Why Was Today’s ‘living Room’ Called a ‘parlour’ in Early British Homes?
The word ‘parlour’ comes from the French word ‘Parler’ which means ‘to speak’. In the Middle Ages in Britain, the parlour was a room on the ground floor where guests were entertained. In other words, it was a place where one ‘spoke’ with guests.
The parlour was a formal room where the family’s best furnishings, work of art, and other display items were arranged. In Victorian times, the parlour became the heart of the home, presided over by the mistress of the house.
From here, she managed the household, entertained close friends, gathered the family together in the evenings, and spent many hours in homemaking. Today, the parlour has been replaced by what is called the ‘living room’ in modern homes.
The first known use of the word to denote a room was in medieval Christian Europe, when it designated the two rooms in a monastery where clergy, constrained by vow or regulation from speaking otherwise in the cloister, were allowed to converse without disturbing their fellows.
The “outer parlour” was the room where the monks or nuns conducted business with those outside the monastery. It was generally located in the west range of the buildings of the cloister, close to the main entrance. The “inner parlour” was located off the cloister next to the chapter house in the east range of the monastery and was used for necessary conversation between resident members.
It was the function of the “outer parlour” as the public antechamber of the monastery that was adapted into domestic architecture. In the early modern period homes became larger and concepts of privacy evolved as material prosperity was more widely shared.
Rooms were increasingly set aside for the reception of guests and other visitors, screening them from the rest of the home. Although aristocratic homes might have state rooms, the frequent name for this reception room among the emerging middle classes (not likely to host state functions or royalty) was the “parlour.”
In the English-speaking world of the 18th and 19th century, achievement of a parlour room was a marker of social status—evidence that you had risen above the majority who lived in one or two rooms.
As the parlour was the room in which the larger world encountered the private sphere of middle class life, the family’s face to the world, it was invariably the best room (indeed it was often colloquially called just that) in the home. The parlour frequently displayed a family’s best furnishings, works of art and other status symbols.
The parlour was used for receptions around formal family occasions such as weddings, births and funerals. Some tradespeople used the parlour of their houses (or later houses bought for business specifically) in the service of their businesses. Hence, funeral parlours (for those who wished to lay out their deceased in a grander style than their own home), beauty parlours, and the like.
In the 20th century, the widespread use of the telephone and (later) automobiles, and the increasing casualness of society led to the decline of formal reception rooms in domestic architecture in English-speaking countries. The secondary functions of the parlour for entertaining and display were taken up by various kinds of sitting rooms, such as the living room (chiefly in North American usage), or the drawing room (chiefly in British usage).
Despite its decline in domestic architecture, the term parlour continues to have an afterlife in many places as common nomenclature for certain categories of commercial enterprise.
In addition to “funeral parlour” and “beauty parlour” (mentioned above), it is also used for “betting parlour”, “billiard parlour”, “ice cream parlour”, “pizza parlour”, and “tattoo parlour.” Other less common examples include “beer parlor”, wine parlor, spaghetti parlor, and “coffee parlor”. The dialect-specific usage of this term (i.e., as opposed to “ice cream shoppe” or “pizzeria”) varies by region.