Behind the Closed Door: Privacy by Design in 19th-Century Houses

Arnold Moses, photographer. Bartow-Pell Mansion, November 17, 1936. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress. Many of the original doors in Bartow-Pell’s first-floor rooms are made of rosewood and other expensive woods and fitted with fine silver hardware. However, not everyone could afford such an elegant display of wealth and taste. To save money, homeowners often mimicked this fashionable look with faux-grained woods and door knobs made of silvered glass. The niche in Bartow-Pell’s entrance hall once housed a cast-iron stove.

She knocked at the parlor door, “and was answered by a low ‘come in.’ She opened it, entered, and closed it.” (Eliza Meteyard, Mainstone’s Housekeeper, 1864)

Yes, that’s right. Doors—like the one in this novel from the 1860s—were generally kept closed in 19th-century interiors. But that was only part of a broader plan to ensure household privacy through architecture.

Robert Peckham (American, 1785–1877). The Raymond Children, ca. 1838. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1966. In this portrait from about 1838, two children stand in front of a closed parlor door at their home in Royalston, Massachusetts.

As in any era, designs for 19th-century houses responded to the lifestyles of the period. This was a time when middle- and upper-class households included not only family members, but also the servants who cooked their food, emptied their chamber pots, cared for their children, and groomed their horses. Employers and servants, adults and children, and women and men often moved in separate spheres, and it was important to preserve authority, domestic hierarchy, and the integrity of the family circle. Privacy, comfort, convenience, and efficient traffic flow needed to be taken into account. Physical dividers and other design elements—such as doors, corridors, staircases, and floor plans—were used to control and separate various spaces within the house and dictate how they were used, when, and by whom.

Let’s start with doors. Most rooms had multiple entries, which allowed for good flexibility and control over the space. Some doors opened into corridors; others connected to adjacent rooms. Closed doors signified exclusion. Open doors were useful for social events in formal spaces (especially the popular pocket—or sliding doors—of the period) or between family bedchambers when privacy was not required. Closed doors increased heat retention from fireplaces and stoves in cold months. Open doors created cross breezes in the summer.

Corridors and staircases were like public roads within the house. The idea of corridors as pedestrian streets is brought to life by a former student at the Pelham Priory school for girls, which operated from the late 1830s to 1882. Emily Earle Lindsley reminisced in 1933: “The long hall on the second story was named ‘Broadway’ and that on the third floor, ‘Fifth Avenue.’ Quaint, meticulous Miss Allen, the housekeeper, occupied a room, the short entrance to which was known as ‘Maiden Lane.’” (Christ Church at Pelham: 1843–1943)

Robert S. Burton. First Floor Plan, Bartow-Pell Mansion, 1986. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress. The main floor of the Bartow mansion is arranged in two parallel enfilades. Multiple doors offer both flexibility and control in these spaces.

The Bartow mansion (built 1836–42) is a good example of how doors, corridors, and floor plans were designed to safeguard the family’s private life while allowing open access to public spaces within the house, if desired.

On the first floor, the main block has both public and semi-public rooms: the entrance hall, double parlors, dining room, and sitting room. Two Palladian-style wings housed kitchen and work areas on the north side, and what we believe was Robert Bartow’s library and office—and an adjoining conservatory—on the south side.

Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1757–1827). Disappointed Epicures, 1809. Hand-colored etching. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959. Servants often had to move in and out of closed doors while waiting at table. The hungry gourmands in this humorous scene are infuriated when two footmen in the half-open door are tripped by a dog, which causes the tureen and a platter full of food to crash to the floor, ruining their much-anticipated dinner.
Arnold Moses, photographer. Entry hall, Bartow-Pell Mansion, November 17, 1936. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

The entrance hall provides access to the rest of the house through a series of doors and a couple of staircases. All of these doors would have regularly been kept closed in order to define the boundaries of this very public area; however, they could also be opened up for receptions and evening parties or to enhance air flow. Just inside the front door, a discreet set of stairs—with a handsome newel post—is located under the principal staircase, giving the servants a direct route from the basement to greet visitors. The more elaborate main staircase gives access to bedchambers and to other private spaces on the upper floors.

Bartow-Pell’s double parlors are part of an enfilade on the mansion’s first floor. Photo by Richard Warren

A sense of spacious grandeur is achieved through the use of enfilades. This architectural device—which derives from European palaces—employs a series of interconnecting rooms aligned on a straight axis to create superb views through rooms when doors are left open. The aim was not only to impress but also to create flexible spaces. One of the Bartow enfilades even extends to the conservatory. The great English landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752–1818) describes a similar design in Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816). “These rooms have been opened into each other, en suite, by large folding doors; and the effect of this enfilade, or vista, through a modern house, is occasionally increased by a conservatory at one end.”

Wilhelm Bendz (Danish, 1804–1832). The Waagepetersen Family, 1830. Oil on canvas. Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark), Copenhagen. This domestic scene depicts a well-to-do Danish businessman at home as he takes a break from his deskwork to greet his wife and children. Robert Bartow’s house had a similar business room with a connecting door to what was presumably Mrs. Bartow’s downstairs sitting room or morning room.
Bartow mansion, 1905. New York Public Library (left). Bartow mansion, ca. 1870. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum (right). The exterior door to what was likely Robert Bartow’s business room and library no longer exists, but it is visible just to the right of the main block of the house in this view from 1905. The fireplace in this room was probably removed in 1915 during renovations by Delano & Aldrich, but the chimney—which had already been taken down—is clearly present in earlier photographs, such as this one taken in 1870.

Robert Bartow probably managed the family’s 233-acre estate and took care of his business affairs in the south wing of the house. In 1864, the British architect Robert Kerr (1823–1904)—who had briefly practiced architecture in New York City in the 1840s—published The Gentleman’s House, or How to Plan English Residences. This comprehensive tome includes the author’s views on a “gentleman’s-room or business-room.” He writes that “in a good house there will be a special entrance made. The purpose is to admit the tenants, tradesmen, and other persons on business as directly as possible to the room in question and to no other part of the house. . . . The most eligible position will consequently be at what may be called the separating point between the main house and the offices.” An exterior door was originally in this exact position in Robert Bartow’s presumed “business-room.” In addition, as a gentleman and a former publisher of high-quality editions of British poetry and other works, Bartow may have used the south wing as his library.

Auguste Edouart (French, 1789–1861). The Magic Lantern, ca. 1835. Cut paper and wash. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Mary Martin, 1938. A servant peeks through the drawing-room door as he joins other members of the household—a couple and their children, a nursemaid with the baby, a grandmother, and even the family dog—for a magic-lantern show.

The unknown architect or builder of the Bartow mansion probably designed the house—which took six years to complete—with a great deal of input from his clients. Both architect and patron apparently had convenience and practicality in mind when planning the mansion’s work areas. The unrestored semi-basement retains most of its original layout. Windows provide ventilation and doors lead to the outside. Rooms were clearly defined for various purposes—such as cooking, baking, laundry, storage, and a servants’ dining hall—and a central corridor accommodated servant traffic. There are two staircases from the basement. One leads to the first-floor service wing (where there were additional food prep areas, pantries, and perhaps a scullery) and continues to the second floor; another staircase connects to the entrance hall and nearby dining room. It is clear that these service spaces allowed people to do their work efficiently, albeit within highly controlled areas. Robert Kerr reminds readers “that the servants’ department shall be separated from the main house, so that what passes on either side of the boundary shall be both invisible and inaudible on the other.” In the rest of the house, doors and corridors limited servants’ movements.

An upstairs room at Bartow-Pell is currently interpreted as a sitting room, although perhaps it was once a bedchamber. (Note the room’s similarity to the depiction of the Trimble family’s parlor in Edouart’s silhouette from 1842, the same year that the Bartow mansion was completed.) There are five doors in this room—two are off the central corridor; one connects to the backstairs corridor and the children’s suite; one leads to a dressing room and another bedchamber; and the last one currently opens to a closet.
Auguste Edouart. The Trimble Family, New York, 1842. Cut paper and ink. Winterthur Museum, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont

On the second floor, a central corridor is lined with doors to the four principal bedchambers (one of which might have been a sitting room). The corridor doors would have been kept closed. Let’s also remember that, like most houses built during the first half of the 19th century, the Bartow mansion did not have indoor plumbing, so bedchambers doubled as bathrooms. The three chambers facing Long Island Sound have interconnecting interior doors so that the family did not have to enter the public corridor to go between rooms. (One would not want to suddenly cross paths with a maid and vice versa!) Robert Kerr sums it up like this: “In short, whether in a small house or a large one, let the family have free passage without encountering the servants unexpectedly, and let the servants have access to all their duties without coming unexpectedly upon the family or visitors. On both sides this privacy is highly valued.” A fourth chamber on the other side of the hall is completely independent. Today it is interpreted as the bedchamber of the Bartows’ adult son George, but was it a guest room at one time?

James E. Cook. Testimony in the Great Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case, ca. 1875. Lithograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton’s affair shocked Americans and resulted in a lurid trial in 1875. Beecher was the famously flamboyant Brooklyn minister whose sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Locks on the doors of bedchambers, parlors, and other rooms—although not always used—offered privacy, security, and sometimes, secrecy. In the late 1860s, Henry Ward Beecher, the charismatic pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, began a scandalous extramarital affair with Elizabeth Tilton, a parishioner and the wife of his good friend Theodore Tilton. A famous trial ensued in which Beecher was charged with adultery, and the press breathlessly followed every detail. On July 22, 1874, the New York Herald reported that “Mr. Tilton, after leaving his house in the early morning, returned to it in the forenoon, and on going to his bedchamber, found the door locked, and when, on knocking, the door was opened by Mrs. Tilton, Mr. Beecher was seen within, apparently much confused and exhibiting a flushed face.”

Dominic W. Boudet (d. 1845). The Bowie Children, 1812–15. Oil on canvas. Winterthur Museum, Gift of Katharine Gahagan, Michael H. du Pont, and Christopher T. du Pont in memory of A. Felix du Pont Jr. This scene helps us to imagine the Bartows’ school-age children—four boys and three girls—who were taught at home by a tutor and a governess for at least some of their childhood.

The children’s suite—which is on the second floor above the kitchens—is separated from the principal bedchambers by a small corridor at the back staircase. (This staircase was probably used by the children as well as the servants.) And, indeed, Robert Kerr tells us that “The most usual position for nurseries in an average house is at that point where the family sleeping-rooms and the servants’ rooms meet at the back staircase.” In the Bartow mansion, two sets of doors between the main block and the children’s quarters gave Mrs. Bartow quick access to her small children, even though a servant probably slept in the nursery. The suite has four small rooms that flow one into the other around what was once the schoolroom (with its marble fireplace). The supervision of children meant that privacy was less important in this area, which probably explains why there are no corridors.

Robert Peckham. The Hobby Horse, ca. 1840. Oil on canvas. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. Several clues in this portrait suggest that the children have just returned home from an outing. The door to the hall has been left ajar, a cap has been carelessly tossed atop the base of the hobby horse, and the little girl is still holding her bonnet.
Arnold Moses, photographer. Bartow-Pell Mansion, second-floor landing and stairs to the third-floor attic, November 17, 1936. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress. This flight of stairs is the only way to reach to the third-floor servants’ quarters.

What did privacy mean for servants? Robert Kerr says, “The family constitute one community; the servants another. Whatever may be their mutual regard and confidence as dwellers under the same roof, each class is entitled to shut its door upon the other, and be alone.” Some of the Bartows’ female (and mostly Irish) servants slept in the third-floor attic. In Rural Homes, or Sketches of Houses Suited to American Country Life (1851), the architect Gervase Wheeler writes: “In the roof over the main part of the house, an additional sleeping-room, or even two or three, might be contrived for servants.” Although the women had this floor to themselves, there was very little (if any) privacy in the large dormitory-like space.

Strangely, there are no back stairs to the third-floor servants’ quarters, and the only way to get there is to take the main staircase from the second-floor landing. Was this simply because the back stairs are located in the north wing, which is only two stories high? Then again, why would Mr. and Mrs. Bartow want the chambermaid and laundress making their way to bed through the family corridor? Was this was the Bartows’ way of keeping a suspicious eye (and ear) on their employees to make sure that they were not sneaking upstairs during work hours? High turnover among the Irish meant that employers often viewed servants with distrust. In June 1864, the author of “Your Humble Servant” (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine) grumbled, “She gives short or often no notice at all. . . . The household is the scene of a perpetual revolution. Today, there is a change of dynasty in the kitchen, tomorrow in the chamber or nursery. Domestic anarchy and confusion are the inevitable consequences.”

Yesterday it was closed doors. Today it is open plan. And tomorrow?

Margaret Highland, BPMM Historian

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