From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Music in the Parlor

Home entertainment in the Victorian age


Recently, I re-read Life with Father, by Clarence Day (1874-1935). What a funny book, even several generations after it was written! It is a collection of stories, mostly about Day's childhood in Victorian New York City. Life with Mother is a companion volume, collected and published after Day's death.

Clarence Day grew up before radio or television. He was a young man before his father allowed a telephone in their home, and they did not have electricity either. It is interesting to read how the Days entertained themselves and their guests in those simpler and quieter days. Clarence's mother enjoyed being "at home" to visitors on Thursday afternoons and welcomed an opportunity to provide music for her guests.

About this time, Mother's favourite niece, Cousin Julie, was duly "finished" at boarding school and came to live with us, bringing her trunks and hat-boxes and a great gilded harp. Mother at once made room for this beautiful object in our crowded parlour, and the first thing Julie knew she had to play it for the Thursday-afternoon visitors. Julie loved her harp dearly but she didn't like performing at all--performances frightened her, and if she fumbled a bit, she felt badly. But Mother said she must get over all that.

For a grander afternoon musicale, Mrs. Day put together a trio -- Cousin Julie and her instructor, Miss Kregman, with their harps and Julie's nervous, young friend, Sally, at the piano. It was a bleak, cold day with  snow changing to rain.

At the hour appointed for this human sacrifice, ladies began arriving in long, swishy dresses which swept bits of mud over the carpet. Soon the parlour was packed. I thought of Sally, so anxious and numb she could hardly feel the piano keys, and of Julie's icy fingers plucking valiantly away at the strings. Then Mother clapped her hands as a signal for the chatter to halt, the first hesitating strains of music began, and someone slid the doors shut.

When we boys went down to dinner that evening, we heard the news, good and bad. In a way it had been a success. Julie and Sally had played beautifully the whole afternoon, and the ladies had admired the harps, and applauded, and eaten up all the cakes. But there had been two catastrophes. One was that although Miss Kregman herself had been invisible [behind a potted rubber tree], everybody had kept looking fascinatedly at her feet, which had stuck out from the rubber tree, working away by themselves, as it were, at the pedals, and the awful part was she had forgotten to take off her galoshes. The other was that Father had come home during a sweet little lullaby and the ladies had distinctly heard him say "Damn" as he went up to his room.

The ability to play a musical instrument was considered a symbol of gentility and culture. Clarence was given violin lessons. Many homes had a piano and many ladies and girls could play the piano. Men were sometimes pianists, too. George Day, Clarence's younger brother, took piano lesons, and Clarence's father taught himself to play.

He got no encouragement from anyone and his progress was lonely. But Father was not the kind of man who depends on encouragement. He had long muscular fingers, he practised faithfully, and he learned to the best of his ability to play Beethoven and Bach.

His feeling for music was limited, but it was deeply rooted, and he cared enough for it to keep on practising even after he married and in the busy years when he was providing for a house full of boys...

[W]hen he got a chord wrong, he stopped. He took that chord apart and went over the notes one by one, and he kept on going over them methodically. This sometimes drove Mother mad. She would desperately cry "Oh-oh-oh!" and run out of the room.


At the time that Clarence Day was growing up, a wide variety of songs were available as sheet music -- old favorites, classical music, and popular songs of the day. The Library of Congress has a large online exhibit of sheet music that was published from 1850 to 1920. With a stack of sheet music and a willing pianist, a group of friends could spend an evening around the piano, the home entertainment center of that day.

2 comments:

alta said...

I liked this story and may try to find the book in our public library when I get back from my trip. Alta

Genevieve said...

I promise that you would enjoy Life With Father, Alta. If I lived closer, I would bring you my copy to take with you on your trip. It is a good book for reading a chapter at a time.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.