At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Hughes, Sean, The Christian Science Monitor
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
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. …