The Stratford Parlor

The location of the Parlor at Stratford Hall is the result of Light Horse Harry Lee’s changing architectural tastes. During the 1790’s, Lee dramatically rearranged the orientation of the main floor rooms. Prior to the 1790’s, Stratford Hall’s main floor rooms were arranged with the public areas located west of the Great Hall, and the private family spaces to the east. Lighthorse Harry rearranged these spaces so that the public places, including the parlor, would now be located on the North facing portion of the house and the family or private rooms located on the south side. This decision is indicative of the changing tastes and prosperity of the Lees. Social prominence and position was reflected in the magnificence of their homes, embellished rooms, and furnishings. However, these changes in room utility came about slowly over many decades as individuals redefined and allocated new use for their living spaces.

The history of the American parlor is one of changing function. In many colonial Virginia homes prior to the 1750’s the parlor was the smaller minor room in a typical two room home. The larger room was “the hall” and was the primary living space. Here is where the family slept while reserving the smaller “inner room” as both a bed chamber and dining room. During the second half of the 18th century the function of the parlor continued to evolve. The bed chamber space faded while the dining and entertainment function remained. The parlor as an area of entertainment and public leisure had secured a separate identity. The Parlor became the “best room”, “the drawing room”, “the front room”, and a reception room that guests would be shown first. Typically, it would become strategically located on the main floor and often would offer a grand view of gardens and landscaped vistas. The intent of the parlor and parlor view now would be to impress guests through a display of possessions.

The rooms would be the prize of the family, and the furniture, curtains, chair seats, fire screens and carpets would be complimentary of color and same decorative schemes. The woods used for ornamentation and embellishment would often be of mahogany, walnut, rosewood, or cherry. Drop-leaf Pembroke (breakfast) tables, fold-top card tables, and hinged topped tea tables and stands were designated as boundary furniture positioned along walls and in corners. The furniture would generally be expensive and uncomfortable. At least six side chairs, often as many as dozen, became an important item in the parlors, and were placed against the walls. The chair backs of William and Mary, Queen Anne and Chippendale chairs were often spooned, curved and angled to protect walls from damage.

Furniture was often, or artfully and symmetrically arranged. Wool and leather were the favorite coverings with some chairs featuring arm rests others open armed. Sofas and daybeds, which had come into vogue in the 1770’s , were often placed in symmetrical or congruent arrangements within the parlor and would be selected to complement the architectural elements of the room. The furniture would be frequently moved and rearranged to accommodate the changing seasons light and drafts. The parlor would have space, but not so cluttered as to prevent both housekeeping and the easy arrangement of furniture for tea drinking, card playing, sewing, reading, or eating. Parlors were for entertaining and furnished to encourage social mobility. The walls would be painted or wallpapered with cheerful colors so that the color’s effect would not be lost during evening twilights. The overall atmosphere would be formal, the use occasional, and the space often the scene of personal life transitions such as weddings, christenings and funerals. The pine floors were often carpeted from wall to wall, the carpets nailed tightly to the floor. The tautness preventing bunching as the furniture was moved about. 

The Virginia parlor during the 17th and 18th centuries had evolved from utility to prominence, and came to present an atmosphere of clarity, stability, balances and order. Daily, the parlor would be used for the morning reception of visitors, when natural light would suffice, or in the late afternoon and evening cards, music, or after dinner conversation. Evenings would be lit by candles, the fire in the fireplace, and the reflections off glassware, mirrors and gilded edges. The best of what a family communicated as to its social status and refinement would be found in the Parlor; the showpiece and measure of the man and the family.

Stratford Hall will be celebrating the newly restored parlor October 11-14 with a two-day symposium, Discovering the Virginia Parlor 1730-1800. The program consists of presentation of the restored Stratford Hall parlor, tours of seven significant historic homes, and on-sight and tour lectures by Gretchen Goodell, Robert Leath, Calder Loth, Phil Mark, and Mark Wenger.

For more information on registration for Discovering the Virginia Parlor: 1730-1800 either email rsvp@stratfordhall.org, fax 804-493-0333, call Jon Bachman at 804-493-1972, or leave a voice-mail message at 804-493-8038, ext. 7787 or contact Jon Bachman at jbachman@stratfordhall.org