The Little Room Upstairs

William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector

We have a small room on the second floor of our 1885 Victorian home. It's way too small to be a bedroom. It has one window, but each of the other bedrooms have two and the largest has three. I spoke to a guide at a Victorian house museum that said it was called a fainting room. Would you happen to know what this room might have been?

I get to see many late Victorian era homes with the little room upstairs. I also get to hear many names for various rooms in old homes and the stories about how they were used. Some of the names were made up long after they were built and some of the stories are folklore. Having a room designated to be only used for an occasional event triggers my folklore meter. I'm suspicious of claims that rooms were specifically built for funerals, childbirth or fainting.

To determine the original purpose of the little room upstairs, without the influence of how the rooms were subsequently used and labeled, we have to look at primary documentation from the period. Fortunately, there are many surviving and reprinted house pattern and plan books. Reviewing many of these books I find tremendous detail, including the names given to each room of each level of the homes. Having browsed hundreds of labeled floor plans published in the last quarter of the 19th century, I can tell you that I've never found any reference to a fainting room.

History Behind the Little Room Upstairs

Now there are many stories of Victorian women being susceptible to fainting. One reason given is the tight corsets restricting proper breathing during any physical exertion. The other is the readily available, unregulated patent medicines reportedly consumed by housewives in middle and upper class homes (happy Mommy pills). There was a piece of furniture--a sort of daybed/chaise lounge that received the nickname of "fainting couch."

On the second floor, what we consider bedrooms are usually labeled "chambers." Many plans show 3-4 chambers and a bedroom on the second floor. This single "bedroom" is always a tiny room as compared to the chambers, often with no closet. It is frequently located near the top of the stairs from the first floor. The small room in this location is what many folks have told me was the "fainting room." The distinction between chamber and bedroom is that a chamber is where an occupant would disrobe, sleep for the night, awake, dress and prepare in the morning. A bedroom in this period would have contained what we consider a daybed. It was intended to be used for brief rests during daytime hours, so as to not disarrange the nighttime bed. Since it sometimes contained the fainting couch, to some, the small bedroom containing it become so labeled in the next century.

Also in these design books are occasional other small rooms on the second floor plans. The ones that don't connect directly to a chamber are the sewing room (the most common after the aforementioned bedroom), the servant's bedroom and the trunk room. There is also the occasional dressing room, but this is usually entered from one or two of the chambers and not the hall.

About the Author
William Kibbel III is a home inspector and restoration consultant specializing in historic residential and commercial buildings. He is vice president of Tri-County Inspection Company serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey.

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