matches abundant. Balls were thrown to introduce women of age, sometimes as young as seventeen, who had had their “Coming Out.”
Study/Office: This is another predominantly male space and decorated to the tastes of the master of the house (rich woods, hunting memorabilia, leather, trophies, achievements, etc.). It was today’s “man cave” with the addition of a desk and the intent to work and conduct business. One must keep in mind, the man of the house lived mostly in his country estate and could not travel to London regularly. It was comfortable for him to have a place at home or a private room to gather with his gentleman buddies. There was usually liquor and cigars decorating a sideboard or table and if he was a family man, perhaps miniatures of his wife and children.
Bedchambers/Apartments: Spouses of means had separate rooms. Usually, the two were joined by a connecting door or a small sitting room/parlor in between. Sex was not a foreign act in the 19th century, even the Queen was said to have had a highly intimate and loving relationship with her husband (hence their many children). And of course, there was Bertie. But I suspect the separate bedrooms were for the common pleasure of privacy. The women liked to change in private (some even had changing rooms). If the men ever came home late after a day of hunting, conducting business or exploring other pleasures (gambling, brothels, clubs, etc), he would need a place to change and sleep without disturbing his wife. Throughout my readings, I’ve gathered that the men were the ones who visited their wifes room for intercourse, most of the time. If they weren’t a couple who cuddled, he would go back to his own. The wife’s room was also where she gave birth to her children and recovered afterward. And before the addition of bathing rooms, individuals often bathed in their rooms near the fireplace.
I used the term “Apartments” because husbands and wives could have their own apartments--their own collection of rooms that include small versions of those listed above. Of course there were also guest apartments, family wings and wings of the home designated for unmarried women. Bachelor guests had their own wings and sometimes, their own house with an ample number of rooms and a parlor. It was Victorian knowledge that men were allowed/encouraged/expected to explore sex and satisfy their carnal appetites. Thus, separating the unmarried men from the unmarried women would help decrease the potential of scandal and marriage traps.
Orangery/Conservatory: Moving back outside, the orangery is perhaps the most impressive room a wealthy person could have considering building such a structure was considered a luxury—the glazed roof was an early 19th century development and expensive to install. A conservatory is a greenhouse and is usually small or average in size. However, the orangery can be the size of an apartment complex and even larger as its purpose was to grow citrus trees (orange, lime, etc.) throughout the year. The Orangery was so impressive, it often held fountains and recreational space for parties and events. It was viewed as a garden feature, one whose glass walls emphasized the impressiveness of the main house. Some would be built over kitchens or laundry rooms so that vents could be installed in the floor to allow the heat from the steam to rise and warm the plants and trees. The largest Orangery is “Versailles Orangerie” in France.
Nursery/Day Nursery/Night Nursery: The Nursery was for children under a particular schooling age--Considering there were no age requirements for boarding school admissions, there was no definitive age that a child left the nursery. Throughout my studies, it seems that the average age for children to leave the nursery was from 8 to 12. It is around that time the boys would go to boarding school and the girls would be given a governess. But before then, children needed a place to sleep, play and essentially nurse. If a family could afford it, they might have a day nursery, specifically for toys, and a night nursery for the beds (nannies and nursemaids often slept in the room with the children and had beds of their own).
State Rooms/State Apartments: In addition to an orangery, the State Rooms were definitive of wealth considering they were primarily used for very important guests—Monarch, the Royal Consort and any other representatives of state. These rooms were competitively rich and heavy in design, as the family wanted to impress the Queen. They would hire renowned painters and architects and spare no expense when it came to providing any comforts a monarch would need. If the Queen was passing through and needed a place to stay for the night, she would not check into a hotel. The local family would be expected to play host, coupled with the expectations that the Queen would not want to be bothered. Therefore, State Apartments were sometimes built with their own parlors, drawing rooms, receiving rooms, bathing chambers, servant’s corridors, dining halls and studies.
As mentioned above, I will be brief. Many middle class families lived in the city for work. Their homes could have been one of many in a row or small country cottages. To keep up with appearances, they often had a servant or two who doubled up on duties. There was usually no room for stables, and therefore no staff who kept game or tended to horses. Space was small, so the servants often occupied the rooms in the attic and used the sole staircase (or sometimes a back staircase) to make their way to the lower floors where the kitchens were.
A typical middle class home had a kitchen with a small table (kitchen and breakfast room), a small dining room, a parlor/drawing room, an office and bedchambers. I have seen some middle class homes use the attic space as ballrooms. Baths and copper tubs would be brought to the bedrooms or used in the kitchens.
The living arrangements of the poor interest me just as much as the wealthy, but because there rarely were multiple rooms for a single family, I will also have to keep this description brief. Their homes were small and their living conditions unhealthy. The poor often lived in rookeries and impoverished neighborhoods where there was no clean water and lots and lots of people. Families would often share homes with other families but if they had their own, it was usually no bigger than a room or two. The kitchen was cramped and oftentimes lacking a fireplace. All family members would sleep huddled together for warmth (there have been cases of babies being smothered in the night if no crib was available). If they did not want to bath in the river, they would have a single tub full of water that was shared by all members—the man bathing first, followed by the wife and oldest child. Bathing was not a requirement as soap was expensive and so chemically unbalanced that it would peel the skin. Bathing was sometimes a once-a-month luxury.
With poor living conditions and little food, very few were home. The men would work and visit a tavern after. The women would work all day, only to come home and collapse. Children, as soon as they could walk, were sent to find work. Dinner consisted sometimes of only bread and very little cooking was done.
Something to note about rooms is that they can be more or less than what I’ve mentioned above, in name and in function. For example, a room can have a very specific identifier such as the Yellow Room, The Heaven Room (if one painted an angel mural on the ceiling), The Grotto, the Butterfly Room or the Glass Ceiling Room. Be imaginative if you are building a home for your characters. Just as they did then, and now, a home is a reflection of those who live there.
Also note, I did not mention the rooms of the downstairs because I am still researching information that I can thoroughly share.
Thank you very much for reading this article. If you found this post helpful, please feel free to share and subscribe for updates and more information like this.