At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Article excerpt

Bill Bryson considers the history of household life - and just about everything else.

Bill Bryson has the good fortune of living in an English rectory

built in 1851. And his readers are lucky to be able to tag along in

At Home, Bryson's delightful history of household life.

It struck Bryson that history is mostly "masses of people doing

ordinary things," so a history of private life would turn out to be

a history of, well, nearly everything - or at least nearly

everything in Britain and America during the last 150 years.

One might hesitate to pick up a history of household life, fearing a

dry treatise on arcane improvements in furniture care and cleaning

technology. Fear not - for Bryson the domestic is just a starting

point.

Bryson builds each chapter from one of the rooms in his rectory. In

the dining room he wonders why salt and pepper are the two spices on

every table, which prompts him to explore European explorers, the

slave trade, coffee, tea, silverware, and etiquette. The dressing

room leads to the origin of clothes; the manufacture of fabric,

fashion, wigs, cotton; and, not least, the Industrial Revolution.

These most common of rooms begin to take on a new light. Bryson

writes that "nothing about this house, or any house, is inevitable.

Everything had to be thought of - doors, windows, chimneys, stairs

- and a good deal of that ... took far more time and

experimentation than you might have ever thought." Suddenly,

nothing around you seems obvious or natural, the world becomes

strange and wonderful.

The supposedly logical progression of history comes to seem quite

tenuous. It took some 14 centuries for the British to reinvent the

"hot baths, padded sofas and central heating" that had been

common during the Roman Era. And even after a Viennese doctor

discovered that hand washing markedly decreased hospital deaths, he

was ignored for decades. It makes one wonder what wonderful future

advancements are lying around hidden and scorned today.

Just as he makes the commonest of things appear near miraculous, so,

too, does Bryson make the fact that we know anything at all about

history seem terribly fragile. We are told again and again of lost

monuments, mysteries surrounding ruins, and total ignorance about

major portions of the lives of rather significant people. …