By Bill Primavera
After having written 538 columns, I sometimes think I have exhausted every topic about homes to be explored.
I was feeling that way this week when, just the morning of my writing this, I received a very gratifying call from Jeanne Earle, who tells me that she reads The Home Guru every week. The second purpose of her call was to suggest a topic she had not seen addressed: the evolution of the living room. Thank you, Jeanne!
Before researching the subject, I sat back and considered my personal experience with the living room. I’m old enough to have been born before the introduction of the “family room” to American home house plans, when “living” was very much assigned to the living room. Outside of eating, all other family activities were in the living room prior to the advent of television. (Yes, I’m that old!)
I remember the layout of my parents’ house which they had bought at about the time I was born. It was a stone and brick attached home, or “row” home, in a middle-class West Philadelphia neighborhood. There was no foyer. You entered the house directly into the living room, facing a staircase going to the second floor. I remember that staircase well. With no carpeting, I was able to descend it by bouncing on my fanny from the top to the bottom. How I loved that adventure.
The upholstered furniture – a large couch and two arm chairs – was covered with a very itchy indestructible fabric, blue for the sofa and green for one armchair and red for the other. As an attached house, the living room flowed directly into the dining room, with an arch as the divider.
My mental picture of that living room features my entire family – mother, father, older sister and brother and me – all gathered listening to the radio. My parents entertained family and friends in that space, but it was also where my siblings and I played games and did our homework. The room was well worn.
But today, and for many years, my living room has been a “pass by” room, reserved only for entertaining.
I was surprised to learn that the term living room was not used extensively until the early 20th century. It was used commonly shortly after World War I, prior to which – get this – it was called the “death room.” It so happened that after the end of the war, the influenza epidemic spread across the globe and millions of people died. With so many deaths, the deceased were kept in the front room of the house for mourning before being taken away for the funeral.
With improving health conditions, the name change was widely attributed to an influential article that appeared in the Ladies’ Home Journal, suggesting that the room be renamed. Since it was used for various activities and was now more a lively place than a mourning room, the article suggested it be called the “living room.”
In my own family, I have certain memories of the death room and living room, some pleasant, others not. My Aunt Helen, who lived to be nearly 100, told me that, upon his death, her father (my grandfather) was laid out in the living room for an extended period of time because, she said, the ground at the cemetery was frozen solid. She told me that the family would gather in the living room during this period to pay respects on a daily basis. At one of these gatherings, my grandfather’s chest suddenly deflated with an alarming sound, and everyone in the room screamed.
Upon the death of my father when I was a teenager, my mother decided to have an old-fashioned wake in our living room rather than at a funeral home. The coffin was placed where our sofa would normally be. I would never recommend this because of the memories it would later evoke. My mother, who must have had an odd sense of how to motivate people, would sometimes tell me to get up from lounging around on the sofa because “that’s where Dad was laid out.”
In the past I’ve written about how the more formal living room in today’s house plans are shrinking in size in deference to larger family rooms where the family “living” activities are more likely to take place. In tomorrow’s home, designed to be ever more efficient with space and energy, the living room may likely disappear entirely.
Bill Primavera, while a publicist and journalist, is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. (www.PrimaveraPR.com). To take advantage of these dual areas of expertise, you can engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale by calling 914-522-2076.