The parlor was the lady’s showplace. It was in this room more than any other that the wealth of the family was closely scrutinized. The richest furniture they could afford would be put into the parlor, as would anything exotic that was available to them at the time. In fact, many people spent more than they could afford keeping up with the Joneses; not too different from today. As a result, as you went from the parlor to practically any other part of the house, scarcity was the word in furniture. For this reason, parlors were often seen as a haven from day to day drudgery, and were made large enough that the guests would not have to go anywhere else. Except of course for unmentionable necessities. (ahem)
Anyway, true Southern belles put great thought and care in the decorations in the parlor. Because the costs for importing goods from across the pond was expensive, it was very posh to have European furniture laced throughout the room. Even one chair from England or Spain had the power to raise your social standing within the social community.
If you were really wealthy, or wanted to seem better off than you were, houseplants were the latest word in parlor fashion. The more exotic the better, and an absolute must if they bloomed or had an unforgettable fragrance. One must desired plant was the ponderosa lemon, also called the American wonder. They were large – up to 5 feet tall – and were very fragrant. The best thing about these beauties were the large aromatic lemons they produced. If in proper health, these lemons could weigh 5 pounds. It was not very good for lemonade, but the heavy skin meant that the fruit could hang for months without spoiling. These fruits grew best in mild climates, where the winter was a little warmer and the days brighter. Southern Texas wealthy could afford to keep these for years, but farther north only those who could afford to loose them could afford to have them. North Texas winters were a little too harsh for tropical citrus.
For those that couldn’t afford the luxury of tropical fruits, colorful flowers were a cheery alternative. Geraniums, with their hardy quality and cheery red flowers, were very popular in antebellum Texas. They still are, now that I think about it. Although they were not always in the parlor, they often graced foyer windows and brightened kitchen sills. A very hardy bloomer was the wax plant, that sprouted little bouquets of small white or light pink flowers. They were very hardy, not minding drops in temperatures or low light. So, they saw enduring popularity through and after the war.
Not everyone wanted the color. Some sought less ostentacious means to display their wealth. Victorian homes were notorious for the downplayed display of ivies. The green foliage that was fast-growing and stretched towards the light given by windown were excellent compliments to the somber furniture coloring of the day. Ferns like the Hart’s-tongue were also popular additions to parlors, where heat was fleeting in the wintertime. Aspidistras, or cast iron plants, were popular because of their fondness of low light. Their somber green leaves and long life span had a calming influence in the cluttered Victorian and antebellum parlors. Sanseveria is a popular plant in the past as well as the present. My grandmother has one of these, that she calls the snake plant, that is older than my mother. They are slow growing, require little care, and are evergreen.
The last word in parlor decorating is the palm tree. To have one meant that you had arrived. The toughest part of owning a palm is that it must be grown from a seed. A seed that came from the jungles of far away islands and Australia. Common palms included the luxurious coconut, the Chinese fan palm, and the sentry palm.
Only wealthy planters could afford to keep these trees after a time. They often grew too tall for the average antebellum parlor, and were disposed of. But, tall palms were the playthings of the rich. One case in South Texas had a planter remodel his house to make his parlor larger to accommodate his growing palms. Palm seeds and seedlings were often bequeathed to loved ones in wills, and family feuds exist in the dockets were no one wanted to let go of mother’s palm tree.