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On a Reddit post I recently stumbled across the surprising assertion that the living room was once called the death room, with the explanation being given variously that it's where you would mourn the dead, or it's where you would leave their bodies during times of great death until someone could come along and pick it up.

I looked on Wikipedia and discovered the claim repeated there, with a random blog given as the citation:

The death room

Influenza was rampant after World War 1 and many people lost their lives. Not having the means to bury bodies immediately, and wishing to take the time to mourn, bodies were often stacked in an unused part of the house – typically the Parlor, as most people were not entertaining during these horrible times.

Introducing the living room

When things started looking brighter after the influenza outbreak subsided it began to feel morbid to call this area the death room. Ladies Home Journal – THE magazine of that time – said that with the inevitable return to the socialization and happiness of the days before the outbreak, the death room should be ‘livened’ up and therefore the term living room came to be.

This really, really sets off my bullshit detector, and after a quick Google the only things I can find repeating the claim are random blogs. But I'm really not sure how to verify it — it seems like the sort of thing that could be true, but probably isn't.

Further evidence hinting towards the falseness of this claim is the OED entry for "living-room" (incidentally there is no entry for "death-room"), which while light on the etymology, lists a number of 19th century examples of "living-room" starting from 1825, including some clearly used to refer to a specific room. While this doesn't completely rule out the term "death room" as having existed, it certainly rules out the idea that the term "living-room" was invented in the 1910s, and so casts yet more doubt on the whole story.

1825 Greenhouse Comp. I. 9 No living-room should depend for its ventilation on such of its windows as may communicate with a green-house.

1857 C. Vaux Villas & Cottages 119 Under the living-room is a basement-kitchen.

If it really is true, I'm curious as to where in the world this happened (Britain? America? Specific parts thereof?), for how long it was the case (just during the war or for a significant time before it?), and anything else about the specific cases in which one might have had a "death room".

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  • Apparently, „Ladies Home Journal“ was a magazine in the United States of America.
    – gerrit
    Mar 26 at 13:31
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    In the United States, about 292,000 flu deaths were reported between September–December 1918, which was about 1/350 of the population. It is hard to see how bodies would be "stacked up in parlours", unless they were funeral parlours, where there would be nothing unusual about having dead bodies. Mar 26 at 13:35
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    If anyone has access to the full Oxford English Dictionary (in print or online) their etymology and quotations for "living room" would probably be good evidence here. They'd probably also have an entry marked "archaic" for "death room" if the story is true.
    – IMSoP
    Mar 26 at 14:24
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    @IMSoP No entry in the OED for "deathroom", "death-room", or "death room". There is one for "living-room" and the earliest citation given in my (out of date) edition is "1825 Greenhouse Comp. I. 9 No living-room should depend for its ventilation on such of its windows as may communicate with a green-house.". No mention of "death" in the living-room entry either but not much etymological info is present there, just citations.
    – Muzer
    Mar 26 at 14:31
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    There is also reference in Wikipedia to one Edward Bok coining the term. Since he was born in 1863 and the OED has a citation from 1825, we can reasonably conclude that this is false - although it might be a lead on where the myth about "death room" came from.
    – IMSoP
    Mar 26 at 16:03
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The 1990 book Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America says:

To remove the stigma of death from the home this "death room" became a "living room" by simple decree by the editor of the Ladies Home Journal. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century more and more funerals were being performed in Funeral "Parlors." And the home no longer had a "parlor." The "living room" became a true room for the living.

...

Edward Bok , editor of the Ladies Home Journal , stipulates that room designs for the Journal never show parlors , but rather “ living rooms".

The 1921 book A Dutch Boy Fifty Years After by Edward Bok says at page 136:

and in place of the American parlor , which he considered a useless room , should be substituted either a living - room or a library .

The closest I see in the actual Ladies Home Journal is September 1887:

A really handsome, tasteful parlor - and not a grand apartment by any means, but one that might better, perhaps, be called a "living-room" —is a far rarer sight than a pretty bedroom ; and when not much used, it is too often all piano and carpet. It is to be supposed that there are a few other things in the room; but the piano as large and the carpet loud, and attention is therefore riveted upon them. With dead-white walls for a background, a more unhappy combination could not well be inspired. And all this ugliness, when charming rooms can be had under the most adverse circumstances.

However, the point of Bok in his book is that his house plans would avoid having a "parlor" and instead have a "living room".

So the term "death room" was not used as the permanent name for the room, the issue is between "parlor" and "living room" and Ladies Home Journal avoided "parlors" in favor of "living rooms" prior to the time frame mentioned in the blog.

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    I think this is the right answer, but you should make it clear that "death room" was not the actual name, and add that this had nothing to do with influenza -- it was simply common before the 20th century to mourn over a body at home, as it still is in many parts of the world.
    – Avery
    Mar 26 at 18:11
  • Currently, I do not see how this answers the question about any "death room". The whole Bok-angle is full of overstatement at its core. Where should the "stigma" come from? However, Burns is a source to dig deeper into, as well as Laderman ("RIP"). Hint: it is not about storing ("stack"!, surplus?) dead, but wake, display & viewing; in short: long established cultural norms, not really connected to flu, but death in general & in families, public/private ritual and changing attitudes. Mar 26 at 18:11
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    Among other aspects: "Death room" was a temporary function for rooms called the salon, the parlor, in a private home, until "funeral parlors" became more common. Parlor in a home that had them being often unused for everyday living, but kept closed for more special occasions, gatherings, meetings (the heating!) a semi-public space of the house. This emphasises before 1920s, for many decades as the timeframe to look at for such 'nicknames'? Hop to the HubofR But then your now last para is in need of more direct refs? Mar 26 at 18:25
  • @LangLаngС "death room" meant the room where someone died. As in "It may be difficult to absolutely disinfect a death-room in a private residence by the use of formaldehyde, but the room is certainly made much safer than it would have been without such fumigation" google.com/books/edition/The_Medical_Age/…
    – DavePhD
    Mar 26 at 18:36
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    @IMSoP A better example than the OED quotes is this 1850 reference google.com/books/edition/… which uses the term "living-room" numerous times including in many floor plans. Bok definitely didn't coin the term. His contribution was just to emphasize living rooms over parlors.
    – DavePhD
    Mar 28 at 17:05

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