Home and contents: the hallway

The hall was, literally and figuratively, the centre of the middle class home: it typically ran down the middle of the house and it was the room that connected all other rooms. Except the service rooms at the rear of the house – there was a reason for this, which I’ll come to in a subsequent post. In general, in a middle class house, there wouldn’t be a direct connection between the parlour and the bedroom, for example. Instead, you’d go out of the parlour, into the hall and then into the bedroom. This was important, because it meant all spaces were separate, and private. The concept of the private world is critical to understanding both the Victorian villa and Victorian domestic life.

The floor plan of house that James and Priscilla built, showing the hallway running through the centre of it. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

In the Victorian world, the prevailing middle class ideology held that the home was a private place, separate from the ‘public’ world of commerce, politics and economy. There were very clear gender divisions associated with this ideal, the private world of the home being the realm of women (and children) and the public world the realm of men. A woman’s role, then, was to create a calm, peaceful and respectable home that offered respite for her husband (or brother or son or father) from the vicissitudes of the public world. I can’t stress enough that this was an ideal, not necessarily reality, and a middle class one at that (Tange 2010: 12). Some scholars have suggested the idea of intersecting and overlapping spheres is a more accurate reflection of reality (Archer 2005: 201), while others have outlined the tensions implicit in the attempts to keep the public and private separate, and the impossibility of keeping the public world out of the home (Tange 2010: 12-16).

Looking up the hall from the front door, showing the arch that separated the public and private spaces in James and Priscilla’s house. The entrance to the parlour was at left, and to the master bedroom at right. Image: M. Hennessey.

One of the ways the public world came into the home was through guests, who were by definition external to the family (I feel we’re getting awfully close to bubbles here…). While female guests are unlikely to have been seen as part of  the public world, given that it was considered to be masculine, their access to the house they were visiting was still controlled, and it was controlled by the hall. In a middle class house such as James and Priscilla Chalmers’s, the arch across the hall, with its decorative plaster work, demarcated public from private. Those spaces in front of the arch were the public ones. Because visitors did not go beyond that arch, these public spaces were often more decorative than those behind, in terms of both features that were part of the house and the objects that were displayed.

Hall arches normally had decorative plaster work, but these were typically stylised foliage, or scrolls of some sort. A person’s head is fairly unusual. Image: M. Hennessey.

The hall itself could be decorated, and the site of decorative objects, were it big enough. The Chalmers’s hall might just have been wide enough for a rather narrow table, but even that might have been a stretch. So there would have been little in the way of surfaces for objects to sit on, and there’s no evidence that were was a picture rail to hang pictures from. Nor was there a ceiling rose. So, while Priscilla and James had chosen to have a hall arch (and this was by no means the norm – people also used curtains or doors across the hall to separate public from private), they had elected not to have any other decorative features in the hall and to construct a hall that was too narrow for the extensive display of decorative objects. This is evidence of the complex interplay of factors that have always influenced the decisions of those building a house, whilst still remaining within – or at least close to – the budget.

Looking from the arch back towards the front door, showing how narrow the hallway was. Image: M. Hennessey.

For this reason, even if we had found artefacts from the Chalmers’s house, it’s unlikely we would have found any associated with the hallway. This is not to say that it wouldn’t have been a space in which portable material culture existed, but that most of those objects would have been temporary fixtures in the space, in keeping with the liminal function of the hall. There may have been an umbrella stand, or a coat rack, to hold the umbrellas, coats and hats of guests and residents alike. Unlike many of the objects in a house, these are ones that come and go with the people, rather than remaining with the house.

A few remnants of the things that might have been seen in the hallway, from time to time, and a wee sketch of what it might have looked like (plus wallpaper, just imagine the wallpaper, I did not have the patience to draw it). Top left: hand-carved umbrella or walking stick handle, made from antler. Bottom left: a felt hat, somewhat well-worn. Images: J. Garland.

There was probably a door mat and, if Priscilla and James did have a narrow hall table, it may have held ornamental objects, like a vase or decorative figurines. In truth, perhaps the most likely object to have been placed in the hallway is one that we tend to take for granted now: lighting. Lighting is so much a part of modern household interiors that we can forget to think of it as the household artefact that it is. Built in the late 1880s, Priscilla and James’s house may quite easily have had gas fitted lights, but documentary and archaeological evidence shows that portable oil lamps and candlesticks remained in use decades after the introduction of gas lighting. However, without a hall table on which to rest, those lights would also have been temporary additions to the space, carried in and out of the darkened hallway by James and Priscilla as they moved from room to room throughout the house.

The artefacts of lighting and ornamentation from the archaeological record and an imagining of what the hall might have looked like, if the Chalmers did have a hall table. Clockwise from top left: the glass chimney from a portable oil lamp OR fixed wall light; a porcelain vase; a chamberstick or hand-held candlestick, easily carried by the loop handle; a glass ‘finger lamp’, also meant to be portable. Images: J. Garland.

Katharine & Jessie


Archer, John. Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690-2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. doi:10.3138/j.ctt2ttkx9.