Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The "Best Room"


"Mrs. Blackett was one who knew the uses of a parlor."

Upon rereading Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of Pointed Firs, I was intrigued by the description of a "best room." The writer goes with a friend to visit the friend's mother, an elderly Mrs. Blackett, on a remote island off the coast of Maine.
"The front door stood hospitably open in expectation of company, and an orderly vine grew at each side, but our path led to the kitchen door at the house-end, ... "It seems kind o' formal coming' in this way,' said Mrs. Todd impulsively, as we passed the flowers and came to the front doorstep; but she was mindful of the proprieties and walked us into the best room on the left. Mrs. Todd ... loomed larger than ever in the little old-fashioned best room, with its few pieces of good furniture and pictures of national interest.... There were empty glass lamps and crystallized bouquests of grass and some fine shells on the narrow mantelpiece."


The presence of the guest room in this small country house indicates the differentiation prevalent in the 19th century between the part of the house used for social occasions and the part of the house used for family activities, beginning with eating and cooking in the kitchen.


A country house typical of south-central Pennsylvania, with two front doors, side by side: one for guests and one for the family.

Indeed, in southern central Pennsylvania, it is common to see older homes with two front doors, a tradition among the German families of the area, although not one brought from their original homeland. One door leads to the kitchen and "family room"--where the family conducts its business. The other door leads to the parlor--or best room--which is reserved for guests. This offers two ways of honoring those who are not members of the immediate family: the guest is honored, as in The Country of Pointed Firs, by being ushered into the "best room" but the closeness of the friendship may be honored by bringing the guest eventually into the kitchen and family area.

This tradition was lost in the early decades of the 20th century, when the house size shrunk due to the loss of the labor force of hired domestics. The bungalow, the post-war rambler, rowhouses, the cape cod, and the duplex often have no such differentiation. My first childhood home was a bungalow, where the front door led right into the living room. The remaining rooms on the first floor were the dining room, kitchen, and a very small study. In the duplex I lived in with my grandparents, the front door led straight into the living room, to the dining room, to the kitchen in the back where there was a breakfast nook. (My grandparents used the nook strictly for daytime dining except for Sunday supper--all dinners were served in the dining room.)

In the latter part of the 20th century, the "den" and then the "family room" emerged as back rooms in the house, with the living room and dining room reserved for guests. In my mother's house, family members--mostly my father--used the living room for reading, but otherwise both the living room and dining room were reserved for guests, the breakfast nook in the kitchen serving for all family meals, including dinner. The idea of doing homework on the dining room table was shocking--we never touched the dining room. Close neighbors entered the house through the back kitchen door, as did frequently visiting friends. Extended family relatives and infrequent guests arrived through the front door. The family worked and played mostly in the back of the house, in two adjoining rooms where the TV--our modern-day hearth--resided.

For their growing family, our next-door neighbors built a family dining room and tv room coming off an open kitchen in the back of their home. In this layout, the mother could have her eyes on her children from the vantage of the centered kitchen--very convenient. Although I have popped over to their house many times, I have never laid eyes on their "best room" dining and living rooms.


The modern kitchen onto the family room--a very nice arrangement that allows the mother to keep track of children and enables comfortable discussion with the cook. This area is separated from the "best rooms," which are usually in the front of the house.

The distinction between the "best rooms" and the family rooms is now very pronounced in much home building. In townhouses, there may be a bumpout for a small family room off the kitchen, and family room space in the basement seems to be mandatory. Teenagers especially like that arrangement since it affords them the greatest privacy. In most single-family homes, a family room--often with a fireplace--extends off the kitchen.

However, it has been noted that at parties, everyone gravitates toward the kitchen and that the kitchen is often the most social part of the house. In recognition of this, for instance, my brother designed his home so that the kitchen extends along the living room with a bar open to the living room, so guests can seat themselves and chat with the cook. This is the great room concept that is also very common on vacation homes, where everyone is gathering together to have fun. I have also come across townhouses that lead from a garage floor up the stairs and straight into the kitchen, with the dining room and living room on either side.

Gravitating toward the kitchen was also true for Mrs. Blackett's house in Maine:

We were all moving toward the kitchen, as if by common instinct. The best room was too suggestive of serious occasions, and the shades were all pulled down to shut out the summer light and air. It was indeed a tribute to Society to find a room set apart for her behests out there on so apparently neighborless and remote an island. Afternoon visits and evening festivals must be few in such a bleak situation at certain seasons of the year, but Mrs. Blackett was of those who do not live to themselves, and who have long since passed the line that divides mere self-concern from a valued share in whatever Society can give and take. There were those of her neighbors who never had taken the trouble to furnish a best room, but Mrs. Blackett was one who knew the uses of a parlor.

'Yes, do come right out into the old kitchen; I shan't make any stranger of you," she invited us pleasantly, after we had been properly received in the room appointed to formality.

6 comments:

Nan said...

Oh, this is a wonderful, wonderful post. First of all, I love Country of the Pointed Firs. I've read it a few times. I had hoped to visit Jewett's home this summer, but it didn't work out.

http://www.spnea.org/visit/homes/jewett.htm

A while ago, I bought the nice Barnes & Noble edition of the book and plan to read it yet again soon.

http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-Country-of-the-Pointed-Firs-and-Selected-Short-Fiction/Sarah-Orne-Jewett/e/9781593082628/?PV=y&cds2Pid=19271

I also grew up in a bungalow with the front door off the front porch opening right into the living room. There was a side door that came into the kitchen from the driveway. I think a lot of side doors may have come when the car became more prevalent. You'd want to get out of the car and carry your groceries right into the kitchen perhaps. The old farmhouse we are in now has a side door into the kitchen from the vegetable garden, but our main door really is the front door opening into the hall from the terrace. I have never had a 'rec' room or family room. I wouldn't know what to do with two living rooms.:<) Our living room is really our 'living' room.

Anyhow I just loved this post.

Tessa said...

I loved Jewett's calling the "best room" a "tribute to Society," a shrine to ideals of neighborliness, hospitality, and proper form, while recognizing that you have to violate the rules (by letting folks into your kitchen) in order to truly fulfill them.

Until our last move we've always had houses with a "living room" that we ended up using only for entertaining, while the real life of the family went on in the kitchen, bedrooms, and TV room. Our last house additionally had a formal dining room that was truly dead space, used only for dinner parties. One of the pleasures of living in our current tiny house is that we really do live in the living room and eat every meal in the dining room, because there's no place else to go. To me that's very satisfying.

However, while house-hunting we saw a lot of houses with big "family rooms" clearly used for living alongside dining and living rooms that were clearly for show and never entered except to dust. (Along with the gigantic granite-clad kitchens where little real cooking apparently went on). These highly decorated "best rooms" seemed very ostentatious and soul-less--not as charming as Mrs. Blackett's genuflection to the proprieties. Dead spaces like these, shiny and unused, always remind me of a woman I met years ago who'd grown up in a compulsively tidy Iowa family with a grandmother who forced everyone to live in the basement, including eating food from a little camp sort of kitchen down there, so that the kitchen, living room, and the rest of the large house upstairs wouldn't "get dirty." They were allowed to go upstairs and sleep in their bedrooms, but sleep only: all study, play, etc. went on in the basement to keep the "real" house unspoiled. The moral of that story, to my mind, is that there are worse things than being untidy.

Aron said...

I've lived in a variety of homes; some with more formal spaces for receiving guests and some not. Oddly enough, my first childhood home was a very old farmhouse that did not have a formal parlour (older, Maritime spelling, lol), but a large dining-room just off a huge kitchen. My grand-parents did indeed have a "formal" dining room, but it saw much use despite the fact. Having a LARGE extended (back in the day) family will do that. Regardless of where and how we lived, though, everyone ALWAYS ended up in the kitchen sooner or later. One misses those old-time, old fashioned " kitchen-parties," one's relative youth and veneer of education notwithstanding. :D
~Aron <><

Aron said...

I've lived in a variety of homes; some with more formal spaces for receiving guests and some not. Oddly enough, my first childhood home was a very old farmhouse that did not have a formal parlour (older, Maritime spelling, lol), but a large dining-room just off a huge kitchen. My grand-parents did indeed have a "formal" dining room, but it saw much use despite the fact. Having a LARGE extended (back in the day) family will do that. Regardless of where and how we lived, though, everyone ALWAYS ended up in the kitchen sooner or later. One misses those old-time, old fashioned " kitchen-parties," one's relative youth and veneer of education notwithstanding. :D
~Aron <><

Carla Gade said...

Wonderful post! How interesting.

B_Graham said...

Thanks for turning me on to your blog. I love your writing!