The Case of the Missing Rooms
As values and the human activities they drive shift, homes change, and rooms simply disappear! These are some of them, once important but now lost to the ages.
The fainting room has vanished! Maybe it was the butler in the coal room with the scuttle. Wait, coal room?
For those of us who love old homes, there are delights to be found in exploring them when the opportunities arise. With the rise of technology, the function of homes has changed, and so have the rooms they include — or don’t include.
These days, additional rooms in a home might have a theatre, an office, a recreational/gaming room, or a little wet bar for drinks night.
Things were different in the old days. Homes often had more rooms (not necessarily more space; often just more walls) than today — some critical for the running of a smart household, and others simply necessary for a proper aristocratic lifestyle. Let’s take a look at some of the rooms you’ll be lucky to find in older homes.
Refrigeration has revolutionized food storage over the last 80 years. Before that, and even overlapping that time, people stored food cautiously. Flies, pests, and vermin were a constant threat. So was light and heat.
A “larder” was a room constructed for keeping food cool to prolong its life. It’d be built with special care to keep out rodents and pest. Mesh windows would ensure air circulation. Shelves and cupboards would be needed to keep things organized and off the ground, and the room would need to be next to kitchens.
So much thought was put into designing this room, in fact, that the best homes of those time were built with the kitchen and larder facing opposite the sun’s trajectory over the sky, ensuring a lifetime in the shade.
The coal room
Scouring the interwebs, you’ll find the odd concerned new “old home” owner posting photos of a small enclosed room, often concrete with one small window, asking the netizens what the room might have been.
Those who answer “coal room” are generally right. The window is, of course, where you would see the old coal truck rumble up and lower a chute through it that’d deliver the coal straight into the room.
It was not on the main floor so as to keep the coal dust and filth as far from the interior fineries of the day as possible. You’d trudge downstairs with your coal scuttle, open the door, load up your coal, close the door, shake the dust off, and head up. Or your servant would, anyhow.
With the Marlboro Man dead of cancer, long gone is the romance once associated with smoking cigars and other tobacco. In its heyday, it was an exotic treat, brought back from Turkey, the Caribbean, and other far-flung places, ensuring that the wealthy loved to smoke.
After fancy dinner parties, the gentlemen would often retreat to a snazzy enclosed room calling “the smoking room.” Some might even don velvet “smoking jackets” for the activity, which we mock today but those velvet jackets were purposeful.
In fact, much velvet and other heavy tapestries would be found adorning the walls and floors of the room. Why? The heavy fabrics were in use so as they’d absorb smoke odors and render these guests inoffensive upon rejoining the non-smoking guests at the party.
More common in Europe, a “garret” was a livable attic. Small, humble, under lower pitched roofs, rustic and often unfinished spaces, the garret was where you might find household staff living, or some poor soul who couldn’t afford a proper home. Think VC Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic if you want a creepy, but apropos example.
These days, building codes would prevent such arrangements in most homes, and attics have become storage spaces for the most part.
Enter this, the most scandalous and odd of all the rooms no longer found in modern homes. “Fainting rooms” often had fainting couches, and were designed for a respectable woman to lie down and collect herself when enduring the constricted breathing sometimes brought on by a tight corset, particularly whilst entertaining with grand events.
And then there is the dreaded “female hysteria.” A catch-all diagnosis for everything from sexual arousal to panic attacks, female hysteria was a so-called affliction that doctors claimed they could cure via pelvic massages, creating the rise of the personal massaging device (ahem), and the fainting room with its reclining-friendly fainting couch enabled this “doctor-administered treatment” without requiring a patient to disrobe.
Only 155 years ago it was claimed as much as a quarter of women suffered the dreaded female hysteria, but in the time since, we’ve learned much more about sexuality and psychology, and it’s no longer an accepted diagnosis.
Over the last century, women have ditched the corsets, and between evolved thinking and new fashions, fainting rooms have fallen out of favor.
From hearth rooms to powder rooms and dressing rooms and mud rooms, many homes today are missing a lot of what were once considered essential.
Today’s home is an exercise in multifunction. From bedrooms to living rooms and kitchens, we now use each room for more than one purpose. With technology changing the way we work and live, there are fewer reasons to have so many rooms.
Things will continue to change, too. With more small-space homes than ever before, what else will we decide is no longer necessary? What future technological advances will further simplify our space needs? Only time will tell.