It may not sound like the most promising concept, but social history as told through the evolving interiors of people’s homes is much, much more fascinating than it may at first appear. The excellent Geffrye Museum is first and foremost a history of the English middle classes. The evolution of the parlour, or living room, mirroring revolutionary changes taking place in society. This is best reflected in the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the home and the shifting roles of the sexes this caused.
In a form of reverse snobbery, a museum dedicated to the middle classes is anathema to some. You could take the view that the Geffrye Museum is just about nice furnishings, and the evolving tastes of different generations. All very light-hearted and insignificant when set against the class struggle. In reality, it charts radical changes within society by opening a window into the intimate lives of our ancestors. I, for one, won’t look at people’s soft furnishings in the same light ever again.
It shouldn’t be, but one of the surprises of the Geffrye Museum is realising that our obsession with owning ‘stuff’ is very modern. A walk through the 400 years of history on display is to be confronted with the fact that, until very recently, our living spaces had very few things in them. People were the focus of most living rooms, the space designed around human interaction.
The difference between a home in 1790 and a home in 1890 is stark. The 1890’s home is full of ornaments, paintings and furniture – cheaply produced on an industrial scale, and affordable for the middle classes. The average middle class home in the 1790s had only just been introduced to the concept of the carpet. The 1890s parlour has more in common with contemporary homes than its historical predecessors. The technology has changed – the TV replacing the pianola – but we are still cramming our homes full of stuff.
The Industrial Revolution saw a massive expansion in the number of people able to call themselves middle class, and allowed them to ape the tastes and styles of the aristocracy. In a class obsessed society like Britain, this was groundbreaking. The Industrial Revolution also changed the relationship both men and women had towards their home. The world of work had changed dramatically by the mid-1800s. Men increasingly left the home in the morning and returned in the evening. It was from this period that the home becomes synonymous with femininity, with women left to ‘manage’ the home while their husbands went to work.
The middle class home had been a workplace – merchant houses – and men and women spent the day there. The social revolution that came with new working patterns changed society’s view of the ‘ideal of womanhood’. Something women continue to deal with 150 years later. Middle class women were thrust into the role of home makers, judged only on their domestic accomplishments (singing, piano playing). This bred a whole new genre of literature on household management and domestic economy. Leading the charge, in 1859, was Mrs. Beeton’s Book on Household Management.
One of the Geffrye’s most fascinating tableaux is when you arrive at the interior of a 1950s house. The whole room is oriented towards the television. For the first time in four hundred years of domestic life, people in a room turned away from the other people in the room to face a box. A radical change in human behaviour. This trend has intensified as technology has advanced; computers, gaming consoles and multiple TVs have led to a further fracturing of human intimacy within the home. Of the 1990s loft conversion, with its merged kitchen/living/sleeping space, the least said the better.
One of the joys of visiting the Geffrye Museum is that it is housed in some beautiful early-18th Century Almshouses. Constructed by the Ironmonger’s Company at the request of Sir Robert Geffrye, Mayor of London and Master of the Ironmonger’s Company, they are a rare example of architecture from this period in East London. The grounds of the museum are lovely, with people having their lunch in front of the building and period gardens at the rear. Perhaps best of all, the Geffrye Museum is free – there is a small charge to visit a restored almshouse, but this is only occasionally open.