Spatial Control of the Virginia Gentry

In the colonial period, the gentry class was comprised of those in Virginia who had acquired both the greatest wealth and the greatest prominence in society. In order to preserve and ensure their position in society and their way of life, the gentry imposed a social hierarchy on Virginia society, which allowed them to continue to dominate the political and social culture while still remaining relatively unthreatened by the less affluent rising up or becoming angered by the vast divide between the classes. However, while the gentry used everything from horses and carriages to their sprawling houses and decorated clothing to display their wealth and prominence, they also used spaces and the arrangement and control of those spaces to assert their positions in the home, society, and beyond.

The home was a grounding point for gentry families, however it was by no means a private one. In fact, spaces that are today considered exclusive to enter, such as a bedchamber or even entry to the house itself, were much more public for a gentry family. It was quite common for the main hall of the manor house to be considered practically a public area, on par with the front steps or the road (Payton Randolph House). It would be from the front hall where the house members could decide where to next admit the person depending on their class or relation to the family members. This dictation of admittance to other rooms within the home allowed the gentry family to reassert their control over people of lesser status, as well as display their intentions to those acquaintances who were admitted to more personal areas, such as the parlor or a bedchamber. In a stark contrast to most farming houses, which contained one to two rooms with indiscriminate functions, the large houses of the gentry had spaces allocated for specific activities and this division of function of space allowed for the gentry to become selective about granting entry into various chambers of their houses.

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Detailed decorations in the foyer as well as the flaunting of a many leveled home instantly displayed a great amount of wealth. (Photo taken by myself)

Additionally, the front hall and stair were often lavishly decorated, sometimes bearing intricate wallpaper designs or looming portraits of deceased family members (Shirley Plantation House). This instant display of wealth (besides, of course, the impressive façade of their massive houses that face approaching travelers) was meant to have an immediate effect on all who entered. To those of a lower class, it impressed upon them the true wealth held by the gentry family. To those who may have been visiting for business or trade relate reasons, it had a similar effect except instead of being made to feel inferior, the extravagance would alert them to the fact that the gentry man’s business would be a worthy investment or good business ally. By manipulation of this entry space, the gentry asserted either their dominance or equality to all who entered into their homes.

The classification and control of spaces inside the house also extended to areas on the manor or plantation home’s property. Across the lawn and property of gentry plantation houses, various outbuildings were spread and divided into distinct areas of space according to proximity to the house (Rosewell ruins).  The proximity to the house dictated the usage of the building, as well as its relevance to the family and their immediate needs. Buildings such as kitchens, stables, and outhouses were located behind but close to the home, with slave quarters often near or behind those. Spatial arrangements like this were typically not viewed by those simply passing by the plantation, but rather by those who were invited onto the grounds and who the gentry family wished to impress. The display of a wide expanse of organized space at the rear of the manor home was a visual portrayal of the family’s wealth and the material of the buildings themselves would also be used to portray affluence and reinforce the family’s power (Bacon’s Castle).

The division and control of spaces by the gentry can even be see in the churchyard, where the wealthy and well-known were buried within the church walls and closest to the building. (Photo taken by myself)

The division and control of spaces by the gentry can even be see in the churchyard, where the wealthy and well-known were buried within the church walls and closest to the building. (Photo taken by myself)

Spatial relations and positions dictating status as gentry also came into play in areas outside of the home. Where the gentry could make an opportunity to close themselves off from the public or make their position more exclusive, that chance would be taken. This can be seen in public forums, such as court, with the gentry seated as judges on a higher level, facing the masses standing behind the barrier to plead their case (Williamsburg Courthouse Tour). However, this separation can also be seen in places that are considered sacred, such as church congregations (Christ Church). Through the building of primly positioned pews with larger seating allowance and the ability for the occupants to construct blinds with which to further separate themselves from the congregation, the gentry class was able to denote their affluence and importance by usage of controlling the space which they inhabited. Their separation from the body of the church “asserted the hierarchical nature of things” (Issac, 64).

It was not only the physical spaces among gentry that dictated their position in society; it was also in metaphorical spaces, or spheres of influence, that they asserted their societal positions to each other, specifically the difference between genders. In one example, William Byrd strictly controlled his wife’s access to his personal spaces within the house, often “locking Lucy out of his library,” which was his most private area (Treckel, 147). By restricting her entry into a given space, Byrd reasserts his control over her and his desire to keep her out of his personal sphere, an intellectual and masculine space. Lucy Byrd, however, is less than pleased with other issues, which include her husband’s “trespass[ing] into her spheres of control,” which in her and most all women’s case was homemaking and the management of the house (Treckel, 132). Byrd’s “trespassing” into Lucy’s sphere was done in order to continually manage all goings on of the household, even those which were technically supposed to be under her control. His micromanagement stemmed from his distrust of Lucy, but this terse relationship can serve as a broader example for the developing gentry class; it is an example of the developing metaphorical spaces being created between the sexes and the initial inability of the two to adjust to those spheres.

The gentry class of Virginia was dependent on the order that they imposed on society in order to preserve their dominance over the lower classes. Through their separation and control of space both within their home and in public forums, the gentry elite were able to maintain control over Virginian society. This imposed organization and social hierarchy was one that would dominate and control Virginian society and social classes for generations to come.

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