Magazine article History Today

Open House Georgian Style: A Revolution in Sociability Took Place among the Genteel and 'Middling' Classes of 18th-Century England, as Visiting Friends of Similar Social Status Became a Leisure Pursuit in Itself, Especially among Women

Magazine article History Today

Open House Georgian Style: A Revolution in Sociability Took Place among the Genteel and 'Middling' Classes of 18th-Century England, as Visiting Friends of Similar Social Status Became a Leisure Pursuit in Itself, Especially among Women

Article excerpt

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In 18th-century England, the arrival of a wife transformed a man's house. The Reading distiller Edward Belson bought new printed paper hangings and bed curtains in order to refurbish his old bedroom to receive a wife in 1710; and the Lincolnshire surgeon Matthew Flinders 'got the best Chamber papered, 2 new hearth Stones, & Fire screens & c & c and some lesser improvements previous to my intended nuptials' in 1778. Such efforts were typical. Wedding bells announced the coming of the harpsichord, the backgammon set and sewing table to the affluent parlour, to jolly along the long winter evenings of married life.

In his gently tongue-in-cheek book of 1745, The Pleasures and Felicity of Marriage, Lemuel Gulliver alerts the newly-wedded husband that the bright morning of marriage has to be reflected in new furniture:

You will be delighted to hear your Spouse every Moment talk of going with her Sister and Aunt, to order in such Furniture as may reflect Dignity and Grandeur upon the Owner. What Pleasure will you receive and how will you applaud the happy Choice you have made, when your Darling gives you a Specimen of the delicacy of her Taste in Down-Beds, Rich-Counterpanes, costly Hangings, Venetian Looking-Glasses, enamel'd China, Velvet Chairs, Turkey Carpets, Capital Painting, Side-board of wrought Plate, curious in-laid Cabinets, rich Child-bed Linen, Flanders Lace, and many other valuable Particulars. Certainly, the Joy of your Heart will far exceed the Chinking of your Purse, when your House, by the indefatigable Pains of your Spouse, is thus grandly adorn'd.

Such purchases were necessary because married couples were expected to socialise in ways bachelors were not; these acquisitions were 'no more than what's needful, both for Use and Credit, unless you design to banish all reputable Company from your House'.

Hospitality was a Christian obligation entailed on landed wealth, dispensed in the great hall, the most public room of the great house, laid out to symbolise 'the ideal of the integrated but structured community'. A vanished golden age of good old hospitality was often invoked in print in the 17th century, but Tudor elites had already preferred exclusive dinners to the strain of eating in front of the community, though the great hall remained a proof of lineage and a tool of grandeur. By the 1690s, the cosmopolitan and courtly ideal of politeness was in the ideological ascendant: the elegant entertainment of a select group of social equals proving more congenial to many cosmopolitan families than traditional largesse and vertical sociability.

From the late Middle Ages until the 17th century the homes of rich London merchants had doublestorey banqueting halls. Merchants' houses in late 17th century Bristol still had large double-storey halls bristling with armour, coats of arms and old furniture. Yet by the 1720s halls were becoming obsolete and arms and armour had disappeared as a form of decoration. The polite architectural model accommodated a distinctively feminine social life at home. The Bristol architect of a house for a local merchant in 1724 designed a symmetrical building on three floors:

on the right hand of the vestibule you find a handsome withdrawing room for the mistress of the house to entertain company in, with a private door to the staircase for her servants to bring any thing (without exposing it to people who may be waiting in the vestibule).

The provision of the withdrawing room was coupled with the social appetite of the wife. Women's preference for specialised rooms of their own for entertainment and withdrawal was widely evident by the turn of the 18th century. In 1698 Roger North blamed women's tastes for the modern building habit of packing more small rooms into a narrow footprint: 'a dining room, withdrawing room, and perhaps a closet with some new tingle fangle, to tempt her gay ladyship'. …

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