At Home: A Short History of Private Life

By Leslie, Catherine A. | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

At Home: A Short History of Private Life


Leslie, Catherine A., Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


At Home: A Short History of Private Life By Bill Bryson (2010) Published by Ooubleday, New York, NY (2010). $28.95 ($14.99 e-book)

Reviewed by Catherine A. Leslie

You never know what you may learn from a chance encounter on an airplane. Flying from Akron, OH to Milwaukee, WI last spring, I was seated next to a retired school teacher who started a conversation by asking what I was knitting. It turned out that we had much in common, including a strong belief in the work of family and consumer sciences (FCS) professionals. Gail suggested that I might be interested in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which she was reading for a book club.

As soon as I picked up At Home, I saw the value of it and the interest it holds for FCS. The author, William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, was born in the United States and spent much of his life in Great Britain. At Home is a journey through his current residence, a 19th century living rectory in Norfolk, UK. Through exploration of the places in his home, Bryson shares the history of everyday life.

After finding a door, which led to a strange area on the roof of his house, Bryson began thinking about houses, history, and how people lived: "So I formed the idea to make a journey around it, to wander from room to room and consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life" (p. 4). He continued, "What I found, to my great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world - whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over - eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house" (p. 5). In an easy-to-read conversational style, Bryson takes us through each area, providing fascinating tales and facts that pique curiosity and add to knowledge of FCS professionals and laypersons alike.

He begins with The Year in which his house was built (1851), describing England, and specifically London, under the reign of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, who directed the Great Exhibition and its Crystal Palace. Bryson describes the state of building, living conditions, food choices, and society. This is followed by The Setting, which addresses when and why humans began to settle, build, and inhabit shelters, providing interesting examples of how ancient shelters were excavated and interpreted. Ancient peoples showed great innovation in taking wild (and sometimes poisonous) plants and manipulating them into everyday sustenance such as corn and potatoes.

Bryson takes us through each room of his house, beginning with The Hall, which was the original house - the one room where all the activities of living took place for the family, their servants, and sometimes animals. He covers the development of beds, tables, eating habits, and the fireplace. In The Kitchen we learn about the importance of bread in medieval life. With innovations in the harvesting of ice and canning methods, food could be transported over great distances, significantly broadening the diet, and also portion size. Information is supported by important books of the time, such as Isabelle Beeton's Book of Household Management published in 1861.

Next is The Scullery and The Larder, with an extensive discussion of servants, etiquette, and division of space within the home based on status and nature of work in Victorian society. Bryson points out cultural differences between life in America and in England and how, rather than maintain numerous servants, Americans adopted labor-saving devices. The chapter on The Fuse Box gives the history of light sources from candles and whale oil lamps, through gaslight, to early attempts at electricity. In this and other discussions, the author presents commonly held beliefs (Thomas Edison invented the electric light) and then provides detailed background (Edison developed the method to supply electricity on a large scale).

The Drawing room is where people got "comfortable." Throughout the book, insights to the origins of words offer understanding. …

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