Gender Segregation By Victorian Design

Homes have always illustrated a great deal about those who inhabit them.  And changes in architectural design reflect much more than simply new techniques and styles.  They also reflect changing relationships between groups of people.  Victorian architecture is famous for a number of things, but one of my favorites is the notion that rooms really ought to only have one purpose.*  One of my favorite ways that this is illustrated is by highlighting the lack of a bedside table in most bedrooms in the 1800s in England.  Reading (or anything else for that matter) was an activity that was best undertaken in a separate (and more appropriate) room of its own.

To accomplish this, larger houses had an extraordinary number of rooms.  Smaller houses were forced to shift furniture around depending on what was going on that particular day.  While one of the premises of modern architectural design involves breaking down walls and opening up space, the Victorians were much more concerned with erecting walls and closing spaces off.  There are all sorts of remnants of this time still present in homes today – though they are often put to separate use.  For instance, parlors are still present in many homes.  They’re typically small rooms near the front of the house where household guests would have congregated, and within which Victorian forms of courtship took place (see Bailey on courtship here).  But few of us use these spaces as they were originally intended.  They feel impractical by today’s standards.

Children and servants were relegated to separate spaces in the house than the adults, but there was a segregation of space even among the adults in the home by gender.  Rooms were designed and understood to limit contact between men and women and to preserve power relations between them.

Women had the apartment (a room where she and her friends might congregate after dinner without the men), the boudoir (a room typically adjoining the bedroom in which men were understood as never allowed), the morning room (literally the room in which she would spend the better part of the morning, open to children and guests of the house as well), and the drawing room (coming from “withdrawing,” this is a room was open to adults in the house and was also an entertaining room).

Men had a separate group of rooms all to themselves.  They had the library or study,  the billiard room (now back in fashion), the gentlemen’s room (a room in which men could retreat to conduct business transactions more privately), the smoking room (still alive in some buildings–like airports–where smoking is otherwise not allowed), the gun room, and my personal favorite: the snuggery (a room in which men kept their hobbies and did as they pleased).

The snuggery is much less commonly discussed in historical literature on Victorian domestic architecture and design.  For instance, Judith Flanders’ book (Inside the Victorian Home) goes through the house room by room and not only lacks a chapter dedicated to the snuggery, but never mentions it.  It’s a curious room I’m interested to learn more about as it seems like a historical predecessor of the man cave.  (I may post more on this as I read more.)

One thing that’s immediately apparent in the gender segregation of the design of Victorian homes is that the “serious” activities in the home are mostly relegated to men’s domestic spaces.  It’s important to note for instance that in homes with libraries and studies, women made great use of these rooms, for reading, writing to correspond with friends and family, and more.  Thus, while these rooms were segregated in theory, the daily practice of family life meant than many of these rules were ritualistically broken.  Women’s rooms, by contrast were often areas for them to retreat lest they display an emotional outburst in public.  “Boudoir,” for instance, actually derives from a French word meaning “to sulk.”

Not only were men structurally (even architecturally) privileged, but women’s disappointments and frustrations that stemmed in part from unequal power relations that produced these homes in the first place were also kept separate from men within the home.

*It’s important to note that the vast majority of individuals were unable to live up to this standard, but as a standard, it exerted pressure nonetheless.

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2 thoughts on “Gender Segregation By Victorian Design

  1. Interesting..I’m located in an American/Colorado town full of Victorian-age buildings, and there certainly are a lot of separate small rooms in all of the old houses! Thanks for posting this.

  2. Pingback: The Academic Feminist: Talking Feminism and Masculinities with Tristan Bridges

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