Ask Rufus: Turkish Corners and Lady Drivers

August 25, 2018 10:02:05 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Last week I wrote about the 1800s interior decor of Waverley. I had a good many comments from people who had never seen a description of the original interior of an antebellum home. It actually is rather interesting to look not just at the exterior of older homes but to also reflect upon the original furnishings and what they say about the people who lived there. 


Decorative fads have always been popular in America. When we see shag carpet we automatically think of the 1960s. So it is with other fads of furniture styles and room decor.  


Exotic foreign styles have long fascinated people in America. The 1840s saw an explosion of Egyptian motifs. Then in the 1850s the architecture guide books of Andrew Jackson Downing and Samuel Sloan popularized Gothic, Italianate and Moorish influences. A popular early Victorian decorating guide, The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones, also used many Moorish elements.  


One of the more interesting fads, and one that lasted until World War I, was the Turkish corner. 


With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, America's attention turned toward the Middle East. In 1876 the American Centennial Exposition contained an impressive display of artifacts from the Ottoman Empire. The public's interest in things Middle Eastern or Oriental mushroomed. Out of that interest arose the Turkish corner. 


Turkish corners began to appear in American parlors during the late 1870s and reached their peak of popularity during the 1890s. They provided a way in which middle class Americans could, without much expense, add a touch of the exotic to their homes. 


Just what was a Turkish corner? That is best answered by a description given in Will Harben's 1908 novel, Gilbert Neal. Harben wrote: "His feet sank deep into rare rugs, and the Turkish corner, with its lounge and billows of downy pillows, its cushioned stool, tabourets, brilliant Oriental draperies and tenselled canopy was really a gorgeous creation." A Turkish corner could be as exotic as the recreation of a Bedouin tent or as simple as a collection of Oriental pillows and foreign objects nestled around a comfortable chair in the corner of a parlor. 


The lack of real understanding of Ottoman or Moorish style led to Turkish corners becoming basically any eclectic assortment of exotic furniture, pillows and objects placed in the corner of a room. The popularity of Turkish corners resulted in spin-offs such as suggested in Helping Hand, a 1902 publication of the Women's Baptist Foreign Missionary Society. They suggested that: "A Turkish corner is very nice in a girl's room, but a missionary corner is better." 


When Turkey sided with Germany in World War I, Turkish corners, which were already going out of vogue, all but disappeared. Their demise was recorded in a 1918 article in House and Garden magazine. "No one used the 'Turkish corner' and it only collected dust, so it went the way of the useless. Then came the smoking room which was almost ungrateful in its appellation as though the man of the house were not permitted to smoke where he wished." 


Interior photographs of the old T.C. Billups home that once stood at 905 Main St. in Columbus document the use of a Turkish corner in a Columbus home. The home was was built by my great-grandparents T.C. Billups and Ida Sykes Billups in 1889. It was constructed in the Eastlake style and was the house in which I spent the first two years of my life. 


Photos given me by Marcella Billups Richards, my great-aunt and a daughter of the house, document the home's interior during the 1890s. Two of the photographs show the parlor, one being early 1890s and the other about 1898. The 1898 photo shows Marcella's sister Elizabeth Billups Johnston in her Turkish corner. 


Bet, as Elizabeth was called, died fairly young and I never knew her, though I wish I had. She apparently kept up with styles and enjoyed life. In going through a box of family mementos, I came across a small purse that had belonged to her.  


It was not just any old purse but a sterling silver one with dragons on it. Not only that, but inscribed on one side is "EBJ" and on the other "First Prize Lady Driver Miss. & West Ala. Fair 1908." 


I have Elizabeth's portrait and she looks all the Southern lady, but the photo of her in her Turkish corner and a little silver purse show a touch of the daring and exotic for a Columbus lady of over 100 years ago. Sometimes old photographs of interior furnishings and decorative arts tell you more than just what a place once looked like. 


Rufus Ward is a local historian.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]