Furniture and Rooms with a Purpose

The dining table and chairs go in the dining room, the bed goes in the bedroom, right? Well, they do now, but that was not always so. Particularly for those who were not of the royalty or the aristocracy of England. Until the Regency.

Up to the last decade of the eighteenth century, the rooms of the house of a middle class English family typically did not have specific designations. Nor were their household furnishings, especially the furniture, made for a specific room or purpose. Any room in the house of this family might be used for any purpose, any piece of furniture put to whatever used was needed at the moment. The only room in this family’s house which did have a specific purpose was the kitchen. This had changed by the Regency.

By the time the Prince of Wales became Regent, the house of a middle class family in England would have had a dining room, a drawing room, perhaps a library, even a music room, and a number of bedrooms, as well as the kitchen. Should we step back though time to the home of this middle class English family, we would have no difficulty equating their use of space with ours.

There was essentially no middle class in England through the Middle Ages. Those not of the royal or aristocratic classes, such as peasants, servants, even clergy, lived communally in the great halls of their lords, in monasteries or in small one or two room huts clustered together as a village. But as the centuries progressed, a middle class began to emerge. By the end of the eighteenth century the middle class was a large and established sector of society, with its own economic power. And, though in its early days, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to make what were once luxury goods available to this increasingly prosperous middle class.

Even into the third quarter of the eighteenth century, a table was a table, it had no particular purpose, it was used in any way its owner needed at the moment. Breakfast might be taken upon it in the morning, and letters written upon it in the afternoon. Because rooms were all-purpose, most tables were made to fold down to a smaller size so they could be put out of the way, often against a wall when not needed. By the end of the eighteenth century, most middle class houses had a room designated for dining, and that room would contain a table made for the purpose. These new dining tables did not fold, there was no need. Since the room was only used for dining, the table was always open in the center of the room. An innovation introduced at about the time of the Regency was the dining table with leaves. Thus the table could be made longer or shorter as needed.

Chairs were only made in sets for the very wealthy until late in the eighteenth century. But by the Regency, the middle class family’s dining room not only had a purpose-built table, it also had a matching set of chairs around it. The Industrial Revolution reduced the cost of chairs in two ways. Treadle or water-powered lathes and other carving and finishing machines made it possible to substantially mechanize the production of the wooden chair parts. With mechanization and standardization, less highly skilled workers could assemble more chairs more quickly, thus reducing the cost. But the greatest cost reduction came with the advent of powered textile looms. Until the late eighteenth century, the most expensive part of an upholstered chair was not the wooden frame, it was the textile which covered it. Hand-woven textiles were extremely labor-intensive, and thus very costly. Machine-woven textiles meant more types of fabric, in a wider selection, for a significantly lower cost. So, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, when a family had a dinner party, they did not have to pull the table away from the wall, fold it out, and bring chairs from all over the house into the room where the meal would be taken. The room was always ready, with a set of furniture for just that purpose.

Another "public" room which became common in most middle class houses at about the same time as the dining room was the drawing room, sometimes called the parlor. This was a room in which the family could receive and entertain guests. As with dining room chairs, the furniture made for the drawing room could be made en suite for a reasonable cost. Protocol for an evening of conversation in the early years of the eighteenth century meant that chairs in the house would all be brought to one room and literally arranged in a large circle. The guests sat in this circle, facing all the other guests, and everyone participated in a single conversation. By the Regency, chairs, sofas and tables were arranged in small groups, clustered about the room, allowing for multiple conversations at a social gathering. If the family could not afford a separate music room, this room might also contain a piano, a harpsichord or even a harp, which would be available to entertain the family or any guests. The family’s books might also be displayed in this room, if they did not have the space for a separate bookroom or library.

By the early years of the nineteenth century, the "public" rooms of a house would be on the main floor, the floor above the basement. The "private" rooms of the family would be on the floor above the main floor. Typically, all the family bedrooms would be on this floor. If the family was particularly affluent, there might be separate dressing rooms for the master suite, even a small private parlor for the use of the family, or just the lady of the house. It is at this time that rooms which contain beds became bedrooms similar to our own. The dominant piece of furniture in this room was the bed. Other furniture might be bedside tables, a dressing table, looking glass, an armoire, or a chest of drawers. When needed, a bathtub would be brought into the bedchamber, as very few houses had separate rooms for bathing before the Victorian period. But bedchambers during the Regency were not typically used to entertain guests. The daughter of the house might retreat to her bedroom to share confidences with her closest girlfriend, her mother might indulge in a gossipy coze with her bosom bow in her dressing room. Only those on a very intimate footing with the family would penetrate above the main floor. Bedchambers were no longer used for formal entertaining, as they had routinely been in the previous century.

The presence of a bed was necessary to make a room a bedchamber. Most beds were about the same size as a modern-day double bed, but there was no standardization of either mattresses or bed frames at this time. A mattress was made very much like a large pillow. It comprised two layers of a sturdy fabric sewn together and stuffed with whatever the owner could afford. From the Middle Ages mattresses had been stuffed with sawdust, straw, wool flocking or various types of feathers. By the Regency, the best beds usually had more than one mattress. Most common was a bottom mattress of wool flocking (waste wool fibers too short to be spun into thread), which was firm, and an upper mattress stuffed with feathers, which was softer. These mattresses rested on a lattice-work of rope which was strung through holes in the bed frame drilled for that purpose. The tension in these ropes would partially control the firmness of the bed. Each house would have a special tool which was used to tighten the ropes when needed. This need to tighten the bed frame ropes is believed to be the origin of the phrase "Sleep tight."

The textile mills of industrial Britain and the increasing prosperity of the middle class both contributed to the expanding wardrobe these families had to store. Closets as we know them were not typically built into rooms at this time, so chests-of-drawers or armoires were needed to store those garments not currently in use. With the exception of the master suite, bedrooms typically did not have a separate dressing room, so the room’s occupant dressed in their bedchamber. Therefore, the furniture used for clothing storage and for dressing were situated in the bedroom. The technology for making large sheets of flat glass had matured by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The technique of silvering glass had also been perfected. Thus, large looking glasses were becoming a regular feature of most dressing tables. Before the end of the eighteenth century, many people lived and died without ever seeing their complete reflection.

One of the major reasons that I particularly like reading novels set in the Regency period is because I find that period far enough in the past to be different, but not so far back that it is completely alien to my own experience. I could never read a romance novel with a Medieval setting, because I know too much of the crude, brutal, ignorant, filthy reality of that time. Even in my imagination, I would find the milieu repulsive. For the same reason, I seldom read novels set before the mid-Georgian period, as those centuries are still too removed from a time when daily life had the amenities which I enjoy. By the mid-eighteenth century in England, the very wealthy already possessed many of the things which the middle classes would enjoy by the Regency. I could happily live in the Regency world, so long as I had enough money and servants, in a domestic sphere similar enough to my own that it would be quite comfortable, even if only in my imagination.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to Furniture and Rooms with a Purpose

  1. Azy says:

    I’m getting addicted to this blog. (Is this even a blog? No offense if it’s more than that.) But there’s something I really want to know about: bathrooms. I mean, I know you said very few homes had em, but that leads me to believe that at least some did. What were they called? What were they like? Were there any sort of specifics? And while I know siphon-flush toilets weren’t invented til later, were there any precursors in Regency England? Man, gotta have me a toilet in any era. I couldn’t imagine using a chamber pot! Blech!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, I suppose it is a blog, but I really hate that word, it looks and sounds so ugly. I think of the Redingote as my online Regency history notebook.

      I am still trying to sort out what people called the rooms in which they bathed in times past. Some were called bathrooms, but I have also come across references to “shower rooms,” which seem to be small rooms in which a rig like the modern shower had been installed. A few folks even had what amount to hot tubs. They had rooms with a smallish tiled pool that was heated by various means. These seem to have been installed by the very rich, either ill with something like gout, or just major hypochondriacs. Still trying to get more detail on that, too.

      So far as I know, there were no flush toilets of any type in Regency England. The chamber pot was pretty much it. The problem was that, even if any kind of flush toilet had been invented, it also needed a sewer system to support it, and that did not really happen until Victorian times. Which is not to say that some really wealthy, forward-thinking person could not have invented one, installed it at their country estate, and also invented something like a septic tank to deal with the output. But that would have been an extremely rare occurrence and certainly localized to that one property.

      The English tend to be very conservative, and change always came slowly. If the chamber pot was working, they were good with it. And, since the chamber pot was easier to use for men, they were not as motivated to improve the “facilities.” I guess we must be grateful for the advances we now enjoy in that area.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Azy says:

    P.S. I’m down with you on that medieval thing. I hate reading or writing that era cause those folks had it hard. I can’t suspend my disbelief long enough to accept there would be anything remotely romantic about the black death, religious persecution, rampant and extreme sexism, bad medicine, witch-smellers and pooping in public ditches. They called it the dark ages for a reason.

    Nahhhhh! Forget that. I might could go back farther to like Greece or Rome or something, and that’s cause at least they had running water and baths. (Might could go… You must think me an idiot. Hahaha!)

    Take care,
    Azy!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I do not think you an idiot at all. For as long as I have been studying history, it has always been something I consider. Would I like to live in those times? Particularly as a women, since few early periods offered women anywhere near the same rights we enjoy today.

      Ancient Greece or Rome might be habitable, as they had very high standards of sanitation, compared to what came after. Though I am not too sure I would enjoy eating stuffed and roasted door-mice or grilled eel. Unless you were a very wealthy noble or churchman, life in the Middle Ages was brutal, dirty, mired in superstition, and perhaps, mercifully, short. As one of my friends once said about yuppies, I would not want the life of anyone from medieval times, though some of their stuff is cool. But not cool enough to be worth having to live in that time.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Pingback: The Regency — The Apotheosis of the Sideboard | The Regency Redingote

  4. U K says:

    Dear Kathryn,
    I came across this post recently, which is ages after it was published. I find it informative as well as interesting.
    However, I have a query. I have read that it was common in Georgian and Victorian times for a man and wife to have separate bedchambers, sometimes connected by a commin dressing room. Is this true? If yes, then would it not be impractical?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It was perfectly true and not at all impractical. Very few marriages were love matches before the Regency, and even during that decade, quite a number of upper-class marriages were arranged. The couple often did not love one another and there were even a few who hated each other. They had absolutely no interest in sharing a bed, or even a room, any longer than they had to, and then, only for the purpose of procreation. And, many of those suites were in houses built during the eighteenth century, when ladies often entertained in their boudoir, so her bedchamber also served as a kind of sitting or morning room.

      Even for those couples who loved each other, separate rooms were de rigueur for those with any pretensions to the upper class. Separate bedchambers had been the rule for the members of the aristocracy and gentry for at least two centuries by the Regency and having a suite for the master and mistress of the house was an important status symbol. Never underestimate the importance of status and social pretensions among humans! Couples who loved one another may well have spent an entire night in the same bed, either his or hers, but even they might scamper back to their respective bedchambers before the servants turned up, in order to preserve appearances.

      Middle- and lower-class married couples would typically share the same bed. However, in their case, marriages were not part of an overarching dynastic plan, so those folks were usually free to marry for love. In lower class households, there might only be one bedroom and the whole family slept there, mother, father and the children. But that was not the case with the upper classes. Even though it was certainly more expensive to maintain such a suite of rooms, they would never consider doing otherwise.

      I hope that helps to clarify. Thanks for stopping by, and please let me know if you have any other questions.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. Pingback: Of Knife-Cases and Knife-Boxes | The Regency Redingote

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