I recently moved to upstate New York. So, there’s a lot more Victorian-style architecture in my neighborhood. I’ve posted on the interesting ways that Victorian architecture gender segregates activity within the domestic space before (here and here). One room I’ve been interested in lately is a room with a few different names and a history that’s not entirely known. It’s sometimes referred to as a “roofwalk.” But, it’s more commonly called either a “widow’s walk,” “widow’s perch,” or a “widow’s watch.” When I first learned about it, it was written about as a widow’s watch. And there’s a bit of cultural mythology that surrounds these rooms in homes. Here are two houses in my neighborhood with the room (right and left).
The story that I’ve always heard about this room is that it was designed for the wives of sailors to watch and wait for their husbands to return. Women whose husbands died at sea–so I was told–would sit in these rooms, pining for their long-lost lovers. As it happens, there’s not a great deal of evidence that this was, in fact, the original purpose of the room, nor that this is how these rooms were actually used. They did initially appear during the period when the sailing industry produced international trade on a level previously unimaginable and during which naval warfare dominated (~1500′s through the mid 1800s). But the rooms could have equally been intended for (and used by) mariners themselves (rather than their wives) to look out for ships due back in port. Indeed, in some communities, these rooms are referred to as “captain’s walks.”
And it’s also true that a great deal of these rooms were initially built around the chimneys of homes to provide quick and easy access to the chimney both in case it needed repair, and for a quick way to put out chimney fires–a constant dilemma in early American architecture. This was the reason people had their chimneys “swept” every so often. The accumulated ash and soot, if not regularly removed, could ignite. Sweeping chimneys was serious–and extremely dangerous–business. Children were often used because of their size, but it was a job often given to orphaned children. It’s also a powerful illustration of historical understandings of children and childhood. Despite being illegal, it would be unthinkable to ask a child to do something this dangerous today. Chimney fires were serious business. So, having quick access to pour sand down might have saved your home.
Yet many of these rooms today are not around chimneys, and if they were intended for either men or women, they were a room gendered by design. And if intended for women, then they continued a tradition within Victorian architecture of designing rooms specifically intended to segregate (and/or isolate) certain emotional displays of women, keeping them out of sight.
Boudoirs and fainting rooms are similar examples. Boudoirs, I think, are popularly thought of as rather large closets for women, in which wealthy Victorian women would bathe, dress, sit gazing at themselves in mirrors and brushing their hair (at least this is how they’re sometimes depicted on film). It was also a private space in which women could carry out hobbies (like reading and embroidery) or entertain lovers away from various others in the house. Interestingly, men’s private chambers were referred to as their “cabinet” (a term also used in American politics referring to the small group of people who advise and assist the president). Boudoir is not as commonly used today. It actually translates to something like “sulking room.” And, boudoirs were also designed as spaces to which women might flee to avoid having socially “inappropriate” emotional displays in front of others.
Fainting rooms served similar purposes. Typically on the main level of the house, fainting rooms were typically equipped with fainting couches. How these rooms were actually used is the subject of some debate among historians. Some have assumed that women were fainting because of the pain and various bodily restrictions caused by regularly wearing corsets. Others suggest that these rooms and couches were used in some of the treatments prescribed for hysteria. In either case, fainting rooms were designed to isolate women during periods of intense duress.
Rooms dedicated to socially “inappropriate” emotional displays from men are absent in Victorian architecture, perhaps because “real men” were presumed not to ever have need of them. It’s an interesting case in which architecture plays a critical role in our interactions, either segregating or suppressing certain displays.