Geffrye Museum is a “museum of home” that presents over 400 years of urban middle class living in England. They partnered with GoCompare to make a virtual tour of the museum that allows the users to explore how the middling sort used to live. This article is courtesy of The Geffrye Museum Tour by Go Compare.
See 11 English living rooms from different historical eras on this virtual tour below. There are also descriptions of each on this page:
Do you know why we talk about the drawing room? When were elaborate curtains and embellish furniture fashionable? What is a what-not, or a ‘looking glass’? A peek into English living rooms reveals how the way we live has changed.
1. A hall in the City of London in 1630
A hall was the main living space where the family and household would spend most of their time. In an early 1600s home it was a room full of life and people. The hall was used as a dining space and as a reception room for guests and visitors. The hall was a relatively public space, whereas chambers were used when more privacy was needed.
2. A parlour in Soho in 1695
Most of London houses were destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666. An intense period of rebuilding followed and with that new fashions were introduced. Most homes were of three or four floors. The main living space in these new houses of called a parlour. The parlour was the largest room of the house, normally located on the first floor with windows overlooking the street. Sash windows came into fashion after the fire.
The parlour was a more private room than the hall in the beginning of the 1600s – only reserved for the family and their guests. It was important for the middling classes to be able to entertain their guests in a suitable manner as this showed style, good taste and status. New items in the middle-class homes were clocks and mirrors that were called ‘glasses’ or ‘looking glasses´.
3. A parlour in Covent Garden in 1745
In the eighteenth century a typical urban English townhouse changed very little. The parlour was the main living space and reception room for guests. A set of chairs and a folding table for dining were the core pieces of furniture in the room. At the time, fashionable hot drinks such as chocolate, coffee and tea, were introduced to wealthy urban elite. The crockery sets for consuming these drinks were still somewhat of a luxury but sought-after. Being able to serve a cup of tea from Chinese porcelain cups to guests was definitely a sign of status and hospitality which were of great importance for the middling sorts. Still it was thought that one’s home shouldn’t be extravagant or showy.
4. A parlour in 1790
The late eighteenth century saw changes in the decorative style of the main living room. The wooden panelled walls were history, as the middle-class wanted to have flat walls with stylish wallpaper or paint. The walls were only panelled to the height of the dado rail. The choice of colour was white, for both panels and windows. The living room was to look light and neat. Many chose to have a carpet as it had become more affordable when the manufacturing had moved from overseas to England and Scotland. The fitted cast-iron ‘stove grate’ was a more efficient way to heat the house than the old free-standing models. Porcelain and glassware were used to decorate the room.
5. A drawing room in Clapham in 1830
The term ‘withdrawing room’ was first used by upper classes to describe a room where people withdrew after having dinner. When middle classes became wealthier and were able to afford a room only designated for dining, the term use of the term spread. It was later shortened to drawing room.
During the day, the drawing room was used by the lady of the house and her guests who would gather there to have a conversation or to enjoy some light refreshments. The family would also use the room for a variety of activities, such as reading, sketching and playing games or musical instruments. In the evenings the diners would retire to drawing room that was beautifully lit with candles.
In this period decorating became a thing, with the term ‘interior decoration’ being introduced in 1807. A growing number of magazines would offer advice on this topic. A typical drawing room would have a circular centre table surrounded with upholstered sofas and chairs, accompanied with smaller tables that were used for writing, sewing, playing board games and sketching. Panels were no longer fashionable, instead walls were covered with wallpaper or paint. The overall style of furniture was classical, often with references to ancient Greek forms. The drawing room was decorative space with comfortable seating and a number of textiles with fashionable patterns.
6. A Victorian drawing room in 1870
The Victorian living room had moved from the first floor to the ground floor, as in the nineteenth century most homes were built in quiet residential areas and there was no need to protect the room from the noise of the street. The drawing room was a haven of comfort, created and lovingly looked after by the lady of the house.
A Victorian drawing room typically had deep-buttoned upholstery, voluminous curtains, fitted carpeting, embellished furniture and plenty of pictures and decorative items. The fireplace was the centrepiece of the room, with a mantelpiece for display of ornaments and an overmantel mirror. The drawing room still served as the main reception area of the house but by this time it wasn’t the only room used for this purpose as many middle-class families had houses with a morning room, a parlour and a study.
A writing table and a ‘whatnot’ – a small high three-tiered stand used for displaying items – were new additions to the living room furniture.
7. An aesthetic drawing room in 1890
The 1890s saw a reaction against mainstream Victorian taste; it came to be known as the Aesthetic Movement. The Aesthetic movement favoured a more pure and simple style rather than the Victorian style with excessive decorations. People were inspired by articles and published manuals on how to create an ‘artistic’ interior.
8. A drawing room in 1910 (Edwardian suburban house)
The decorative style of Edwardian suburban home was influenced by the revival of the Queen Anne style as well as the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Many Edwardian suburban houses would have a ‘living hall’ that would have a fireplace and some furniture, with doors and stairs giving access to all parts of the house. In this house the room is small but nevertheless there. The drawing room is furnished comfortably for family use, rather than showcasing the family’s status and taste to visitors. The increasing use of terms ‘living room’ and ‘sitting room’ reflected this change.
Sunlight and fresh air were seen important, and often the drawing room would have French windows opening to the garden. In comparison to Victorian home, the Edwardian style was moderate with less pattern and lighter, more muted colours with fewer pieces of furniture.
9. A living room in 1935
In the start of the 20th century an urban flat was something new and exciting, definitely a fashionable choice. At the time, a suburban townhouse would often be cheaper but a flat had little or no maintenance and offered convenience and a modern lifestyle. Flats were preferred especially by well-off couples with no children.
The architectural style of these urban flats was either modernist or neo-Georgian. The interior was minimalist, with pale colours and only a few pieces of furniture. Compact chairs and settees were low and large, offering comfort for the residents. Fireplaces were still common even though many flats had central heating. City dwellers would listen to radio or gramophone in the evening.
10. A living room in 1965
New townhouses were modernist in style. Open-plan solutions were preferred over small rooms. The interior was designed with this in mind. Scandinavian furniture, or English done in the similar style, was considered to be good design. Clean and simple lines and use of natural materials defined the style. Walls and ceiling were often white, and wooden parquet floor would be covered with a patterned rug. Lack of space encouraged to come up with creative storage solutions. Unit furniture for storage and display was introduced.
1960’s was the time when many households got their first television. So the TV came to compete with the fireplace of focus of the room. Low coffee tables came with the TV: it was designed to offer a good view of the television and to provide a surface for magazines, drinks and snacks.
11. A loft-style apartment in 1998
Loft-style building started in London in 1970’s and 80’s after the example set by the New York City. The closure of London docks combined with the growth of the financial sector created suitable conditions for converting old warehouses into apartments. Clerkenwell and Shoreditch were also among the areas where commercial buildings were redeveloped into flats.
Loft apartments played with industrial aesthetics, showing the building elements and hard, plain surfaces. Open-plan apartments had only a few carefully selected pieces of furniture, either mid-twentieth century classics or contemporary design icons. Space – either real or illusionary – was the defining feature of the apartment. Furniture was often organised in its own groups to create a feeling of different rooms in a single space.
Lofts appealed especially to wealthy young professionals, to so-called Yuppies as well as Dinkys (double income no kids yet).