The novel Jane Eyre begins with young Jane sitting in the ‘drawing room’ of her aunt’s house. When I first read Jane Eyre as a kid, I remember pausing on that phrase – ‘drawing room’ – and wondering what exactly it meant. I gathered from context that a drawing room was some sort of living room, but why was it called a ‘drawing’ room? Was it a room where you went to draw stuff? I genuinely had no idea.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase before and been similarly confused – fear not! For today’s Madeira Mondays, we’re going inside a recreated 18th century drawing room, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about what these rooms were for, what sort of things you might find in them, and, yes, why the heck they are called drawing rooms in the first place! (Hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with drawing pictures!)
As a bit of background: before the Covid-19 shut-downs, I was volunteering weekly at The Georgian House in Edinburgh, sometimes even in costume (more on this in my posts about 18th century Christmas celebrations)! The Georgian House is a beautiful, restored 18th century town home: recreated to look as it did in 1800, when the Lamont family lived there, and it’s filled with furniture, art, and objects from the period. I cannot recommend enough a visit, once everything is open and running again, if you’re ever in town and at all interested in this time period (or simply want to learn more about how people of the past lived their daily lives!).
So let’s step into the Lamont’s drawing room at The Georgian House and learn about what this room was for!
Firstly, what is a ‘drawing room’?
Historically, a drawing room was a room in a large private house where visitors could be entertained. In the case of The Georgian House, the drawing room is the largest room in the home (30 ft x 18 ft and 14 ft high) and definitely the grandest – it was a formal entertaining space, furnished grandly to impress the guests of the Lamont family. The family would have spent the most money on furnishing this room in particular.
(For context about the family, John Lamont was a wealthy landowner. The square where The Georgian House is located, Charlotte Square, was home, in the Georgian period, to wealthy families but they were not necessarily all from the aristocracy. Some were prosperous lawyers, bankers, merchants etc.)
Why is it called a drawing room?
The name ‘drawing room’ comes from the word ‘withdrawing’. After a formal dinner, the ladies would all withdraw from the dining table to the drawing room upstairs, to socialize. The gentlemen would stay at the table and continue to drink (heavily), before rejoining the ladies later in the evening.
What sort of activities would happen in the drawing room?
This space was more for evening activities, such as balls or larger gatherings, but the lady of the house might have used the room during the day, if she had some friends over for tea.
At a party, the chairs would have all been pushed to the walls, to make space for dancing. When the ladies were rejoined by the men, there might have been card playing, or chess. In addition to dancing! Someone also might want to sing. Playing an instrument was an important social accomplishment of the time for the upper classes, and men and women might get up and sing a song or two. It’s my understanding that it didn’t matter so much how well you sang – this was more an opportunity for young people of marriageable age (and their families) to get a good long look at each other! But this was also a time when you had to really make your own fun (and, often, your own music!) so playing the piano could provide entertainment as well.
There is so much more to say about the ornate drawing room at The Georgian House, and so many objects there to delve into, but I’ll save that for another time. I had hoped to do a series of posts where I look at different rooms in a Georgian household – parlor, dining room, kitchen etc., using The Georgian House as an example. But unfortunately I don’t have all the pictures I wanted, to be able to show you all that I’d like, so we’ll have to wait until the house has opened back up again and I can get in there and take some more photos! I promise it’ll be worth the wait.
If you’re looking for more reading in the meantime, check out The Georgian House’s blog which featured another fellow volunteer (and mega talented costumer!), Emma Harvey, talking about 18th century women’s fashions.
(PS today’s Featured Image is by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier the Elder, ‘The Family of the Duke of Penthièvre (“The Cup of Chocolate”)’, circa 1768, accessed via Wikipedia)
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!