Crowding the Parlour
Jane Cook, McGill University



Post-Confederation domestic interiors in Eastern Canada feature crowded rooms, the busiest of which seem to be the parlour. From floor to ceiling and wall to wall, every nook and cranny is crammed with numerous objects, while architectural details and furnishings stimulate all the senses.

Advances in science revolutionize the appearance and contents of domestic interiors. Discoveries of new flora, fauna and natural resources both at home and abroad lead to a demand for novel ways of classifying and presenting a host of articles and materials. Mantelpieces, centre tables, shelves and whatnots overflow with intriguing objects. Fragile butterflies are suspended in glass screens, and exotic birds displayed in cages. Scientific innovations also expand the strictly visual and acoustic features of domestic space. Electrical and gas lighting improve upon kerosene lamps, while phonographs offset grand pianos. 'Nature' is also brought indoors in the form of mass-produced floral prints that appear on textiles and wallpaper. This interest in flora and fauna is also visible in chair backs with carved flowers, glass bowls embossed with grapevines, gaming tables with mother-of-pearl inlays, and in beaver-motif transfer-printed plates. Everything contributes toward a feeling of vitality.

In tune with the latest inventions, the wealthier homeowners collect and display possessions as signs of status and class membership. Educated housewives, as members of art clubs and subscribers to women's magazines, demand the latest curios. They have to have every new knick-knack, and divert themselves with framed artwork and bracelets woven from human hair. Family and social relationships are captured in studio photographs, while personal albums hold souvenirs from jubilees and parades. Christmas and New Year's Day, as well as birthdays, weddings and anniversaries, serve as added occasions for exchanging gifts. Mementoes, too, are acquired on trips abroad. In fact the household becomes a repository for the trappings of an exotic outside world - from samples of Oriental furniture to bead bags made by members of the First Nations.

Population increases bring with them larger markets for fashionable goods. A comfortable retreat from the turmoil of the business world, the home becomes a treasure chest stuffed with the riches of post-Confederation life.