Not every home had a ‘front room’

From our July/August 2015 issue

By Claudette Sandecki – Terrace, B.C.

In her memoir, Sister to Courage, Wanda Robson writes of their 1926 Halifax home having a “front room” with a parlour beyond. The term, front room, stirred memories of my early years on a Saskatchewan farm. Suddenly what had been an everyday designation in my childhood seemed odd.

My carpenter grandfather who immigrated to Canada from Sweden in 1907, built our two-storey house with three bedrooms upstairs, one down, a kitchen, a sizeable pantry, and a front room.

In our front room we listened to the console radio, read, played Monopoly, or visited with any relatives who came for several days. (Any visiting involving coffee or foods happened at the kitchen table.) Our parents’ house rules discouraged roughhousing everywhere, but especially in the front room primarily for its lack of free space.

Were we the only family to have a front room? I wouldn’t know. Our visits to neighbours were few, if at all existent. We were a stay-at-home family.

My father was even more introverted than I am and he did any driving. Mom loved company, but with no way to drive herself hither or yon, we didn’t get the opportunity to see how many of our counterparts lived. Consequently, I grew up with an insecurity complex thinking our home was “less than” that of our neighbours.

Classmates brought lard sandwiches

My classroom teacher visited once to speak with mom. I was mortified she’d witness the simplicity of our home: the homemade kitchen table with its linoleum top; the washstand with the hand basin. For some reason or other, I had the notion others’ homes had running water and proper bathrooms. Little did I know…

In truth, in many ways we were better off, as I learned during our school’s 50th reunion. That’s when I found out some of our classmates packed sandwiches spread only with lard. We had butter, real jams, peanut butter, honey, or meats like fried chicken or bologna.

One way we were much better off was the condition of everything we owned: our upholstered furniture wasn’t threadbare; the piano had no chipped keys (plenty of farm families had no piano at all and couldn’t afford piano lessons); the kitchen linoleum had no worn patches showing lumber underneath.

The front room, though, embarrassed me for its several braided rugs and one long runner from kitchen to hall leading upstairs. Lacking a vacuum cleaner, cleaning those rugs was my biggest chore every Saturday.

In a tight circle around a small central table stood my Craig piano; the Philco radio; and a buffet with a full width mirror harbouring mom’s special occasion dishes.

Everything was in good condition

There was also a wind-up gramophone anchored by a formidable collection of vinyl records from Harry Lauder to Wilf Carter. Its top was hidden by a sprawling Christmas cactus older than I was. An upholstered sofa and two matching chairs completed the room. Although in perfect condition, mom kept them covered by washable blankets, a welcome touch in winter.

High above the sofa, a wide window of stained glass in a fan design of blues, greens, reds, and yellows lent the room a glow when morning sun beamed through. Through the other window, facing south, sunshine peeked past a windowsill of blooming geraniums.

The room was unpretentious, but everything in it was in good condition, paid for, nothing threadbare, dented, or broken.

If you Google “front room”, you’ll find it’s another way of saying living room, sitting room, or parlour. The Geffrye Museum in London defines ‘front room’ as “a symbol of status and respectability, announcing that no matter how poor you were, if the front room looked good then you were ‘decent’ people.”

Looking back now all these decades later, I appreciate that our parents taught us to live within our means and care for our possessions.

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