“The Fuse Box” supplies readers with an overview of the history of lighting and heating. Bryson focuses on specific types of energy sources such as gas and individuals involved in developing new lighting and heating technologies such as Thomas Edison. Bryson describes Edison as “not a wholly attractive human being,” noting that Edison “stole” patents and manipulated the press (130). Perhaps this explains why my father, whose family is of Croatian descent, had grown up learning that Franjo Hanaman, a Croatian man, was the inventor of the light bulb (and not Edison). Either way, this discrepancy highlights the fact that technological advances are nuanced and attributable to many people, something that can be difficult to highlight in a book with such a broad interpretive framework.
But enough about the fuse box. At the start of the chapter on the drawing room (in many American contexts, this room became known as the parlor and later, the living room), Bryson summarizes the history of private life as “a history of getting comfortable slowly” (135). Despite this statement, Bryson does not discuss the history of comfort at length. Instead, after a foray into the history of professional architects and some elite building efforts gone wrong, Bryson presents a superficial summary of the cabinetmaking trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He cites the ever popular furniture design books issued by Thomas Chippendale (1718-1799), George Hepplewhite (1727?-1786), and Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) as a means through which to comprehend the expanding professional class's relationship to the expanding market for household objects during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While these design sources were very influential and remain important touchstones in the field today, Bryson misses the opportunity to interpret design sources that would have been popular around the time that his home was built in 1851 and to explore how his house illuminates the narrative's larger themes.1
Bryson’s home, which was designed by Edward Tull of Aylsham, was inhabited by a member of the mid nineteenth-century professional class: a clergyman, Thomas John Gordon Marsham (13). We cannot be sure how the drawing room in this "cautiously Gothic" home was used, as this home seems to have included a drawing room as well as a more formal parlor for less intimate socializing (13).2 We also do not know how the home was decorated. Did its furnishings reflect its "cautiously Gothic" exterior? Without this information, we can use the year in which it was built--1851--as a jumping off point for thinking about what print culture (such as prescriptive literature addressing home decor or furniture design sources) or events (such as international exhibitions) may have influenced the ways in which the original owner or his contemporaries lived their private lives.
Based on a survey of extant printed sources at the Winterthur Library, the 1850s was a transitional period for domestic interior decoration print culture. Compared to the late nineteenth century, relatively few examples of European English-language prescriptive literature that specifically address home decoration were published in the 1850s. Therefore, we must look to publications conceived in the tradition of Chippendale et. al. that feature furniture designs.
What was the height of furniture fashion in the 1850s, and would we expect to find it in these furniture design books? Snodin and Styles note that mid nineteenth-century interior decoration trends and popular taste more generally can be characterized as the “battle of the styles”—or, an era in which consumers could select furnishings designed in any number of styles. After the 1851 Exhibition, they explain, the Gothic, or “design reform” more generally, exploded.3 Thus, when Bryson’s house was built in 1851, cutting edge design featured the “gothic revival” aesthetic, as represented by this table at the Victoria & Albert Museum.4
Despite the vogue for Gothic taste, many consumers resisted full-blown manifestations of Gothic aesthetics and continued to embrace rococo or baroque motifs rather than more restrained Gothic design motifs. (Marshman's "cautiously Gothic" home's exterior may represent this trend.) For example, P. Thomson’s The cabinet-maker's assistant: a series of original designs for modern furniture, with descriptions and details of construction... (Glasgow; New York: Blackie and Son, 1853), features primarily rococo motifs and little suggestion that more streamlined aesthetics represented by the Gothic table above were coming into vogue. Thomson's furniture style itself might be considered conservative or mainstream; in addition, the format and content of Thomson’s book are also traditional, featuring brief explanatory essays on furniture construction and furniture function within rooms. As such, Thomson’s book is reminiscent of those issued by the likes of Chippendale and Sheraton.5 However limiting, immoral, or unattractive some consumers may have considered the style that pervades Thomson's designs, Thomson’s book gives us some idea as to the possibilities this aesthetic presented to home owners.6 According to Thomson, the "drawing-room...furniture and decorations afford full scope for the display of taste in the owner."7 This "taste" could manifest itself in a variety of ways. For example, sofas may have been plain or ornate:
These were not the only options. Indeed, in the preface to his design book, Thomson notes how “comparatively easy it is to adapt [furniture designs] to the kind of work required” and goes on to explain that these designs “may, in fact, be multiplied indefinitely, by engrafting the decorations of one on the forms of another.” Although Thomson’s book does not feature any outright examples of the more up-and-coming Gothic taste, it does include some examples of design supposedly gleaned from “the Great Exhibition”—the Exhibition Bryson evokes at the beginning of the book—perhaps anticipating a move among some taste makers toward a less neo-rococo/neo-baroque aesthetic, or acknowledging the far-reaching influence of the Great Exhibition:
Thomson’s design book gives us some idea as to the range of fashionable (if not conservative) interior design possibilities available to consumers such as clergyman Marsham in the 1850s. Although we can't be sure what Marsham's "cautiously Gothic" home looks like, it probably represented a transitional era in architectural aesthetics and possibly home use when it was built. Similarly, Thomson's furniture design book represents transitional furniture design presentation strategies that were influenced by new ways to spread information about interior decoration such as international exhibitions.8
For all we know, Bryson’s home may have been furnished with the latest in Gothic design, Thomson's fussy rococo sofas, rickety secondhand relics---or all of the above. Much like we pick and choose decorating ideas from a variety of sources today, many of our mid-nineteenth-century predecessors did the same, combining the latest styles with well-loved family heirlooms.9 If we had a better idea as to how the home was furnished, we might be able to guess how the home (and the drawing room in particular) was used and what private life meant to Marsham. Furthermore, if we could compare Marsham's consumption habits to others in his town or to other clergymen, we might be able to draw larger conclusions about that region’s or that profession's relationship to national or international consumption or design trends. Despite the dearth of information on these points, at the very least, we can imagine that Marsham lived in an era that witnessed dynamic changes in the ways that people designed their private lives "at home" with their things.
(Tyler’s comments will be posted soon!)
1. The term design sources encompasses printed sources that contemporary scholars reference when interpreting material culture. Design sources can range from furniture maker’s design books to portfolios of well-known domestic or institution architecture to floral motifs used for executing needlework.
2. The etymology of terms such as drawing room and parlor are complex and vary slightly whether one is studying American as opposed to European interiors. The point here is that drawing rooms, parlors, etc., were both pubic and private spaces and were probably used slightly differently in every home, particularly in homes (such as Bryson's) that had more than one such space.
3. Michael Snodin and John Styles, Design & The Decorative Arts, Britain, 1500-1900 (New York: Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, 2001), 356-357.
4. Also pictured in Snodin and Styles, 350.
5. P. Thomson’s The cabinet-maker's assistant: a series of original designs for modern furniture, with descriptions and details of construction… (Glasgow; New York: Blackie and Son, 1853).
6. According to Marlborough Rare Books, which currently has a copy of Thomson's book for sale, "Governor Sir William Denison replaced the original furniture of the Government House of Sidney in 1857 with more sophisticated 'modern' designs, which were based on Thomson’s book."
7. Thomosn, 36.
8. Katerine C. Grier notes that in an American context, the proliferation of parlors in public spaces such as hotels probably influenced the American trend toward creating "comfortable" parlors (or drawing rooms)prior to the influence of events such as the Great Exhibition of 1851. Grier, Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery (Rochester, N.Y.: Strong Museum; Amherst, Mass.: Distributed by the University of Massachusetts Press, c1988), 19.
9. In Kristen Wilson’s introduction to Livable Modernism, she uses her two grandmother's 1930s interior decorating as a means through which to explain how one era may have embraced a variety of styles. One of grandmothers had a traditional, “Colonial Revival” 1930s home interior, and her other grandmother had a “radically austere” modern 1930s home interior. Kristen Wilson, Livible Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 3.
For a recent exhibition featuring nineteenth-century watercolor interiors that present a range of nineteenth-century interiors, see Gail S. Davidson, House Proud: Nineteenth-Century Water Color Interiors from the Thaw Collection (New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, c2008).
For more on the history of production, design, and consumption of objects in mid nineteenth-century Britain, see Michael Snodin and John Styles, Design & The Decorative Arts, Britain, 1500-1900 (New York: Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, 2001).
For a recent interpretation of the design of the nineteenth-century domestic interior, see Stefan Muthesius The Poetic Home: Designing the 19th-Century Domestic Interior (New York: Thames & Hudson, c2009).
For more on the history of comfort in a domestic environment (particularly in an American context), which Bryson mentions in passing, see John E. Crowley, The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities & Design in Early Modern Britain & Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c2001), and Katherine C. Grier, Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery (Rochester, N.Y.: Strong Museum; Amherst, Mass.: Distributed by the University of Massachusetts Press, c1988).