The Oldest Voice in the Parlor: Part III
The word comes from parler which is Old French for "to speak." [As was briefly explained in Pirates of the Caribean.] We've all heard the question: parlez-vous français? Which means Do you speak French?
There are many variations on the root word parler. Here are just a few: parlance means a way of speaking; parley (n.) means "conference," especially with an enemy; and even the word parliament comes from parler. The first use of the spelling parlor c.1225, meant "window through which confessions were made," also "apartment in a monastery for conversations with outside persons;" It wasn't until 1374 that parlor was used to mean a "sitting room for private conversation." And it was that meaning that held throughout Victorian Era house plans when the parlor was an essential part of the home.
A hundred years later, house plans use words like "living room,""family room," and "TV room" to shake off the stuffy notions of past generation who had nothing to do but talk.
We almost never hear the word parlor anymore. My mom used it often--not in reference to a room in our home [we had no such room]. She used it in terms like beauty parlor, funeral parlor, or even ice cream parlor. Diverse venues that all imply visiting of some form or another.
Take funeral parlor, for instance. In a day when it was common to be born at home, families also often "paid their last respects" in the very home where people passed away. But most homes were not well-suited for the complications involved in these brief rituals. It was the thousands of far-from-home fatalities of the Civil War that gave rise to the business of providing such services outside the home. It was, in fact, the public passage of President Lincoln's body from D.C. to Springfield that brought acceptability to the embalming process. Undertakers began acquiring large beautiful homes in which they could expand parlors and provide other services associated with modern funerals. And in time, most families with the means to do so began utilizing "funeral homes" or "funeral parlors" as my mother called them. To this day, many small-town morticians work in large Victorian homes where family and friends gather to visit in hushed tones with dampened eyes and trembling smiles that say, "Thank you for coming."
In beatuy parlors a whole different kind of visiting typically takes place; some might even call it gossip. And when I think of ice cream parlors only one place fits the bill. It's gone now, but Diana's Sweet Shop was once nestled in the heart of Port Huron, Michigan. This ice cream parlor opened in 1926 and remained virtually unchanged until 2000. So classic was the woodwork of each booth, that one of them was purchased by the Henry Ford Museum and set up just as it was for most of the 20th Century in Port Huron.
When I was in college, there was a place on campus called "The Dating Parlor." It looked like a huge furniture store that sold only small couches and love seats, and believe me, in keeping with the original meaning of the word parlor, only talking took place there. Hard to imagine dozens of college-age couples in "love seats" just talking, but believe me it was true, and I had no qualms with the rules applied to that place. They were reminiscent of a century of Victorian parlor expectations applied in homes where courtships began with threads of conversation.
No matter how else our hollow Hollywood culture cheapens the nature of true love, it is talking and listening (not sex) that is the foundational skill required for shared life. It is the thread of conversation that ties the knot. Yarns must first be spun and then in time knit together. Without the parlor-skill of conversation, all the other pleasures intended for marriage will have little meaning.
But enough talk of parlors and the meaning of the word. We are now ready to continue with Part III of "The Oldest Voice in the Parlor."
This booklet was written on a lap-top computer and posted to a blog on the internet, complete with public-domain photos and dozens or source-links found there. Some of the photos I took myself with a high-definition video-still camera. Some of the links in the blog version of this booklet are to movie clips like "Friendly Persuasion," a movie first produced on celluloid film more than 50 years ago. Pat Boone made its theme song a radio hit, and I watched the movie on TV as a kid. Last week I called my sister on the phone and we talked about it. A few weeks ago, I “skyped” [video phone call] with my daughter in Croatia a half a world away, but she flew home on a jet with 400 other people last week.
I share these random thoughts of “technology” only to say that in a post-radio, post film, post-television, post-telephone, mid-internet-jet world, it is easy to forget that just a few generations ago none of this technology existed. It has virtually all happened in my 99-year-old grandmother's lifetime.
Take John Wesley Neal's family there in Melvern, Kansas, in the late 1800's. There was almost no recreational aspect of life. The longest "trip" most Midwesterners took was the wagon ride that brought them to their prairie home. Life was about settling the land and hopefully making a living. Farm families grew large, worked hard, ate well, and slept like logs to get up and do it all again. The endless diversions and distractions that make up the frenetic rhythms and staccato din of days we know did not exist. A bigger wheel was turning closer to home; its pace was measured; its burden shared by many. When there was a break in the grueling work, it was for church or community seasonal events such as county fairs (where the fruits of hard labor were put on display).
Now let's think about the role of music in a typical 1885 farm family's life. There was no such thing as record players or radios, so the only music they had ever heard was played live in their presence. The school house had no marching band (such things were made popular by John Phillips Sousa at the end of the century.)
There was an "opera house" in the town of Quenemo ten miles from Melvern, but that was a place not frequented by families. I stepped in what was left of that building back in 1979. By then, Quenemo's main street was like a ghost town. Alone I ventured into a broken back door of that old abandoned opera house with little concern that anyone would see or care. It had been vacant for decades. Stray birds darted back and forth overhead. Below, in front of what had been a stage, was a weathered old rectangular piano like the one in this picture only ruined. Overhead was a huge hole in the roof. The ivory veneer of the keys was strewn on the floor like fallen rose petals. I pressed a wooden key and from deep inside the box came not a note but the sound a dropped rake makes against a wire fence. Not one key found a note, and my searching seemed to agitate the birds now swooping closer overhead. Suddenly feeling like the trespasser I was, I scooped up some of the thin ivory pieces from the floor as souvenirs then slipped out as I'd come in. But my point in sharing this is not about the place but the piano: until the 1900's they were huge, heavy expensive instruments, and most Midwesterners had never seen one in a home.
Small easily-carried instruments such as banjos, guitars, mandolins, dulcimers, and harmonicas may have been heard here and there, depending on the local talent pool.
Imagine: none of the music that surrounds us now--on the radio, in film, MP3 players, lulling us to sleep in elevators and malls or waking us up when our cell phone rings--none of the ever-present soundtrack of our lives existed then. What little music there was required holding an instrument or lifting the voice. Throughout most of history, this was true of music. It was live. It was vibrant. It was human. Because of this, the most musical setting in a dry state was the church. So is it any wonder that the instrument credited with bringing music to the American home was a new invention called the parlor organ.
In the decades following the Civil War, millions of parlor organs were manufactured and sold by scores of different companies in America. The parlor organ industry (also called reed organ or pump organ) was one of the most prolific booms of the late 19th century.
One of the leading manufacturers became a household name: Baldwin.
Dwight Hamilton Baldwin (1821-1899) was a minister educated at Oberlin College in Chicago who later taught music in the public schools and published several books of songs. His expertise with music led him to become a retailer of pianos and organs he most recommended to others. By 1875, the D.H. Baldwin Company was selling 2,500 pianos and organs annually. Organs were a fraction of the cost of a piano, and better yet, they never needed to be tuned. There were no wires to go out of adjustment. (Inside their cabinets, pianos are complicated mechanical devices that match percussion hammers to tuned wires. An organ uses fixed brass reeds. It is a wind instrument... like the human voice. )
In 1889, Baldwin bought the Hamilton Organ Company of Chicago and began production of the Monarch reed organ, which continued in production for ten years. It was smaller instrument for the less ostentatious Victorian home. Baldwin's Monarch organ was more affordable (around $60), more easily transported to rural regions, and deliberately less ornate than some of the competition’s models (many of which occupied an entire wall from floor to ceiling with nooks and crannies and carved pieces that were difficult to keep clean). The Monarch's simple lines reflected the Eastlake style of furniture design, which was closer to the arts and crafts movement than the fancy Rococo and Gothic styles of the era.
In 1899, Baldwin died and left his holdings to the Presbyterian Church. Though the company name was later revived, Monarch organs as described were made between 1889 and 1899 but continued to be sold for many years.
In 1903, Iva McNabb wanted to buy a parlor organ in hopes that her daughter Lorena now thirteen would learn to play. It was a Baldwin Monarch organ that caught her eye and Elbert approved. The organ they carefully carried through the front door of their farm house was made in Chicago years before, distributed in a shipment by rail to Kansas City and then carried by horse-drawn wagon to their home. I do not know if it was purchased in a store in Topeka or from an organ peddler passing through town (as was true in "Friendly Persuasion").
Judging from the pictures above, it is clear to see the difference between the Monarch and other parlor organs. I imagine the last black-and-white picture most resembles the Melvern relatives in my wife's family tree. Plain-spoken folks who knew the meaning of hard work, the Sabbath, and family. To the extent that I know them through their lineage, it's not surprising that they chose a small yet elegant organ. It was and is a beautiful piece about four feet tall and nearly as wide with ivory keys and deep red carpet on the peddles. They loved the organ and spent countless hours around it playing hymns and other favorites from the day, but it was mostly the old hymns that drew folks into the parlor to sing along or simply sit and listen.
Grandma and Grandpa Neal were sometimes there to join them, and for two more decades, it was Grandpa Neal (the man who had been spared from a musket shot on his way home from the Civil War) who was the oldest voice in the parlor.
Part IV: "From Melvern to Michigan" posted later this week and then were back to the "Unsettled" chapters.
Note: "Friendly Persuasion" has a very entertaining sub-plot about the parlor organ Gary Cooper's character buys against his wife's wishes since mechanical aides to worship were forbidden by their Quaker church. You can see the little organ (that was moved put of sight to the attic) at the 1:00 minute mark of this trailer to the film that won the "best picture" Oscar in 1956, the year I was born. If you have not seen it recently, I highly recommend renting it.