Sunday, 10 November 2013

A House or a Home in the Victorian Period- Domestic Culture

What is the difference between a house and a home? The Oxford Dictionary defines a house as “a building for human habitation”, and a home as “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household”. This therefore shows the key difference changing from a ‘building’ to a ‘place’, shows that a home can take many forms. The drawing room was seen to be the heart of the ideological construct of the middle-class home. This is the room which made the house a home due to the furnishings and roles within the house, as it was a place to connect as ‘a family or household’.

When reading Gaskell's Mary Barton, I was very much interested in their surroundings and how each home differed due to classes. With the comparisons and outlooks on homes, I decided to look further into this subject and ask what a Victorian home was like. With this, I looked at the interiors of the homes and materialistic goods in a home from the Victorian Period. To answer this question I took it upon myself to visit the Geffrye museum. My visit to the Geffrye museum provided me with more information to what a Victorian home would have been like. At first, my intention for this blog was to look at both middle-class and working-class homes and to see how they differed. However, when visiting the museum there seemed to be more information and examples of middle-class interiors and housing, which is why I decided to look further into this and look at reasons why they were like this, and what importance the drawing room had on a middle-class home. I looked at what the working-class home was like in comparison with reference to Mary Barton.

As well as visiting the Geffrye museum, I looked at an example of Thad Logan's Victorian Parlour on the internet. Thad Logan notes that:

"The term drawing-room, moreover, tends to be associated with grander homes and more elegant surroundings." (The Victorian Parlour, 12)

I looked closely at Victorian main reception rooms which are better known as the drawing room. I looked at drawing rooms in the Geffrye museum in 1830 and 1870; I did this, as Mary Barton was published in 1848. I found that the choice of patterns, colours and materials increased over the first half of the nineteenth century. In the drawing room for example it would have been wallpapered and have had fitted carpet. It is very clear from this, my visit to the museum and Mary Barton that drawing rooms were middle-class orientated. I was surprised to find out that t
he set out of the homes were very similar:

"On the right of the door, as you entered, was a longish window, with a broad ledge. On each side of this, hung blue-and-white-check curtains, which were now drawn, to shut in the friends met to enjoy" (Mary Barton, 14)

It is seen to be more private when the curtains are closed shutting the outside world out gives a sense of safety and protection which the drawing room gave to the middle-class. 

Drawing-room window from 1830 found in The Geffrye Museum

Susan Kyle Leopald notes, in The Victorian Parlour,  that the Victorian interior design portrayal of the  framed, draped windows (shown above) and the padded and upholstered chairs shown here: 

Armchair from 1870 found in The Geffrye Museum

"sea-sawed clumsily between homely comfort and happy grandeur" (The Victorian Parlour, 11)

This therefore can raise the argument of whether a middle-class Victorian family lived in a ‘house’ or a ‘home’. As it does not show the family orientated home like the one which the Bartons live in, in Gaskell’s novel. This was because the middle-class home was concerned with wealth and design rather than the 'homely comfort'. The armchair above has a red velour cover, this provides a 'feeling of luxury' which was associated to the middle-class. The description of the Carson house in Chapter 6, shows their house to be a design of their wealth:

"there was much taste shown, and many articles chosen for their beauty and elegance adorned his rooms" (Mary Barton, 63)

This proves that the design of the house had nothing to do with the individuals; it was just an act of their wealth. As well as this middle-class homes were full of art and did not look like they were properly lived in due to how they chose to decorate the room, stated above with 'elegance', and in the picture shown below that everything was immaculately furnished.Paintings in the Victorian period would have created a homely and luxurious vibe, and were commonly found in middle-class homes. The drawing room was a creative space where typically female members of the family would spend their leisure time reading, painting or playing music. This therefore shows how much a personal room the drawing room was.

Paintings in an 1830 drawing room
Sourced from the Geffrye Museum
It is seen to be a personal room in Mary Barton also. We can see this through Mr Carson's reaction when finding the superintendent in there as "his face hardened" (198). A reason why this could have been, is noted in The Victorian Parlour that the drawing room has:

"connotations of privacy, it is a space dedicated to the possibility of intimacy, set apart from the communal life of the monastery." (The Victorian Parlour, 13)

A Life Well Spent, 1862
Oil on canvas, by Charles West Cope
Found in the Geffrye Museum
This shows the importance a drawing-room to a family as it was a private place to be, whereas the other rooms of the house would have been full of servants. As well as this, it would have been a place where the children would have been, and it is evidently a place for women to go to read and be creative for example with needlework. The picture here shows a woman and her children, this illustrates solidarity and a mothers place in the household. It states in the Geffrye museum that, this young mother is depicted as the Victorian ideal as she is surrounded by her children and taking on the economical task of knitting socks. The young girl on the floor shows how girls were able to start education early and were able to enjoy reading in the home. The children here are well-behaved surrounding their mother and eager to learn. This was the expectation of young women at this time.

In comparison to the middle-class home discussed above, one passage which struck me about the Barton's home was the descriptions at their tea party. Their surroundings are warm, portraying a happy family. There are strong descriptions here, we see that their possessions were on show and that they were proud of who they were:

"Mrs Barton was proud of her crockery and glass, for she left her cupboard door open" (Mary Barton, 14)

Although the Barton's were not middle-class I found many similarities within the museum to the descriptions in Mary Barton. As well as the above possessions we also see that there are japanned goods:

"Opposite the fireplace was a table, which I should call a Pembroke. On it, resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray(...) propped up by a crimson tea-caddy also of Japan ware" (Mary Barton, 15)

Japanning was a technique for decorating furniture and small objects in imitation of Japanese or Chinese lacquer. Japanning is mentioned above to describe the furniture of a typical tea party above. Japanning was developed during the seventeenth century and was cheaper opposed to lacquered goods which were a luxury and often found in middle-class homes. This is why this technique was often found in working-class homes.

A similarity which was visible from my visit and at the beginning of the novel was the overcrowded room at the tea party:

"The place seemed almost crammed with furniture (sure sign of good times among the mills)" (Mary Barton, 14)

It is clear from Gaskell's descriptions and my visit to the museum that the working-class home was a lot smaller than that of the middle-class. However, the cramming of the furniture was also visible in a middle-class home, this is a clear sign of how wealth had improved at the beginning of the 1800s.

Drawing-room from 1790 at the Geffrye Museum
Sourced from the Geffrye Museum
Drawing-room from 1830 at the Geffrye Museum
Sourced from the Geffrye Museum

This shows the sparsely furnished drawing room from 1790 compared to the 1830s where the room is even surrounded by all the decorative objects such as paintings and embroideries. 

Works Cited

Gaskell, E. Mary Barton.UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2012.
Geffrye Museum. London, 1914. 29 October. 2013
Logan, T. The Victorian Parlour.  UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2013. Web. 10 November. 2013


  1. This is a very interesting piece on the classification of a home and a house in the Victorian era. Thee use of quotes to support your ideas from Mary Barton highlight the importance of furniture in that period and the difference between a house and a home is distinct.

  2. After reading your blog it is interesting to see how important the house was to Victorians, especially as the design of the buildings and furniture is still apparent in today's society such as the design and fabric of the armchair from The Geffrye Museum. In some sense, the ideals of the drawing room are also still apparant in today's culture, for example, the "living room" or "front room" is still regarded as a place where families spend time.

  3. I'm glad you both found this as interesting as I did, the house was clearly important but there were clear distinctions which I have tried to explain to how a house and a home differed. I am glad you picked up on the fabrics, furniture and designs of the home because this was one way to show wealth, which I have tried to explain with comparison to Gaskell's Mary Barton.

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