Victorians and Their Homes

Victorians viewed architecture as above all an expression of beauty. Andrew Jackson Downing, perhaps the single most influential American Victorian architect, separated this expression of beauty into three aspects: beauty of utility, or fitness; beauty of propriety, or expression of purpose; and beauty of form and sentiment, or expression of style.

Fitness in a dwelling refers to its primary function, that is, to provide shelter from the elements. Beauty is found in this regard in the utility and comfort a dwelling affords its inhabitants throughout the four seasons. To the Victorians, a home should at all times provide a temperate, dry, airy, and healthful environment to its inhabitants. This concept is to the modern mind ridiculously obvious, but prior to Victorian times people were satisfied if their houses merely kept them dry. A home's fitness was also judged by the degree to which the layout of rooms served the needs of its inhabitants, and contributed to their comfort. In other words, the inhabitants' natural mode of living should dictate the layout, not the other way around.

The Victorians found a certain beauty in a home that by its outward appearance expresses its purpose as a habitation for humans, as opposed to one for animals. It does this by its chimneys, its verandas, and the number and size of its windows, features that declare to the world, "This is a proper place for humans to live."

While the beauty of a house's fitness and propriety may be said to appeal to one's mind, the beauty of its appearance should appeal to one's soul. Victorians saw beauty in a house that conveys a sense of unity, of consistency in its form, style and ornamentation. They derived this concept from the forms of nature. A tree is composed of a trunk, branches, foliage, and (depending upon the season) flowers or fruits, yet one naturally views these various parts as a single entity, an organic whole, because its parts have a relationship that to the eye is innately appropriate. A house should present itself in the same manner, with a logic and consistency to its various parts that induce the beholder to view it, too, as an organic whole. Moreover, just as different trees may by their natural design radiate majesty, or friendliness, or whimsy, so may a house by its design and details radiate a certain personality. It is these qualities of organic wholeness and personality that appealed to the Victorian soul.

Why was this so? Why did the people of that time invest so much in the design of a mere dwelling? Downing answers this question rather definitively in the preface to his seminal work Cottage Residences (1842):

"It is in this regard that I wish to inspire all persons with a love of beautiful forms, and a desire to assemble them around their daily walks of life. I wish them to appreciate how superior is the charm of that home where we discover the tasteful cottage or villa, and the well designed and neatly kept garden or grounds, full of beauty and harmony,--not the less beautiful and harmonious, because simple and limited; and to become aware that these superior forms, and the higher and more refined enjoyment derived from them, may be had at the same cost and with the same labor as a clumsy dwelling, and its uncouth and ill-designed accessories.
"More than all, I desire to see these sentiments cherished for their pure moral tendency. 'All beauty is an outward expression of inward good,' and so closely are the Beautiful and the True allied, that we shall find, if we become sincere lovers of the grace, the harmony, and the loveliness with which rural homes and rural life are capable of being invested, that we are silently opening our hearts to an influence which is higher and deeper than the mere symbol; and that if we thus worship in the true spirit, we shall attain a nearer view of the Great Master, whose words, in all his material universe, are written in lines of Beauty.
"And how much happiness, how much pure pleasure, that strengthens and invigorates our best and holiest affections, is there not experienced in bestowing upon our homes something of grace and loveliness--in making the place dearest to our hearts a sunny spot, where the social sympathies take shelter securely under the shadowy eaves, or grow and entwine trustfully with the tall trees or wreathed vines that cluster around, as if striving to shut out whatever of bitterness or strife may be found in the open highways of the world. What an unfailing barrier against vice, immorality, and bad habits, are those tastes which lead us to embellish a home, to which at all times and in all places we turn with delight, as being the object and the scene of our fondest cares, labors and enjoyments; whose humble roof, whose shady porch, whose verdant lawn and smiling flowers, all breathe forth to us, in true, earnest tones, a domestic feeling that at once purifies the heart, and binds us more closely to our fellow-beings!"(1)
The Victorians saw the home as a place safe from the baser aspects of existence, wherein its inhabitants, in the process of surrounding themselves with beauty, might encourage their better nature, coming closer to their fellow man--and God--thereby.

One of the baser aspects of existence from which no middle-class Victorian home could ever really be safe was dirt. There were then few paved streets or walkways, and virtually none outside of cities, so dirt and dust were constant, unwelcome visitors. There were no vacuum cleaners to help in this battle, and one could not simply close the windows against the invasion, because windows were the only form of ventilation.

This consideration greatly influenced how Victorians utilized interior space. Dirt could not be banished, but it could be contained, which the Victorians did by compartmentalizing their houses to a much higher degree than has been the practice in this century. Each room in a Victorian house had a specific primary purpose which dictated its design, and there was a definite separation of public rooms (where visitors were allowed) from private rooms (which were the exclusive domain of the inhabitants). Most Victorian homes had both a formal parlor and a family parlor, and it was common practice to have two front doors: one for the family, and one for visitors which led directly into the formal parlor.

All these measures served to make it easier to maintain cleanliness, or at least the appearance of cleanliness to visitors. As long as the Victorian housewife kept the public rooms clean, she was always ready to receive guests, even if the rest of the house was a mess. What busy modern homemaker would not find this an appealing feature?

Aside from considerations of cleanliness, Victorian life was centered around the family. The typical middle-class Victorian home housed several generations of a family, and so at any given time a number of different activities was going on inside.

Picture a typical Saturday afternoon: Mother in the formal parlor visiting with a friend, Father in the family parlor, smoking his pipe and reading the paper, Grandma shelling peas for dinner out on the veranda, with Grandpa beside her enjoying a short snooze. The children are supposed to be studying their lessons in their rooms, but it is such a fine day that they have instead stolen out to the back yard to play. Later, we find Mother and Grandma in the kitchen fixing dinner, Grandpa with Father in the family parlor discussing the news of the day, and the children in the dining room setting the table. After dinner, they will all spend time together, perhaps in the family parlor, with Father and Grandpa playing a game of chess, Grandma knitting in her rocker, and Mother reading the children a story. Or maybe they will assemble around the spinet in the formal parlor to sing some songs while Mother plays. Afterwards, they will all retire upstairs to their bedrooms.

The Victorians found great utility and flexibility in their compartmentalized interiors. This arrangement accommodated the many activities of a large, busy family comfortably, and with a measure of privacy when they needed it. Simply put, it fit their lifestyle.

Next: A Brief History of The Farm House

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1. Downing, Andrew Jackson, Victorian Cottage Residences (1981: Dover Publications, Inc., New York), pp. viii-ix. Back to text