When talking to people in the decorative arts field, I have been surprised at how little is known about Turkish corners. 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 Exotic foreign styles have long fascinated people in America. The 1840s saw an explosion of Egyptian motifs. Then in the 1850s some of the architecture of Downing and Sloan exhibited a Moorish influence. A popular early Victorian decorating guide, The Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones also used many Moorish elements.
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 the exotic and especially 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. The peak of popularity followed the public”s fascination with the Turkish village and market at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The Turkish corner 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 parlor or bedroom.
At first they were only in a parlor and were the domain of the man of the house. It was his private place to smoke and drink without bother. The Turkish corner might even have a water pipe or Hookah. As their popularity grew so did their creation and use by all members of the family.
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. Its 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.”
Rufus Ward is a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to him at [email protected]