How Architecture Was Used to Shape Women’s Emotions

If you have to cry, go outside. That’s what the balcony was built for.

Ever feel like your Instagram feed is a hellish hole of girls flexing their yoga-perked bums on top of vast mountains, mothers in perfect outfits smiling at babies in perfect outfits and #girlsnightout posts of long-limbed, laughing posses of beautiful creatures?  That’s because today’s social media is structured to filter out socially inappropriate emotional displays. Posting a selfie of a tear-stained face is not exactly kosher, after all—but that kind of emotional filtering isn’t a new phenomenon. Before the rise of the digital world, the architecture of our homes used to perform the same function. Pre-Facebook and Instagram, the home was one of the main places where social expectations around emotions played out.

Victorians - art

Widow’s walks are one example. A ubiquitous appendage to New England architecture, the widow’s walk is a small balcony-like protrusion which found at the top of Victorian homes. The lore of the name goes back to the 19th century, when women would supposedly stand out on the little walkway and look out over the horizon, wistfully awaiting the return of their husbands who had gone off to sea, whose fates were uncertain but grim. The women or “widows” described in these stories are often stereotyped as the ideal Victorian-era sailors’ wives: stoic and strong in their husbands’ absences but still delicate and fragile, dutifully maintaining the household and tending to the large brood of children.

Victorians - weepyAlthough New England’s sailors’ wives represented an unusual case of solitude and self-sufficiency, these women were still expected to conduct themselves like proper Victorian-era women. “The Victorian woman was governed by her emotions, physically weak, genteel, and, especially, primarily, family-oriented”, Amy Brill describes in her historical tracing of the widow’s walk. Importantly, in spite of being “governed by her emotions”, Victorian emotional culture left little room for extreme emotional displays. Along with expectations of timidity and meekness, women were implicitly required to feign composure and maintain a relatively calm temperament. A demure demeanour required emotional regulation, and a 19th century distaste for sadness meant that these types of emotional displays were unseemly and were hidden from public view. As emotionologist Peter Stearns notes in his analysis of Victorian emotions, “Against life’s minor tribulations, a cheerful countenance and a willingness to take effective remedial action won the readiest response. Sadness, if it must exist, should be private and undemanding of others.”

Widow’s walks can therefore be seen as a tool supporting the prescribed containment of emotional displays: while pining for one’s long-lost seafaring husband was expected and “appropriate” grieving was acceptable, intense mourning, and especially anger, were not. As a consequence, these emotional displays were isolated through the design of the widow’s walk—architecturally segregating women’s emotional displays from the rest of the house.

Boudoirs and fainting rooms similarly exemplify how residential spaces were designed to conceal women’s emotional displays. Boudoirs were private sitting rooms which women, specifically upper-class ~ladies~, could have as their own private spaces. Adjacent to the bedchamber, they were typically used for dressing and bathing, and as small sitting rooms or private drawing rooms in later periods. The term “boudoir” itself derives from the French verb “bouder”, meaning “to sulk”, as it was originally a room for “sulking in, to put away or withdraw to.” Following this purpose, women could flee to their boudoirs to avoid publicly displaying their “inappropriate” emotions.

The function of fainting rooms is less historically clear, but is generally assumed to be similar in purpose. Fainting rooms, usually located on a house’s main level, contained fainting couches, a popular 19th century furnishing. Though there is some debate among historians, it is commonly suggested that the popularity of fainting couches was due to their role in the treatment of “female hysteria”, a procedure women underwent for neurosis—or various other emotional manifestations that were out of alignment with the prevailing emotional culture of the time. In short, fainting rooms served the purpose of isolating women with such socially inappropriate “symptoms”, simultaneously providing a space devoted to the eradication of these unwanted mood states.

Although our emotional culture has changed significantly since the 19th century, architectural remnants can still be seen today—especially when you think about the happy-go-lucky world people project on social media. Widow’s walks, boudoirs and fainting rooms provide but a few examples of how design can be critical to human and emotional interactions. Not only is architecture a physical manifestation of a culture’s emotional ideology, it also shapes a culture’s emotional ideology in return. Suppressing or encouraging certain emotional displays reinforces how certain emotions are approved or shunned by society. A historical perspective that takes emotion-shaping architecture into account therefore helps us understand how modern emotional culture works today—especially when it comes to the digital world so many of us now inhabit.


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