Revisited Myth #23: Prudish Victorians “dressed” their naked furniture legs with fabric.

 

Cover these legs? I don't think so . . .

Cover these legs? I don’t think so . . .

 

Yikes, a naked table leg!

The idea that 19th-century Americans were such prudes they even covered the legs of their furniture with little skirts seems to have originated with Capt. Frederick Marryat’s Diary in America of 1839. Marryat, an Englishman, wrote a satire of his American tour. He wrote of the American propensity to use the word “limb” in place of “leg,” (although he says the English do it to, but not as scrupulously). Then he says he visited a boarding school for young ladies in New York state where he saw a “square piano-forte with four limbs . . . the mistress of the establishment . . . had dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them!”

Prosperous farmhouse parlor, 1900

Prosperous farmhouse parlor, 1900

Whether Marryat is exaggerating or not is subject to speculation–he is certainly poking fun at the Americans–but I can attest that, after having paged through a dozen books showing old, black-and-white photos of Victorian interiors, I saw not one example of a table, piano, or any other piece of furniture with skirts around its individual legs. (Please submit period photos if you know of any.) I did see floor-length skirts on round tables, like the one shown above in the left side of the room (click on the photo and it gets larger), but heck, I have a table like that in my own house. There may well have been some who decorated with little skirts on piano legs or table legs, but it seems not to have been common. Those who chose to decorate like that were indulging in the Victorian era love of fabrics, opulence, and excessive ornamentation, not covering up naked legs.

Lavish draperies and fabrics—fringe, tassels, lace, and such—were part of the conspicuous consumption of the Victorian era. The surfaces of pianos and tables were often draped with shawls or other textiles, as seen on the center table above. Sometimes the purpose was to disguise a plain table made of a lesser wood. As Catherine Beecher, the Martha Stewart of her day, and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe recommended in their 1869 book, American Woman’s Home: Take a “cheap pine table, such as you may buy for four or five dollars any day,” cover it with a piece of green fabric trimmed with a handsome border, and “you will be astonished to see how handsome an object this table makes under its green drapery.” Nothing about hiding naked table legs.

Besides, what was the point of all those ornate tables with heavily carved legs if they were not meant to be seen and admired?

streetcar_sm2It is true that in everyday language, the word “leg” was considered coarse by some (not all). Marryat mentions this in his 1839 book. I remember my grandfather saying that, as a boy, his mother would gently correct him if he ever said “leg.” The polite word was “limb.” (This was in 1900 in Washington, D.C.) A contemporary turn-of-the-century story tells of a self-conscious young lady who refuses to step up into a streetcar because she sees a group of young men loitering on the corner, waiting to catch a glimpse of her ankle. Most women did not obsess about such things.

3 Responses to Revisited Myth #23: Prudish Victorians “dressed” their naked furniture legs with fabric.

  1. Gerald Ritter says:

    Good article.   Helps illuminate some of what we heard about the previous generations.  My only problem was that the parlor depicted was enormous, whereas in Victorain houses they were rather small and formal and generally a bit crowded, intended to be used only for important visitors.  I have seen a great many, all of which would only be a fraction as large as the one pictured.

    Jerry Ritter

  2. Gregory hubbard says:

    My grandmother, a native of Rochester, New York, and born about 1892, referred to legs as limbs, but only on humans. Her handsome furniture never sported coverings on their limbs for modesty.
    Gregory Hubbard

  3. […] abandoned the traditional shape and now bake it in rounds or loaves. I assume that they, like the storied Victorians who were embarrassed at the sight of table legs, have grown uncomfortable with an Easter celebration of the phallus. Either that or they […]

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