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The term “parlor” is used in a number of ways. In the sense of a private home, a parlor is a formal room set aside for the entertainment of guests to the home. In inns, pubs, and restaurants, parlors are semi-private rooms which allow people to meet in more privacy and comfort than they can find in the main area. Finally, a parlor can also take the form of a business which performs a specific function, as in the case of gaming parlors, ice cream parlors, tanning parlors, and beauty parlors.
You may also see this word spelled as “parlour,” in a reference to its French roots. In either case, the sense of a parlor as in a setting room dates to 1374, although the word has been in the English language since 1225, in reference to a confessional window. Many other languages have a word which is equivalent to “parlor,” thanks to an almost universal desire and need for private spaces for the purpose of entertainment and conversation.
In a private home, the parlor or sitting room is often reserved specifically for guests, and in the Victorian era the parlor was often closed during the week and opened only on Sundays, just for formal entertaining. More modern households may have more lax rules about the use of the parlor, but the room is generally kept clean and tidy for guests, and it may feature couches and tables for comfort, along with an assortment of things which guests might find enjoyable like board games and books. On occasion, someone may also wait in the parlor when they arrive early to meet a member of the household.
In the sense of an inn or food service establishment, a parlor tends to be a feature in larger businesses which can afford to dedicate space to a private room. People must typically reserve the parlor ahead of time to ensure that it will be available when they want to use it, and there may be a minimum number of guests rule, or people may be asked to pay a flat fee for the use of the private room. In exchange for the extra fee, people get dedicated attention from a waiter, or several, depending on the size of the party, and they also get privacy, as they are closed off from the public areas of the business.
The first emergence of “parlor” in the sense of a specific business was in 1884, when the first ice cream parlor was opened. Numerous other businesses also adopted the use of the term “parlor” to imply that they welcomed conversation and friendly socialization among their patrons, which is why the term is often linked with beauty businesses and businesses dedicated to social gaming.
When I think of homes with parlors, I think of some older homes I visited as a child. They were lovely. I also think about the book "Farmer Boy" by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book deals with her future husband, Almanzo, and his growing up in upstate New York. His family was wealthy and their home had a wonderful parlor.
Once, Almanzo was blacking the stove and his older sister was nagging at him. He threw the blacking brush at her and it hit the wall on the other side. He thought he was in major trouble.
Fortunately, his sister realized it was her fault for picking at him and she found wallpaper scraps in the attic and patched the spot, so he wouldn't get in trouble.
People set great store by their parlors in those days.
Every home built by anyone well to do used to have a parlor. That was where the nicest furnishings, as well as family photos, were displayed. Now, the distinction is more "den" and "living room." The den is where the family hangs out, while the living room is the more formal of the two.
Visitation areas at funeral homes are also called parlors.
I saw where the word "parlor" comes from the French world "parler," which, of course, means "to talk." If so, then it came through the language largely unchanged in either form or definition.
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