Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture
Temple University Press
, Feb 1, 1995
- 280 pages
In this provocative look at Victorian America, Kenneth Ames explores the minds of Victorians by examining some of their most distinctive and fascinating creations. Featuring five once-prominent home furnishings, he reconstructs a vanished culture and demonstrates the centrality of the artifact to historical understanding. Richly illustrated with photographs of surviving objects as well as images from a wide variety of period sources, the five essays discuss specific pieces—hallstands, sideboards, embroidered mottoes, parlor organs, and seating furniture—within the context of broader cultural issues and concerns. Ames reveals not only the major outlines of Victorian culture but also the conflicts and tensions deep within that culture.
An extraordinary proliferation of goods characterizes the Victorian world. Throughout the study, Ames considers the relationship of some of these household objects to issues of class, gender, and place. For example, the importance of public image was dramatized by the rituals of the front hall in Victorian homes: its placement within the house, the massive hallstand with its receptacles for calling cards and umbrellas, accommodations for temporary and usually uncomfortable seating. The dining room was a shrine to the notion of "man's" dominion over nature—each elaborately carved sideboard displayed a frieze of slaughtered game and harvested vegetation. Parlor organs, a blending of the sacred and the profane, provided an occasion to display feminine accomplishment and to symbolize the role of the bourgeois Christian lady. Ames also discusses how the prevailing class and gender hierarchy was echoed in the posture of seating furniture and its arrangement.
The author is one of the premier interpreters of Victorian culture in America. His witty, provocative, and irreverent commentary on the "quaint" fixtures of the Victorian household will fascinate scholars, antique buffs, and collectors on nostalgia. Author note: Kenneth L. Ames is Chief of Historical and Anthropological Surveys at the New York State Museum and was formerly Chair of the Office of Advanced Studies at the Winterthur Museum.