The word “parlor” has all but gone the way of the dodo, replaced by “family room” or “rec room” or all kinds of other names that highlight the growing informality of American homes. But what was a parlor, anyway? And what happened inside them? Musicologist and composer Edith Borroff has one answer—they were homegrown music performance venues.
Borroff reminisces about what parlors were like at the turn of the twentieth century. Her parlor is far from the stuffy room associated with formal visits or a special, off-limits part of the house. In her attempt to “counter some of the misconceptions about the American musical parlor,” Borroff turns to her grandmother’s household. In the 1880s, her grandmother lived in Chicago, and her parlor musicales became “a continuing social institution.” When it came to household music, the parlor—usually where the instrument/s of a home were kept—was a performance venue, and in the case of Borroff’s grandmother, a musicale took place there as often as 365 times a year.
If it seems odd to have so much music in one house, consider the time. There was no television, no screens of any kind; radios and even phonographs were nonexistent. If you wanted to be entertained, you had to entertain yourself, and as Borroff writes, “whoever could make music made it.”