Fun Things I Learned Researching Victorian Libraries!

We’re finally starting another room! I am so excited I can hardly stand it. I know it won’t be fast – I’ve succumbed to knowing that nothing can ever be finished at the speed of my excitement. But – I’m still giddy.

Next up, is the Library. Or, as I’ve called it several times, “The Room Without Books.” It’s also the middle room on the east side of the house. The second parlor. The gentleman’s parlor.

All of these are names that Victorian’s might call this room (maybe not “The Room Without Books”). For us, it’s going to be the Library, and also our main living space. The television will be in this room, which of course, wouldn’t have happened in 1902. But as we know, Victorians were very modern and liked the newest things, so it’s ALL IN THE RIGHT SPIRIT.

Let’s dive into some research. And some images I’ve found online to showcase Victorian Second Parlors.

Image found online.

We know very little about THIS particular room. We know two things, actually.

  1. When Mayor Roy C. Bryant was the Mayor of Franklin, this was his room, and he often closed the doors, and smoked cigars with other Indiana politicians and deal-makers, including the Governor of Indiana. While we aren’t sure WHICH Governor hung out here (his grandson told us this story), logic says it was Governor Paul McNutt, who served from 1933-1937. Mayor Bryant was the mayor of Franklin from 1930-1934, so their terms overlapped. Governor McNutt was born in Franklin, and was also a member of the Democratic Party with Bryant. So, that’s my theory. (Sidenote : Governor McNutt was apparently a thorn in Roosevelt’s side, and Roosevelt called him “that platinum blonde S.O.B from Indiana.”  Look him up – he’s pretty fascinating. 
  2. There used to be a fireplace in the corner. We know this because Mayor Bryant’s grandson remembered a twin fireplace to the parlor in the corner. Additionally, there is evidence of the chimney / supports for the fireplace in the basement.
Roy C. and Lola Bryant
Indiana Governor Paul McNutt

And when we first moved to Franklin, and were looking at houses, we looked at the actual house Gov. McNutt was born in, because it was for sale – but it was too small for us. But SO CUTE. And so crazy how his story is connected to our current house – if I’m right.

So – we’re putting a fireplace back in, and while it definitely won’t screamed “Old Boys Smoking Lounge,” hopefully we bring a library feel back.

We know that Victorians liked separate rooms for separate things. And I am super Anti-Open-Floorplan, so that works out great. So what were these different parlors and living spaces for?

Image found online.

Front parlors were generally for visitors and main events of the house (weddings, wakes, funerals – the big stuff). And just like houses, even the furniture sometime separated you by gender – women had certain chairs, and men had certain chairs. Though, a lot of people think that the armchairs on women’s chairs were lower and smaller because women were smaller – but it actually gives more room for their voluminous skirts, and ALLOWED you to sit down. The second parlor, however,  could take a number of different roles in the play that is Victorian Life.

Second Parlor…

Drawing Room…

Music Room…

Sitting Room…

Living Room…

Smoking Room…

Gentleman’s Parlor…

These could all be things! Often this room was family centered – around games and pianos and ways to keep children occupied. In smaller houses, it could function as the dining room, or an informal eating area. Our house had both of those, though, so likely that didn’t happen here.

Image found online.

I’m fascinated by the historical implications of gender inequality (and thankfully, all the ways we’re working to combat it). While I was researching, I stumbled on a fascinating site ( and I learned a few new things that I didn’t know, but TOTALLY made sense when I read them. Like, on the amount of rooms in Victorian Homes : “Rooms were designed and understood to limit contact between men and women and to preserve power relations between them.”

Seriously – you should read this WHOLE POST.

But if you don’t read the whole thing, I LOVED this :

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.”

And on smoking rooms :

“Smoking rooms were also outfitted with their own specific interior design.  Perhaps most characteristic of the room was the rampant and excessive use of velvet.  Home owners had velvet curtains made, some of the furniture was upholstered with velvet and smoking jackets were routinely made of velvet as well.  The velvet was thought to absorb smoke to rid its odor from the rest of the house. It’s also true that smoking really ruined rooms, drapes, upholstery, and more.  So, having it relegated to a single room was probably a good idea practically as well. ”

Smoking rooms, and often libraries, were a place that the men could segregate themselves after dinner. Women, after all, weren’t supposed to smoke (though of course, many did), and the smell of smoke was un-ladylike. So, after dinner, the men would retire to the Smoking Room to discuss all matters of manly things – presumably about the many choices of velvet in the room. I’ve been watching “The Crown” recently, which starts in the 1950s, and it keeps shocking me how people smoke EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME. It’s interesting to learn that smoking needed its own confined space in the Victorian Era – just like any other activity. And as pointed out in the website, we’ve gone back to that in many regards – you can’t just smoke anywhere today.

On, libraries were explained as follows :

“…when study and reading were the purposes of the library, the book filled apartment was reserved for such, and no other occupations and diversions of the family were allowed to interfere. The literary, scientific, or professional man would have his library to suit his particular purpose. His books and the apartment which contained them were like the tools and workshop of a mechanic, and were adapted more or less to his special needs.”

During the Victorian Era, with the glaring exception of Queen Victoria herself, men were still almost universally in charge of all decision making (in the home, and in political leadership). So segregating the sexes after dinner allowed each gender group to be among people with whom they had things in common to talk about. I can’t imagine this today – though when we host giant parties, we always make fun of how we segregate ourselves – the Purdue crowd is in one room drinking beer, and the Butler crowd is in another, with wine and cocktails. It happens a lot. And everyone else floats around or finds their own space. It’s been a running joke for years.

The Library at Dunster Castle, created by Salvin, 1870 – 1871. The nineteenth century wallpaper simulated embossed leather, and is known as Cordelova.

There’s a lot of evidence to show that the television has a lot to do with when libraries and smoking rooms went away. Homes became more modest – there wasn’t a need for as many rooms, because the entertainment came from a box that everyone needed to see. Drawing rooms (short for “withdrawing” – nothing to do with art, actually) and Libraries became replaced with Living Rooms. And families spent more time together instead of visiting with other people who weren’t on TV. There’s definitely an argument to be made that men have started to “reclaim” these spaces through man caves, and women want to have craft rooms – if we’re continuing to be REALLY stereotypical. I mean, I love powertools and I love my pink safety glasses, so I’m probably not in the “typical” of anything. I think libraries should make more of a comeback, and I don’t really underedtand why they haven’t. We are true believers in the Victorian concept of “lots of rooms for lots of functions,” but many people aren’t. But at the same time, I know SO many people who lament, “I don’t need this formal Living Room / Dining Room.” And when I say, “You hoard books. Make it a Library,” it’s seen as such a genius recommendation. It just makes sense to me. If you have a useless room – figure out what your family does, and convert it. Movies? Books? Games? Crafts? So many amazing options!!!

But back to Victorian Libraries – what did they look like? I LOVE this description from :

“Then again with some families the library, or study, was used as a place for the children of the family to prepare the lessons set for them at school or by the tutor; this library was essentially a family one. The room was spacious, properly ventilated, and particularly well lighted. As it was chiefly intended for books, it had broad, unbroken walls with sufficient space for the bookcases to contain them. The library would have a window, or windows, at both ends, and but one door. Open shelves were better than closed cases. In all real libraries the books were displayed without glass or other cover, so that they could be conveniently retrieved without any preliminary fumbling with a key at a lock. The cases, accordingly, remained open, and always kept a short distance away from the wall. All the protection ordinary books required was secured by means of strips of cloth tacked to the edge of each shelf. This prevented the accumulation of dust. A table with a solid hold upon the floor, a broad cloth-covered surface, and numerous easy-sliding drawers, a few well-cushioned chairs, and a thick carpet or rugs, were the chief requirements of the library, in addition to the books and the cases which contain them. The book-cases were made so that the uppermost shelf was within easy reach of the outstretched arm. Furthermore, when constructed low, the bookcases offered good foundations for statuettes and busts. For the warmth of the feet while working at the table, a fur skin of some kind or other was provided for them to rest upon. In addition to the library table, a standing desk was recommended in cases of protracted study or writing in order to frequently vary the posture of the body.”

I am definitely keeping some of these things in mind as I design our room.

Image found online.

Whew. That was a lot. I’m not an expert by any means, but I loved learning about these things!

Here’s our space – ready to be reinvented!



  1. Can’t wait to see your plans for this fireplace mantle…and everything else, of course!

  2. Hurray to you as you start on a new room. I heartily agree with you that there should be separate rooms for different functions. And a library is an absolute must in my home, although my current one is cramped, too small, inadequate, and did I emphasize too small. I’m living in an open-concept modern home, and dislike the lack of walls intensely as I see much of this open space as wasted. The lack of walls hinders placement of my Victorian furniture, plus there’s nowhere to hang art. (Why did I buy such a house? Long dull story.)

    Thanks for sharing your research. Your excerpts were entertaining. I look forward to seeing your progress with the library.

  3. Hello! I enjoyed your article. If I read correctly, you say that there there was once a fireplace in the corner of the room that will become your library, and that someone connected to the house remembered a twin fireplace in an adjoining room? We have such an arrangement in our circa 1903 home: two large rooms, divided by pocket doors (which can be opened to create a large space for gatherings) with an angled corner fireplace in each room which are back to back, both connected to the same chimney. When the pocket doors are closed, each resulting “room” has a corner fireplace. Ours though were never working fireplaces, and I wonder if yours might have been the same. They are fireplace mantles with mirrors and shelves, for “show”, to be fitted out with nicknacks, etc., and in front of each is a coal burning parlor stove. They were built this way intentionally, we have no sealed up fireplaces.

  4. I’ve been tooling around on Google for the past two hours, which is why I can’t really remember how I happened on tis website. That being said, I’ve really enjoyed perusing your posts. We have an a Queen Anne (circa 1900) home in Greenville, SC, that we’ve been renovating ourselves for the past 10 years. It’s been one helluva adventure with several disasters along the way. It’s really reaffirming to read about other historic-home renovators’ experiences. Thank you for sharing your experiences. 🙂

    1. I’m horribly behind on replying to comments – thank you so much for this! I’m so glad you stumbled upon the blog and love it! It’s wonderful to meet other renovators.

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