NO one, however humble, is without some position in the world, entailing relations with friends and neighbors, and duties of a social character. The wife of a parson has one kind of duty to perform, the wife of a statesman another, the spinster a third. Each must determine how the duties of her station are to be fulfilled, and whether the part of the house in which they are performed shall stand for cheerfulness, for welcome, for repose, or mere formality.
Unless we determine these things for ourselves, our parlors must forever remain failures. Without a guiding principle all efforts at decoration are tentative. If we work with no object in view, can we blame fortune for lack of objects accomplished?
By a parlor I mean that room which, when the setting aside of a series is not possible, is specially reserved not only for our own recreation, but for the reception of our visitors.
I use the word advisedly, even while recognizing to what abuses it has been subjected, and while appreciating the efforts which have been made to substitute another in our common speech. For certainly the parlor of an every-day apartment can hardly be designated a "drawing-room" and certainly it should be something more than a mere sitting-room, if visitors are to be received in it. And, since it must be used for more formal purposes, it should be characterized by a certain reserve, the absence of which would be easily excusable in a living-room pure and simple.
In town houses with family living-rooms, to be sure, parlors may be referred to as "drawing-rooms," but the term can hardly be applied to the parlors of people living in country districts and small towns, in army posts, in the houses of clergymen, or wherever persons of refinement but limited means are to be found, leading lives that for all their unpretentious character still involve the observance of many social obligations.
Consultation with a dictionary will justify the use of "parlor," - a word originally designating a room set apart from the great hall for private conference, and which now means that room in a house reserved for formal and sometimes public uses. The word is found in Chaucer.
" - two other ladys sete and she, Within a paved parlour."
"Into a parlour by" reads an old English ballad. Shakespeare uses the word; and Izaak Walton: - "Walk into the parlour, you will find one book or other, in the window, to entertain you the while."
Parlors are like manners. The "best parlors," so long decried of New England, were like the Sunday outfit of work-a-day people, or like the court dresses which the celebrated laundress wore when Napoleon made her a lady of his court. Who will ever forget Rejane as she played the role? How awkward and ill at ease she was in her new clothes, not knowing how to wear her petticoats, tumbling over her train to the intense amusement of the other court-ladies who managed theirs as easily as birds of gay plumage manage their wings. A genial, sunny-tempered woman until that moment, the necessity of donning an apparel to which she was unaccustomed inspired in her a degree of awkward self-consciousness that destroyed all her charm.
I always think of her when the question of some parlors arises. They are so apt to look as though their owners were not accustomed to them, as if they bore no more relation to the daily lives of their owners than clothes worn on state occasions. It is just because in many instances parlors are only used on state occasions that most of them create this impression of awkwardness. They are furnished with uniform pieces and adorned with ornaments of a regulation size, and there they end. Like Rejane's court dresses, the necessity for using them now and then destroys all the ease and the charm which their owners on other occasions might have possessed.
I have seen prosperous people bother as much about their parlors as impecunious bread-winners obliged to content themselves with cheese and denim. My sympathies go out to them. I know so well what the difficulties will mean in the way of struggle and disappointment so long as we go on missing the vital point, of "the one book or other . . . to entertain you the while." Everywhere else in a home the question of material necessities, of pure utility, may rule. The parlor must express something more; prove our knowledge of the conveniences, our possession of individual tastes, our intellectual sympathies; our breeding, our place in the world; our general measure of man or woman. In a parlor we must show evidence of what we consider beautiful, what we find useful and refreshing; what we deem worthy of offering our friends and our family in "hours of ease" - in short, like laughter, our parlors betray the degree of cultivation we have attained. There's the rub.
HOW WALL SPACE MAY BE UTILIZED.
I remember, some years ago, finding myself in a small country house that belonged to quiet, old-fashioned people whose son had been educated for the army, and who was then an officer in it. The younger daughter had been away on a visit to him, and had come home with some ideas of making her parlor like those she had seen on her journey. The rest of the family had been contented, until then, with whitewashed parlor walls and one or two comfortable chairs. She, poor child, brought back with her a single Japanese fan and a solitary piece of ugly Turkish embroidery (the craze for them had just begun), and these she tacked together, directly in the middle of the whitewashed board that enclosed the open fireplace. The result was infinitely pathetic. With woods and streams all about her, she might so easily have made the room beautiful with ferns, filling ordinary brown stone jugs and pitchers with laurel; opening her fireplace for logs which would have cost her nothing.