Parlor Crafts and the Age of Refinement
By Erica Lome
“In the household, china-painting affords amusement for the girls in the family during the hours their brothers and father leave for business, and return in the evening. To many such ladies, who have nothing better to do than novel reading, this method of filling their time will be esteemed a great boon.” – “Letts’s Household Magazine,” 1884
In her innovative history of the parlor, Katherine C. Grier identified the tension between culture (linked with gentility) and comfort (tied to domestic family life) that defined how Victorian Americans interpreted their homes.
As Grier explains, refinement created “endless variations of common domestic objects” and arranging these objects in the parlor took time, effort, and a canny understanding of what was socially appropriate. In particular, hand-made crafts took up an enormous amount of space. Elaborately braided hair art, painted ceramics, and shell-work were made for the enjoyment and occupation of “parlor people.” They also served to commemorate or mourn loved ones. Today, parlor crafts are a fun collectible – and for good reason. In the Victorian era, they were made from a variety of unique materials and executed with originality and flair. While you might find them at any flea market or antique mall, these objects deserve a closer look.
Victorian handcrafts are frequently sorted into three categories: Needlework (or Fancy Work), including embroidery, Berlin woolwork, macramé, and hair braiding; Sculptural crafts, including shellwork, featherwork, mosaic and beadwork; and Pictorial crafts, encompassing textile or china painting, arranging dried flowers, leaf-work or etching on glass. All in all, Victorian ladies looking for a respectable pastime had over forty options to choose from. While making these took a lot of time and effort, many could be accomplished while sipping tea and chatting politely.
One particular embroidery trend was Berlin woolwork. Named for its city of origin, Berlin woolwork was based on hand-painted cross-stitch patterns that later became colored squares printed on cheap paper. Amateurs could purchase packages with designs and brightly hued wool, making these an early variation of the DIY kits popular today. By the mid-1800s, there were over 14,000 available designs, creating the impression of originality even within a deeply commercial society. Popular subjects included flowers, animals, and landscapes. Also characteristic were dark backgrounds, making the colorful stitches pop. The typical Victorian parlor, already bursting at the seams with bric-a-brac, could now boast the handiwork of its mistress on nearly every conceivable surface – from chairs to shoes. Collecting Berlin woolwork can be a pricey endeavor, especially since the nicest specimens have already been removed from furnishings and specially framed. Recent examples at auction went for up to $500, but the keen-eyed hunter can likely spot a good woolwork “painting” at any antique mall.
Hairwork wreaths became popular after 1850, and they expressed multiple meanings. Women made small gifts, such as watch fobs, for their husbands to wear while out; friends exchanged braided designs as a gesture of sincerity; and families in mourning might create accessories out of their loved one’s hair as a commemorative ornament. To make these wreaths, which were quite often elaborately detailed, hair was mounted onto wire frames and then looped around to create shapes like a leaf or flower petal. The finished product would be preserved by placing it into a locket or shadowbox.
Among the more unusual parlor crafts was shellwork, the art of creating structures or designs with sea shells. Shells of different sizes and colors were glued to cheap boxes as a decorative layer or embellishment. More ambitious projects included creating elaborate “bouquets” of shells that resembled floral arrangements. These delicate items are harder to find today but worth searching for.
Along with shells, Victorians found themselves preoccupied with making botanical art. “Pteridomania” (“Fern Fever”) became a particular trend, with fern fronds painted or stenciled onto ceramics or pasted into albums for the curiosity and delight of the collector.
China painting was another popular and acceptable parlor craft since it resembled other “parlor crafts” such as watercolor and glass painting. Eastern Asia dominated the decorative arts of the Victorian age, arising from a preoccupation with the peoples, cultures, and traditions of places like China and Japan. While this frequently veered into misappropriation, nearly every affluent parlor in the 19th century contained examples of “Oriental” art. Only the wealthy could afford genuine porcelain or celadon pieces, but innovations in pottery-making technology in Europe created cheaper alternatives that imitated the look of Asian ceramics.
The hobby of painting these ceramics to look like the examples found in museums quickly caught on. Many books on pottery making, focusing on painting, were published during this china painting craze, roughly between about 1880 and 1920. Magazines such as “Keramic Studio: A Monthly Magazine for the Potter and Decorator” guided ladies in the craft by featuring new patterns in each issue, and publishing ads for everything from china to decorate to pencils and brushes, portable kilns, paints and ceramic gold. The most popular designs included typical blue and white patterns and floral motifs. Hosting ceramic painting parties became a fashionable pastime and enabled genteel women to show off their painterly skills for their guests.
Many of the pastimes enjoyed by Victorians are easy enough for us to relate to, or even recreate. But there was also an element of the weird and macabre to parlor crafts that are particularly fun for collectors and hobbyists. One example are shadowboxes which commemorated special events, stored keepsakes, honored the departed and
featured fantastical spectacles of the imagination. These tableaus were often made of everyday items, ephemera, or souvenirs arranged artistically and mounted in a recessed space surrounded by a frame. Like a three-dimensional scrapbook (another popular hobby), shadowboxes are like a window to the past, showing us what people over a hundred and fifty years ago cared about, found funny, or believed worth preserving and remembering.
Another unique craft was pyrography, or the art of burning designs into wood. Heating up a pointed metal tool enabled the user to incise or brand wooden boxes or tableware. Sometimes you can find examples with leather, velvet, or glass. Pyrography became especially trendy around the turn of the twentieth century, when Art Nouveau inspired people to adorn boxes with sinuous lines and natural motifs. You don’t see as much pyrography on the market, but they’re lovely things to pick up and generally don’t cost more than $100.
The Victorians also had an odd relationship with nature. Many of the parlor crafts produced in the nineteenth century depicted flora and fauna, and indeed this era saw a flourishing of the natural sciences and botanical collecting; however, most people sought to domesticate nature and mold it to their own purposes. Certainly the wax-model trend demonstrates the desire men and women had to create artificial impressions of nature that could be preserved indefinitely.
Queen Victoria loved wax flowers, and over ten thousand wax roses were produced on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Albert. Around the same time, Kew Gardens began displaying wax models of their rarest specimens for the delight of visitors. Wax was relatively cheap to purchase, and people began imitating these models in the comfort of their own home; moreover, it was fashionable to display models of elaborate bouquets under glass domes – freezing the beauty of nature in time. Mintorn & Son began producing a kit to make these wax models in the 1840s, and a well-to-do woman could choose a design to suit her.
Parlor crafts were not strictly the province of women, but many view it as a gendered occupation due to its ties to the domestic sphere and the applied arts – basketry, weaving, decorating. In the Victorian era, the home was considered a feminine domain: private, refined, and morally instructive. What took place in the parlor, therefore, became inherently associated with womanhood and female accomplishment.
Today, Victorian parlor crafts are a fixture of the second-hand antique market. Many people inherit them from a grandparent or forget that they may have a piece or two in their attics. In fact, Antiques Roadshow’s list of commonly-seen items includes several of the examples noted in this article. But parlor crafts should not be uniformly dismissed. They’re often wonderful pieces demonstrating highly skilled artisanship. Like most artifacts from the Victorian age, there’s often more than meets the eye.
Erica P. Lome holds an MA in Design History from the Bard Graduate Center, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Delaware in the History of American Civilization Program. She is also a graduate assistant at Nemours Mansion and Gardens in Wilmington, DE.