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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Beyond the Door: or "The Homes of the Victorians" Part One: Rooms

This week, here at The Victorianist, we will be taking a look at various aspects of the Victorian home.

Since this is a fairly broad topic, there will be a few parts, three if all goes to plan. So, today is part one – the rooms in the average middle class house.

I have only included descriptions of the more interesting / less obvious rooms, which is why there is no description of bedrooms and bathrooms &c.

So, in the 19th century, the average middle class home in London would have a lay-out roughly like this:

Top Floor:
Servants Rooms, Children’s Rooms & Nursery

Second Floor:
Master Bedroom & Second Bedroom

First Floor:
Drawing Room

Ground Floor:
Dining Room & Morning Room

Kitchen & Scullery

We’ll work our way up from the bottom of the house:


The Kitchen & Scullery:

The kitchen was used for cooking, and cooking only, unlike the kitchens of today which are often also eaten in, and sometimes become the centre of a home. Fresh food would be stored in a larder, and a store room would used to keep dried foods and cleaning equipment.

The scullery would usually have running water, and so food preparation that made a mess such as de-scaling or cleaning fish, or preparing vegetables would have taken place there, the running water also made it the ideal place to clean dishes and other utensils, though this also sometimes happened in the pantry.
The pantry was also used for storing silver, glass and china, and the sink in there would be made of wood and lined with lead to make it soft to avoid cracking and chipping to crockery.
Once a year kitchens would be painted to get rid of the smells of cooking and to cover the soot and dirt that came from the range.

In smaller houses, the kitchen would have been nothing more than a dark and damp basement; in these cases, the scullery would have been a small passage just off the kitchen, the pantry a small china closet, the storeroom a cupboard and likewise the larder – though, as the larder would keep fresh food, this would preferably be as far from the hot range in the kitchen as possible as the range was hot for 18 hours a day – it being used to heat the whole hot water supply of the house.

Being below ground level, the kitchen would have been an unpleasant place to work all day. It received virtually no natural light, so gas was burned all day with little or no ventilation. The best to be hoped for was a few ‘air bricks’ to relieve the heat of the kitchen in smaller houses, and in larger houses the cook may be lucky enough to have a tiny window high up in the wall (at ground level).

Ground Floor:

Dining Room & Morning Room:

The morning room was the domain of the mistress of the house, and all the household organizing happened there. Women who had staff spoke to their servants there, did their correspondence there and kept their accounts there – all morning tasks for the organized house keeper.
Close friends were entertained in the morning room in a less formal way than other guests, and (when not required in more formal parts of the house) sewing and other household tasks would take place there.

Being almost exclusively female spaces, morning rooms were decorated in a less formal way than the home’s drawing room. It was the public face of the house, and as such would be decorated in a way that best presented the prosperity of the family.

First Floor:

Drawing Room:

The drawing room was the best room in the house and contained all the finest furniture and ornaments. This is where visitors would be entertained. “Drawing Room” comes from “Withdrawing Room”, as this is where guests would withdraw to after dinner. Usually located on the first floor in larger houses, the drawing room ideally had high ceilings, a bay window, paintings and flowers. From the 1850’s fern collecting became popular, and these too were displayed in drawing rooms, usually covered by a glass dome. (When the sun warmed the air, the moisture in the soil evaporated and condensed on the glass before dropping back down onto the plant to water it.)

Other common drawing room items could include a large table with floral print table cloth and thick patterned carpet. The mantelpiece was the centre of the room, as our televisions today are almost always the centre of ours. A large, gold frame mirror would hang over the mantelpiece, and on the mantel itself could be a velvet decorative cloth, a large clock and candlesticks. When the candles were lit they would reflect in the mirror, giving the effect of more light.

In the drawing room, as with the morning room, the furniture and furnishings would be purchased to reflect the social standing of the family. The general consensus at the time was that learning to play a piano improved a girls posture by making them sit up straight, so many drawing rooms would contain a piano covered with serge, felt or damask. The covered piano itself would become an extra shelf, and be laden with flowers and ornaments.
Walls would be papered with flock paper of gaudy designs, and hanging from the walls could be gilt flowers in bunches tied with fine ribbons. Curtains would be big and plush and thick and hung on large poles. Chairs would be covered with a fine cloth and everywhere one looked there would be ornaments a-plenty.

Top Floor:

Servants Rooms, Children’s Rooms and Nursery:

The Nursery walls would be whitewashed or distempered rather than painted, firstly for health reasons, so that any infections the child may have had did not linger in wallpaper or paint, and secondly so that the walls could easily be re-done every year. The windows of the nursery would be barred, again, this was for the safety of the child. Safety was, of course, a huge concern for the Victorian parents where the child was concerned, and in addition to the barred window and the whitewashed walls, the grate would be guarded by a high and sturdy fireguard and the room would be lit by gas to avoid accidents caused by lamps or candles being knocked over by the child &c.

The furnishings in the nursery would have been very few, perhaps a table covered by wipeable oilcloth, chairs for the child to sit on during lessons, a toy-cupboard and a little rug.

Mothers taught children at home, starting at the age of two when the child would be taught to read, sew (if a little girl) and look at an atlas to learn geography. Phrases from the bible would be read and learned until able to read aloud by heart.

This concludes our little look at the rooms within the house, next time; the servants…


  1. Very informative, thanks for posting. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  2. Thanks, "Part Two: Servants" Should be up tomorrow!