Why did Victorians have parlors and what did they use them for? I hate to say they were lovably naive–but then so are we, when we think that humanity can improve itself. Wait, you say, is this going to be some morbid essay on the depravity of man? I don’t think so, so let me finish. The Victorians were on to something when they romanticized the family and it’s civilizing tendencies. They kept a parlor table and on it there were books and little bits of nature and postcards depicting amazing geography and gloriously built ancient ruins . . .but there you have it. Ruins. It happens, doesn’t it? The Gilded Age people I know and love, fell into a trap that we all fall into–if I may be so presumptuous to include the reader–we begin seeing beauty and we take hold of it–a smooth stone, a fern branch, a gemstone. We feel a little tug of awe in our hearts and wonder how did this beauty happen? We place it on the parlor table or the curio shelf we bought in college from Ikea. As children we see the beauty of creation and for the rest of our lives we run after it. The trap is thinking that we can create the perfection we see around us. Improvement is a crazy word when taken too far. The Victorians were perfectionists (and so am I). Have you ever noticed that perfectionist bosses can be demanding and vicious? Most of the “Robber Barons” grew up in poverty. So who do we hate–the rich or the poor if a Carnegie or a Gould was actually both? Which progressive ideal of the late Gilded Age has done away with poverty or suffering? If it wasn’t for the titans of industry there would be no Metropolitan Museum of Art–free to everyone (okay, some people could care less about Manet–but it was the idea of improving the masses that led to the museums). JP Morgan was a hopeless romantic behind his nose. What am I saying here? Only that everyone throughout time has been flawed and messy (which I happen to love despite it all). I’m all for improving oneself with a good book or rightfully protesting the underground sex slave trade, but even after all of these centuries of “progress” we still have a very difficult time loving our flawed neighbors. I wonder why that is?
A great book for your reading pleasure: The Victorian Homefront: American Thought and Culture 1860-1880 by Louise L. Stevenson