Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

A family post-mortem photograph. The girl lying on the floor is in fact dead. The photography became popular in the 19th century when “death occurred in the home and was quite an ordinary part of life.”

deathroom

Imagine if they had Youtube back then? Dead bodies would be dressed up in all sorts of crazy clothes and put into insane situations and then posted for all to see. “Here is poor old Auntie Gladys, doing one last skateboard free style dive off the garage roof…”

With the influenza epidemic sweeping the United States and the world, death was very common, and since funeral homes were not nearly as prevalent as they are today, the front rooms of houses, or parlors, came to be called “death rooms.” It’s where the body was laid out for viewing for a few days before they took it to be buried. When the epidemic began to wane after WWI (I think around 1925), Ladies Home Journal suggested that these shouldn’t be known as death rooms any more, but “living rooms” again.

  • Not only did Edward Bok, editor of the Ladies Home Journal, coin the phrase “Living Room” but that he almost single handedly revolutionized American architecture. This bit is from Wikipedia for brevity, but the source is a book – The Suburbanization of the United States by Kenneth Jackson.

In 1895, Bok began publishing in Ladies Home Journal plans for building houses which were affordable for the American middle class – from $1,500 to $5,000 – and made full specifications with regional prices available by mail for $5. Later, Bok and the Journal became a major force in promoting the “bungalow”, a style of residence which derived from India. Plans for these houses cost as little as a dollar, and the one-and-a-half story dwelling, some as small as 800 square feet, soon became a dominant form of new domestic architecture in the country.

Some architects complained that by making building plans available on a mass basis, Bok was usurping their prerogatives, and some, such as Stanford White openly discouraged him – although White would later come around, writing “I believe that Edward Bok has more completely influenced American domestic architecture for the better than any man in this generation. When he began … I refused to cooperate with him. If Bok would come to me now, I would not only make plans for him, but I would waive my fee for them in retribution for my early mistake.”

Bok is credited with coining the term living room as the name for room of a house that was commonly called a parlor or drawing room. This room had traditionally been used only on Sundays or for formal occasions such as the displaying of deceased family members before burial; it was the buffer zone between the public sphere and the private one of the rest of the house. Bok believed it was foolish to create an expensively furnished room that was rarely used, and promoted the new name to encourage families to use the room in their daily lives. He wrote, “We have what is called a ‘drawing room’. Just whom or what it ‘draws’ I have never been able to see unless it draws attention to too much money and no taste…”

Bok’s overall concern was to preserve his socially conservative vision of the ideal American household, with the wife as homemaker and child-rearer, and the children raised in a healthy, natural setting, close to the soil. To this end, he promoted the suburbs as the best place for well-balanced domestic life.

Theodore Roosevelt said about Bok: [He] is the only man I ever heard of who changed, for the better, the architecture of an entire nation, and he did it so quickly and effectively that we didn’t know it was begun before it was finished.

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2 responses

  1. My Dad is 87 and he remembers when he was a kid and they’d have the wake at the house with the body right there in the living room. My Mom used to talk about seeing the same when she was a kid; she just passed away a few months ago and left explicit orders that we have no wake at all, just a Mass “I don’t want anyone staring at my dead body” is how she put it, she remembered how it used to be and I guess it left an impact on her having to see dead bodies in the house when she was so young.
    So I guess I have Edward Bok to thank for the house we moved into when I was a baby, we moved from Newark to the suburbs of NJ in 1964 and my folks paid $15,000 for a 4 bedroom house with a renovated basement. When Hurricane Irene hit NJ our house collapsed and we had to rebuild; we paid $15,000 for the foundation alone!
    Thanks for the great post, a lot of good info I never knew before 🙂

    January 16, 2014 at 10:06 pm

  2. Do you have any idea why half of them are smiling?

    January 17, 2014 at 12:54 pm

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