The history of Victorian houses is a fascinating one, and it’s one told by a rising middle class, rising affluence, snobbery, and the need to differentiate. The history of a Victorian house is the history of rooms.
For this essay, I will walk through a typical, middle-class, detached Victorian home. Homes of the very wealthy were laid out much the same, but with bigger spaces and more rooms for each function. Homes of the poor, and pioneers during this time were usually 1 or 2 rooms where everyone lived, ate, and slept.
What was so amazing about the Victorian times was the sudden boom of growth and a better class of living that became available to more people than ever before. For the first time homes were being built with indoor plumbing, central heat (without burning wood), hot and cold water on tap, electricity, and telephone service.
I am going to write this essay as a tour. Follow along as we go through a house and learn all about Victorians and their rooms.
First, an overall view of a typical Victorian house. We will use a Queen Anne house as our model. The front of the house and the side (if any) that faces the public street were the most important on the outside. Typically the most money would have been spent on the decorations here. The backs of Victorians are stark and look much like vernacular farm houses. What was seen by visitors was the most important, and that follows true for the entire house- inside and out in Victorian times. In the inside the important rooms- rooms visitors would see and rooms used by the master and misses- were given prime treatment and decorated at a higher cost. Guest rooms, children’s rooms, working, and servant areas are often quite utilitarian and stark. The front rooms were the best and the back rooms were the least. Also, the higher up you went in the house the less likely the rooms are to be fancy. In my own Free-Classic Queen Anne the third floor (which we think housed the nurseries for the family’s children), although still lovely, was constructed with lesser-grade finish trim and lower-grade door knobs.
To the Victorians this differentiation between public and private, living and working, master and servant areas drove all house design. Only one other thing would be taken into similar consideration- heat and cool. The Victorians were mastering heat and had, in fact invented central steam heating. But the struggle in the summers was almost unbearable. There would be no air-conditioning for many more decades (this could have made the Victorian era perfect!), and dealing with the heat was a major problem. If you have ever wondered why Victorian houses are so hard to heat and cool and why they have so many walls and doors- this is why.
The Victorians built their homes as best as they could to deal with summer’s heat. With high ceilings (heat rises), transom windows over doors (heat can move out of a room), and over-large windows (for breezes) these homes utilized air-flow to stay cool. But most have a secret- you can usually open the doors downstairs and upstairs along with the windows upstairs (especially in stair-wells) to create a vacuum that lets cool air in downstairs and lets hot air out upstairs. This would be very important in the night and early morning to get the house cooled off for the coming heat of the later daylight hours.
In the winter it was easier to heat these homes than it was to cool them in the summer thus the high ceilings aren’t fun when it is cold. Heat was readily available with wood, coal, and even oil, but there were no window units! Now, let’s go on our tour…
The front porch was the starting point for most visitors. In the Victorian era it was considered a “buffer-zone” between inside and out. It also served as an outdoor parlor (living room) in the hotter months. The front door would usually be the grandest on the house with the nicest hardware. Typically there would be another buffer zone after entering where visitors could hang hats, or leave a card. This hall, or entryway was usually quite grand and the front staircase was situated in this prime real estate.
After entering the home you would be shown into the parlor (or formal parlor- most families had two, the other was more of a family room or a library). If you are wondering which room is your formal parlor in your Victorian, look at the front room that sticks out the most on the outside- that is probably it. Also the master bedroom was normally right over the formal parlor on the second floor. No expense would be spared in this room and everything would have been done to show conspicuous consumption and to impress guests with money and taste. The woodwork and trim was the best here, the furnishings, the drapes, the ornaments, everything. Often his room was not used by the family (maybe on Sundays) and was carried by the home as a sort of museum to who it’s owners were, or what they wanted the public to see.
The informal parlor or library was not often used for visitors, but by the family. Here the woodwork, though still nice, would have been one step down from the formal parlor, and the furnishings were often the old set that had been in the formal parlor, but had either become too shabby or too out-of-date.
The dining room was another very formal room because the Victorians loved to show off and what better way to do that than by throwing elaborate dinner parties? The dining room often had sumptuous decor and the family would have their expensive china and silver (or silver plate) on display here. Some larger homes also had a breakfast room by the dining room. The dining room had a door that led to another world. This same world could be accessed beyond the front staircase as well. Behind these doors was the machinery that ran the entire operation- the working and servants areas.
Before we move to that world, a quick note about bathrooms. Some houses had indoor baths added later and some were built with baths. Victorians had a love/hate relationship with bathrooms (they loved the ease of use, but hated the issue of indoor toilets), and bathrooms don’t always follow typical house layouts. Most of the time, in a two-story house there will be one main bath on the first floor, toward the back, away form the formal rooms. In wealthier families, the bath downstairs was only a toilet and sink, while the full bath was upstairs for more privacy and bathing. This was common especially when servants lived in the home. The servants would use the downstairs bath (and sometimes were still directed to use the outhouse!) and the family the upstairs. In our home we had a half bath downstairs, a full upstairs, and a toilet in the maid’s quarters above the carriage house (no evidence of a sink or tub there though!).
Through the dining room door would lie the butler’s pantry, then the kitchen. The pantry would be where the china and silver was stored and a lot of the washing up was typically done here. Once in the butler’s pantry the trim and decor became very utilitarian, and often times even painted white for cleanliness, or to hide the inferior-grade wood trim. Through the butler’s pantry was the kitchen, the room that fascinates me the most.
Kitchens changed drastically between the Victorian age and WWI. The loss of servants was a monumental shift in how work was done to keep up a lavish lifestyle. Before having to work in your own kitchen most families did not care how it was decorated or if it was laid out well, or if it had up-to-date technology. Most kitchens did have the new technology of better ranges (some with attached water-heaters) and running water. This cut down drastically on the work, but soot from a coal vs. a wood fire was still prevalent in making homes dirty (even filthy!). (This was a major problem and when gas and electric ranges were offered at last, the public flocked to them because of their cleanliness.) In this room big windows were utilized for light, it was always situated in the back of the house to keep cooking smells away from the best furniture and drapes. Also delivery people, including the daily ice man made calls at the back of the house. Servants were not to be seen so they were in the back. This included their own staircase so as not to run into their masters. The kitchen was typical of the bathroom in that white was the most popular color (an all-white sanitary bath and kitchen were the most common designs). The wood trim was very simple, painted white, and linoleum protected the wood floorboards from water and coals from the range. There were no cabinets until the Hoosier came along, but there was usually a pantry and an icebox. In the center of the kitchen was a big deal table. There were usually chairs, including a rocking chair where servants could sit to do jobs such as peeling potatoes.
Now we can go upstairs either by the back/servant’s stairs or by the front stairs. The back stairs will take you to the back of the house, while the front stairs… well you get the picture. Gotta keep those servants away from the front! For this tour we will go back to the front hall and use the front stairs. The back stairs were often quite treacherous, twisty, steep, and turny- being shoved almost as an afterthought into the house.
Upstairs the most important room belongs to the master and in it the woodwork is fine, it it situated over the formal parlor and the interior and exterior decoration give witness to the importance of the person living here. As you move farther back into the house, passing guest and children’s rooms, they will get plainer or stay plain from here on out. No one sees (or is supposed to see) these rooms. They are not public. There is no need to dress them up. They are, however, still charming- no doubt. The Victorians were very good at charm and it shows. After all, they were the first people to invent the nursery and actively encourage children to play and be children. Whimsy can be found in unexpected places, especially under the roof lines of the upper-stories, where niches, window seats, and small closets beckon children and their imaginations.
But there is another side to this “lovely childhood.” Children were still to be seen and not heard, which was the job of servants. And since children are boisterous and loud by nature they were given rooms at the back of the house or at the top- much on the same class level as servants! So putting your children in the attic was not unheard of and many larger mansions and homes had a whole network of rooms for children at the top- schoolroom, day and night nurseries, and the governess’ room.
Sometimes, the third floor was given over completely to children’s rooms, sometimes to a ballroom for entertaining, sometimes to servant’s rooms, more often than not, it was a combination of these. As you descend the back stairs down to the 21st century again keep these pieces of information in mind the next time you tour a Victorian- it will make it a little easier to see and understand why houses like these were built, and hopefully, thankful that they are still with us.