American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
First impressions
Front halls and hall furnishings in Victorian America

Kenneth L. Ames

First impressions. You can make them only once. An accurate observation, but hardly new. Victorian Americans were acutely aware of the power of first impressions. They knew that what people saw first had a disproportionate impact on the formation of opinions and judgments. It was because they understood so well the importance of first impressions that the Victorians created distinctive forms of material culture to mold and manipulate them.

The modern term for this behavior is impression management.1 When we hear people speak of impression management today, it is usually in the context of the corporate world. The ability to manage people’s perceptions can put someone on the road to success in human relations generally and in business in particular. The Victorians had a somewhat different orientation, for while they shared today’s commercial values, the current high status accorded to corporate life was only beginning to emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century.2 In Victorian America the domestic realm was still the major arena for acting out social strategies. The furnishings people put in the hallways of their houses, the first interior spaces visitors saw, played important roles in shaping first impressions and in framing and manipulating Victorians’ perceptions of themselves and their relationships to others (Figure 9.1). Hall furnishings were widespread and prominent components of the Victorian system of impression management.

It may seem a bit peculiar to speak of hallways and first impressions. Obviously, before visitors even entered a house, they acquired data they could evaluate from the city, the neighborhood, and the exterior of that house. All this information, however, was external to the house and was understood to be superficial, potentially misleading, even suspect. The interiors of people’s houses provided more accurate, more authentic information about them. Moving inside a house brought someone into a more intimate association with its inhabitants. Knowing the inner house was something like knowing the inner person. Exteriors of houses and houses unfurnished spoke of architects and builders. But the insides of houses and houses furnished spoke of the life that went on within and the character of those who lived it.

This chapter is about hall furnishings, the first clues of that inner domestic life in Victorian America. My argument is that these objects, little appreciated today, were once significant parts of a deliberate and pervasive strategy to ceremonialize and ritualize the commonplace activities of everyday life. They played important roles in a style of life that was highly self-conscious and tightly scripted. They were critical components of an

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