Exhibitions and Interpretive Programs

Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930

Judith Wellman, November 1988

Have you ever slithered off a horsehair sofa and wondered how our forebears, much less ourselves, could possibly sit in comfort on such a plump and slippery surface? The new exhibit at the Strong Museum, Rochester, New York, may hold some answers for you. It is the first museum exhibit to look at ideas about parlor furnishings from a historical rather than an aesthetic perspective and it suggests that the development of parlors and parlor furnishings in the United States reflected the tension between cultural ideals of comfort and of civilized behavior, translated into physical form through available materials and contemporary technology.

Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, this exhibit outlines the development of parlors and parlor furniture, especially the use of parlor textiles, in the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. It suggests the origins of parlors both in middle class homes and in public spaces. It recreated what nineteenth-century parlors looked like, suggests how parlors were used, how the furniture itself was created (by craftsmen, by machines, or by women in their own homes), what national and international influences led to stylistic changes (especially English, French, and Turkish influences), what such furniture meant to contemporaries (both in physical comfort or lack thereof and in social and cultural ideas), and how parlors and parlor furniture gradually merged into a new kind of space, the living room.

The importance of the exhibit for historians, and of exhibits generally at the Strong Museum, comes from the unparalleled ability of its organizers to recognize that artifacts, the material culture of people, are essentially primary documents. If we know how to read them, artifacts become one of many ways in which we can see basic cultural patterns. For historians interested less in what is unique than in what is typical; for those interested in experience not often documented in written form (including the quality of daily life in general and the lives of women, working class people, and people outside the dominant Euro-American culture in particular); and for those looking at the impact of technology and natural resources on social structure and cultural values—material culture evidence is irreplaceable.

Because the Strong Museum views objects as historical evidence, it has produced a series of extraordinarily sophisticated exhibits that are important not only to the general public but also to professional historians. All of their work is thoroughly based in both primary and secondary literature. Culture and Comfort, for example, incorporates quotations from contemporaries, photographs which show how parlor pieces were arranged, and copies of advertisements and magazine articles. It also builds upon themes of class and culture, gender, and social roles that have dominated the work of social historians and anthropologists during the last generation.

But Culture and Comfort does more. Like previous Strong Museum exhibits, it does not simply illustrate themes derived from written materials. It uses the objects themselves to test existing hypotheses and to add to existing knowledge. For example, the term refinement meant "progress," "attention to detail," "finish," "softening," "owning more—and more elaborate—things." Its application to parlor furniture as well as to etiquette gives us a new appreciation for the importance of this concept in late nineteenth-century American life.

Similarly, this exhibit helps us understand the breadth of the term "middle class." As do most historians, the exhibit organizers used this term loosely, but they geographically suggested the inclusive nature of the American middle class by showing how ideals of the middle class parlor permeated American life and by bridging distinctions between wealthy urban families and much less affluent rural or working-class families.

Parlor furniture became one vehicle for blurring class distinctions, both because mass production made such furniture widely accessible and because magazines and books encouraged the production of parlor furniture by housewifes in their own homes. Two of the most memorable sections of the exhibit (and two of the most memorable artifacts) highlight both trends. In one section, changes in the manufacture of spring-seat upholstered furniture illustrate the transition from craft production to mass production. Mirrors effectively reveal construction details. A brief quiz halts visitors in front of an early twentieth-century "Roman divan" and asks them to identify the physical evidence that reveals that this remarkable couch was produced by machine for a mass market. A second section, "Homemade or Remade," highlights the function of women themselves as producers of their own furniture, by pairing instructions from popular literature with actual examples of homemade furniture. Where else can you see a chair made from a real barrel?

This exhibit incorporates a wide variety of objects, including parlor, sofas, and ottomans; draperies for windows, doors, tables, and mantels; and even clothing samples (such as bustles, which illustrate the developing relationship between the parlor furniture and women's dress). These objects represent not only the historical sensitivity of this exhibit but also its curatorial professionalism.

Culture and Comfort also offers a variety of effective interpretive ideas. We learn through touch as well as through sight and sound, and this exhibit offers viewers of all ages a chance to rearrange furniture cut-outs on a parlor picture, to touch various kinds of upholstery stuffing, and, most memorable, to don a corset, a bustle, or a high collar and to sit in a typical mid-nineteenth- century parlor chair. A small room opening off the main exhibit allows us to see at close hand a variety of newly-made "homemade" parlor furnishings. Short review quizzes form a simple but extremely effective learning aid and might well be used more widely by museum interpreters (and by classroom teachers, too).

Many exhibits at the Strong Museum include a panel of credits. This one does not, but its creators included Katherine C. Grier, historian; Patricia Tice, curator of furnishings; Florence Smith, educator; Kevin Murphy, exhibition designer; and Richard W. Sherin and Harold Mailand, conservators. To give credit where credit is due, I would like to see all exhibits signed by those who created them, including researchers and writers, curators, designers, educators, and clerical workers.

Writing labels for exhibits of this size and complexity is a very difficult task. Most visitors spend only a few seconds in front of any given display. How can you capture their attention and at the same time convey your main points? Mercifully, the Strong Museum spares us the sparsity of typical art museum labels (such as "silver teapot, c.1850, 21.2 cm. x 21.5 cm. x 27.8 cm., maker unknown). Yet, as a historian, I am always eager to know more. Would it be possible to incorporate (perhaps in smaller type or in a second paragraph) the kinds of details, conceptual backgrounds, or footnotes that we as historians and researchers crave?

Fortunately, to fill in the larger picture, Katherine C. Grier has written an enduring book. Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930, 1988, published by the Strong Museum and distributed by the University of Massachusetts Press. The book adds a depth of discussion not possible in exhibit labels alone. Where the exhibit discusses only briefly the origins of the parlor life, for example, Grier devotes three chapters in her book to origins and images of parlor life. The book also makes clear the extent to which Grier has drawn insights from both anthropological and historical literature.

Highly literate in terms of words, historians have been almost visually illiterate. Artifacts are historical evidence, and historians face an increasing need to keep abreast of historical exhibits as well as keeping abreast of secondary literature.

In particular, historians of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America should run, not walk, to the Strong Museum. With its multi-million dollar budget, its research orientation, and its highly qualified staff (including several professionally-trained historians), the Strong Museum has become a new and nationally important source of insights into American life, especially middle-class life in the northeastern United States between 1820 and 1940. We cannot afford to ignore it.

Culture and Comfort may be seen at the Strong Museum from September 3, 1988 to January 16, 1989. Because of the fragile nature of the materials, the exhibit will not travel. A symposium on October 14-16, 1988, augmented the exhibit for scholars and museum professionals. A forty-five minute videotape will be available in January 1989 through the Strong museum, other museums, and OCLC.

—Judith Wellman teaches at the State University College of New York at Oswego.