You probably don’t have a parlor in your house and neither did the Brown family in the twentieth century. We call this room the “parlor” because, for much of the Nightingale-Brown House’s history, it was a formal room, filled with elaborate furniture and expensive heirlooms. John Nicholas Brown II and his family repurposed this space into a more casual one, referring to it as the “study” or “den” and it’s their furniture and decorations you see here.
Historian Katherine Grier calls the parlor “a space within a private household where families could present their public faces.” Earlier the Nightingales or the Browns used this parlor to receive formal social calls; the women hosted tea parties and the men held political and business meetings. Over time, the maintenance of a highly ritualized space in a private residence fell out of fashion and parlors became more comfortable spaces, filled with cushy furniture instead of crowded with signifiers of wealth and status. Twentieth century homes boasted “living rooms” or “dens” instead of traditional parlors.
John Nicholas Brown II and Anne Seddon Kinsolving Brown used the once formal parlor in this more modern and casual sense. These Browns drank steaming tea and ate buttered toast in its cozy chairs. They read books—in silent study—or listened to Anne’s “whisky tenor” read aloud The Odyssey or one of Thackerey’s novels. But mainly, they used the space rather than saving it for formal occasions.
Jennifer Shook, Brown University, BA, 2019