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

Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture

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Kenneth L. Ames

Outstanding Academic Title, Choice, 1994

Henry-Russell Hitchcock Award, Victorian Society of America, 1993

"Ken Ames has always 'heard a different drummer.' Death in the Diningroom explores his unique ideas of how our home furnishings give visitors a message about our status and concerns. Why don't we own a hall tree? Why are dead birds carved on the sideboard? And why are some Victorian chairs so uncomfortable? These and other strange thoughts pop up as you read his latest, well-illustrated book."
Ralph and Terry Kovel, authors of Kovels' Antiques and Collectables Price List

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.

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Excerpt

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 (pdf).

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Reviews

"[E]ffectively explores and articulates 'the varied tasks and roles' performed by ordinary goods in the everyday life of Victorian America, as well as the complex, contradicted elements of culture they often reveal."
American Quarterly

"An eminently engaging and entertaining work by one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Victorian culture."
Antique Review

"If coffee tables could talk, this would be the coffee table book they'd choose."
Philadelphia Inquirer

"[Ames's] well-argued analysis revolves around issues of gender and class, structures of power, and strategies of adjustment to change. He amply illustrates his interpretations with photographs that carry their own provocatively interpretive texts. Meant to be read and read again, meant to be discussed and debated..."
Choice

"Few have been as influential [as Ames] in advancing the study of American culture and society through the study of household furnishings. Death in the Dining Room is...an informed and insightful group of essays examining five artifact groups—hall furnishings, dining room sideboards, needlework mottoes, parlor organs, and seating furniture—for views of the Victorian world that can be revealed through material culture."
Susan Meyers, American Quarterly

"In this marvelous work, mere words successfully take us into that foreign yet familiar country—our own past.... With his practiced eye and clarifying voice, Ames transforms five classes of ordinary artifacts from daily life into windows on the culture that sustained them, the values they signified, and the feelings they engendered."
Patrick Norris, Museum News

"It is virtually impossible to read any art of this fascinating and accomplished study without responding to Ames's infectious enthusiasm, his questioning eye, and his careful, extended, and revelatory interrogations of objects both grand and humble....Ames stops and looks—and looks again—not only at the things themselves but also at their environment, their placement, their social and ritual functions, and the messages they were meant to inculcate and to communicate to those who saw and used them everyday. His Aristotelian method is richly productive, resulting in an energetically proliferating chain of connotations that make even the plainest stitched motto a revelation of Victorian attitudes....This is an inspiring book."
Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

"This fine outstanding study is augmented by photographs as finely printed as I have ever seen. They are so real in fact that one touches them and expects a tangible feel. All in all this is a superb book that literally must be a part of the library of everyone interested in human culture."
Journal of Popular Culture

"Hall furniture was especially important in the Victorian Era. The excellent book Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture has an extensive section about the importance of hall furniture and the protocols involved with its design, use and placement."
Antiques Week (Central Edition)

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Contents

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

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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.

Subject Categories

General Interest
American Studies


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.

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