“For a Noble Man, a Prince”: Images and Identity in Colonial America
Phyllis Hunter, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Paul Staiti, Mount Holyoke College
Parlors Across Classes
Let’s reconsider some of the ideas about the parlor in Step One and in the Visual Culture essay. While many colonial residents would have had a parlor or best room in their home, economic and geographic factors would have shaped the room’s appearance and items. British Americans displayed portraits and chairs along with other prized possessions in their best room where visitors might see them—whether that room was the ballroom of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia, or the new parlor of a middling merchant’s house. But these rooms were not like museums today: colonial Americans did not view their contents as separate, unrelated displays.
First: Take a look at the three Georges—the portraits of King George III. Take notes about what you observe in the three different portraits, considering the following questions: How do these three portraits differ? Start with the relative size of each portrait. What do you notice about the sitters’ pose, clothing, and other aspects of their presentation? What do you know about how the portraits were made? And how they were displayed? How would that matter to the viewers of these portraits? Finally, how do the portraits’ different methods of production and the ways they were viewed help us understand how the colonists viewed King George III?
Second: Consider the three chairs. Chairs were important items in houses, and not just as furniture to sit on. Depending on their design, they also could be a prominent feature of a room. Take notes about what you observe about these three chairs. How do they appear different to you? What are the differences in labor and skill involved in their manufacture? Pick out some parts of the chair that seem noteworthy. What other differences do you notice among the three side chairs?
Third: Let’s put together some of these eighteenth-century objects to get a better picture of how people of different social classes lived and how they used their objects to make larger statements about social identity.
Choose one of the three social levels of colonial consumers—prosperous, middling, or modest—and put the portraits and chairs together to imagine a family’s parlor. Write 2-3 paragraphs considering the following: What did the parlor look like? What goods and images did your imagined family display in their home? How did your family use these consumer goods to make a statement about their identity? What sort of statement do you think they were making?