Ames, Kenneth L. Death in the Dining Room, and Other Tales of Victorian Culture.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

As I’ve noted in other reviews, I have a long and deep interest in material culture — the physical artifacts produced by the way we live, which often are the only surviving evidence of our everyday history. In college nearly fifty years ago, as a trainee historian but also for its cheap entertainment value, I got in the habit of attending estate sales (even though I couldn’t afford to buy anything), just to prowl around the leftovers of some family’s earlier generations: Pocket watches and fobs, oddball kitchen implements and mysterious silverware, uncomfortable parlor furniture.

I found it all fascinating, and often puzzling. (“What did they do with that?”) Ames is a noted essayist on such things and is known for his original perspective on domestic archaeology from the 19th century, not only examining and describing but explaining (for instance) why the American rocking chair developed the way it did, and why tilting one’s chair back is fraught with psychological meaning, and the special status of the parlor organ. For that matter, why was it important for the upwardly mobile family moving into a new house to have a back hall as well as a front hall? What was the point of self-consciously embellishing the printed mottoes on the wall (and the titles on the covers of books) to the point almost of unreadability? Design can be subversive, serving other purposes than merely abstract aesthetics, whether it’s the furthering of evangelical religious dogma or underlining relative status within the middle-class family. The book’s title, by the way, comes from the chapter on the depiction of nature and “plenty” on dining room sideboards, which in the mid-19th century nearly crossed the line into architecture in their sheer size and complexity of carving. This is a great book for thoughtful browsing and for gazing at the period illustrations on every page. There’s also an excellent annotated notes and bibliography section.

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Published in: on 28 December 2010 at 6:48 am  Leave a Comment  
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