Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture

Kenneth L. Ames
Outstanding Academic Title, Choice, 1994
Book Cover

PB: $42.95
EAN: 978-1-56639-333-1
Publication: Feb 96

HC: $49.95
EAN: 978-0-87722-891-2
Publication: Feb 92

280 pages
8.5 x 11
192 halftones

A richly illustrated and provocative discussion of Victorian culture through an exploration of common household goods

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 (pdf).


In this provocative look at Victorian America, Kenneth Ames explores the minds of Victorians by examining some of their most distinctive and fascinating creations. Featuring five once-prominent home furnishings, he reconstructs a vanished culture and demonstrates the centrality of the artifact to historical understanding. Richly illustrated with photographs of surviving objects as well as images from a wide variety of period sources, the five essays discuss specific pieces—hallstands, sideboards, embroidered mottoes, parlor organs, and seating furniture—within the context of broader cultural issues and concerns. Ames reveals not only the major outlines of Victorian culture but also the conflicts and tensions deep within that culture.

An extraordinary proliferation of goods characterizes the Victorian world. Throughout the study, Ames considers the relationship of some of these household objects to issues of class, gender, and place. For example, the importance of public image was dramatized by the rituals of the front hall in Victorian homes: its placement within the house, the massive hallstand with its receptacles for calling cards and umbrellas, accommodations for temporary and usually uncomfortable seating. The dining room was a shrine to the notion of "man's" dominion over nature—each elaborately carved sideboard displayed a frieze of slaughtered game and harvested vegetation. Parlor organs, a blending of the sacred and the profane, provided an occasion to display feminine accomplishment and to symbolize the role of the bourgeois Christian lady. Ames also discusses how the prevailing class and gender hierarchy was echoed in the posture of seating furniture and its arrangement.

The author is one of the premier interpreters of Victorian culture in America. His witty, provocative, and irreverent commentary on the "quaint" fixtures of the Victorian household will fascinate scholars, antique buffs, and collectors on nostalgia.

Table of Contents

1. First Impressions
2. Death in the Dining Room
3. Words to Live By
4. When the Music Stops
5. Posture and Power

About the Author(s)

Kenneth L. Ames is Chief of Historical and Anthropological Surveys at the New York State Museum and was formerly Chair of the Office of Advanced Studies at the Winterthur Museum.


In the Series

  • American Civilization edited by Allen F. Davis

    The focus of American Civilization, edited by Allen F. Davis, is American cultural history. In keeping with the interdisciplinary work in this field, which characteristically brings together art history, literary history and theory, and material culture, the titles in this series cover diverse aspects of American experience—from attitudes toward death to twentieth-century design innovations to images of country life in art and letters to trade unions' reliance on religious discourse. The series has been a pioneer in presenting work that uses photographs as historical documents and from its inception has been firmly committed to women's studies. As the first university press series in the field, American Civilization provided the inspiration and the standard for much of the interdisciplinary work developing in the contemporary academy.