Why Do We Call a Living Room a “Living Room”?

Updated on September 16, 2022 by Joseph D. Nielson

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A modern living room with plank floors, wood blinds, bookshelves and a wall-mounted TV

“We spend most of our lives in the bedroom, so why do we call the living room “the living room”? Shouldn’t the bedroom be the “living room”?”

It sounds like an old Jerry Seinfeld comedy routine, but it raises an interesting question. Of all the rooms in our house, why did we designate the large, communal space – where we put our TVs, couches and coffee tables – the “living room”?

Moreover, how on earth did we come up with that name? There are far more accurate descriptors we could use (“the leisure room,” “the communal room,” etc.), so why did “living room” become the dominant term? And while we’re on the topic, what’s the difference between a “living room” and a “family room,” exactly?

As you might be able to tell, we here at Fresh Home Guide have thought long and hard about these questions. And we’ve done what we normally do: lots of research.

In this article, let’s take a deep dive into the living room, investigating its quaint precursors, grim origins, historical past and inspiring present. We put to bed the question of “living room vs family room” and offer tips for how to make the most of this misunderstood room – from how to clean high ceilings to air purification and proper heating.

Wipe the dirt off your shoes – we’re headed to the living room! 

Precursors: Parlours, Smoking Rooms and Libraries

The first thing to note is that “living room” is a fairly recent term (more on that below). Prior to the 1900s, during the Victorian Age and long before, we actually had several names for the room.

Some people might have a “parlour” in their home, a room specially designed for relaxation. Other homes might have a “smoking room,” where the man of the house (sorry ladies, but this was a different time) would puff on their pipes and talk politics.

And some homes simply had a “library” as their designated space for socialization and leisure. (Remember, before television, books were the dominant form of entertainment, so it made sense to craft your room around them, the way we often design living rooms around our TVs today).

But all of these rooms shared one thing in common: They were the domain of wealthy people. Most people prior to World War 2 couldn’t afford multi-room communal spaces. Their homes were more utilitarian, featuring sleeping quarters, a kitchen/dining area and (if they were lucky) an indoor bathroom. It wasn’t until after the industrial revolution, when the middle classes of the West burgeoned, that “living rooms” became popular across social classes.

An old-fashioned living room with a gramophone, ashtray and velvet-upholstered chair

Death Rooms: The Bleak Origins of the Living Room

The term “living room” implies the existence of an opposite, far more grim kind of room: the death room.

That’s right, the modern living room actually came about as a response to the popular “death rooms” of the early 20th Century. In the first decades of the 1900s, the world was rocked by two tragedies at once: World War 1 and the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Both of these seismic historical events took a tremendous toll on human lives, collectively claiming an estimated 66 million lives.

Death was a regular part of life in those days. And so, many homeowners designated a room near the front door for mourning. The “death room” was a common space for funerary rites, a gathering place where extended family and well-wishers could come to offer condolences over the deceased’s body.

Thankfully, things didn’t stay bleak for very long (give or take a Second World War). And by the time the 1950s rolled around, Westerners didn’t have much need for these “death rooms” anymore. People wanted to focus on the future. On family. On prosperity. On “living.”

Edward Bok and The Ladies’ Home Journal

You can trace the seeds of the modern living room back to Edward Bok, an editor for the then-popular publication The Ladies’ Home Journal. It was Bok who came up with the term “living room,” partly as a response to the dour death rooms of the early 1900s, and partly as a way to describe his ideal vision for a communal living space.

Bok believed, as we do today, that this communal space should be “lived in.” It shouldn’t be a single-purpose room devoted to funerals, and it shouldn’t be a lavishly decorated room whose sole purpose is to be eye-catching. The room should be functional and fun. And more than anything, it should be an extension of a homeowner’s personality, hobbies and tastes.

It should be room for living. A living room!

How Living Rooms Morphed into What We Know Today

Bok’s vision of the American living room caught on like wildfire. By the middle of the 20th Century, homemakers everywhere wanted to transform their houses’ main rooms into functional, personality-focused living rooms.

They added sofas where the family could lounge in the afternoons. They bought coffee tables so mom and dad could enjoy a morning cuppa joe in peace and quiet. They perused catalogs for the best wet dry vacuum so they could keep their sofas and hardwoods clean. A whole cottage industry sprung up around the living room.

And, when the home television skyrocketed in popularity in the United States (around the 1940s), living rooms assumed their modern form. Over the next few decades, the American living room would transform to center on the television, ultimately becoming a locus of family movie nights, Sunday afternoon sports matches and watching TV talk shows on weeknights.

A mother and son high-five while playing Jenga in the family living room

The Living Room vs. The Family Room

“Okay,” you’re asking, “so that’s where we get the term ‘living room.’ But what about ‘family room’?”

Great question. Essentially, family rooms and living rooms are the same thing. However, the terms came about at different times. Whereas the term “living room” arose in the early 1900s (the opposite of a “death room”), the term “family room” reached our vernacular a little later.

For a while, some people did draw a distinction between the living room and family room. Some multi-room homes designated a more formal space for entertaining guests – that’d be the living room – and a more relaxed space for day-to-day family activities – that’d be the family room.

Nowadays, there’s no difference. Call it whatever you want to call it!

How to Honor the Original Spirit of the Living Room

To recap, living rooms started out as parlors strictly for leisure, before transforming into “lived in” spaces around the mid-1900s. To honor that rich tradition, we recommend prioritizing comfort and relaxation in your living room. Worry less about the look, and more about the feel.

Add natural elements like wood and textiles to create a rustic, bespoke feeling that calls to mind the parlours of bygone days. Check out our exhaustive list of the best large room space heaters to give your living room an unmistakable air of warmth and conviviality. Stock your bookshelves with books as a nod to the “libraries” of the Victorian Era, but leave room on the shelves for board games that pay homage to the family-centric spirit of the 1950s.

Above all, make sure your living room is accommodating and fresh. Choose easily operable window treatments to get lots of sunshine and fresh air in the room. Read through our rundown of the best air purifiers for large rooms to clean the air of dust, allergens, smoke and mold. And buy a humidifier to keep things comfortable in the dry winter months.

We hope you enjoyed this stroll through history with Fresh Home Guide. We firmly believe that the best way to understand and improve our modern homes is to have a firm grasp of the past. The living room may have started as a male-only space, and a grim reminder of world tragedies, but it has evolved into something much more beautiful: a coming together of family and friends around leisure, laughter and social bonding. Now that’s what we call living!

Joseph and Family
About Joseph D. Nielson

Former journalist and editor for various press groups, I now dedicate my time to reviewing products for the home and family life. When I get time to myself, I enjoy rock climbing, taking my dirt bike for a rip, and most importantly providing my family with the best home possible!