At Home: A Short History of Private Life

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

At Home: A Short History of Private Life By Bill Bryson Doubleday 448 pp.,$28.95

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.

What is so wonderful about Bryson is that he makes all of those things fit together. He sees how everything is connected and he moves the reader effortlessly from topic to topic, always ready with an amusing and memorable anecdote.

For instance, the unrestrained (and, to their cause, damaging) enthusiasm of cremation’s earliest proponents makes its introduction to Britain unforgettable. Augustus Pitt Rivers, an archaeologist and advocate of cremation, was a nasty man. He intended to be cremated upon his death and arranged the same for his wife, despite her opposition (and the fact that it was not yet legal). Rivers was fond of saying to her, “Woman, you shall burn.” Fortunately for her, he died first and she received the burial she wanted.

Ever the wordsmith, Bryson fills the pages of “At Home” with elucidatory word origins. We learn, for instance, that the original meaning of comfortable was “capable of being consoled” and that the first known written record of its present meaning is from 1770. He presents this to support his suggestion that “the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly” , and indeed it seems to prove the point.

More than anything else, this book is a compendium of interesting facts – such as the fact that lobsters were so abundant in the Victorian Age that they were fed to prisoners, and that a change of climate often improved people’s health because their rooms at home had toxic paint and wallpaper – which will pique the reader’s interest about various periods and send them to the bibliography to find out more.

It cannot go unremarked, though it is hardly surprising, that such a broad work is not without errors. Bryson attributes the making of a replica of a pair of Stone Age boots to Vaclav Patek, when in fact Patek was a mountaineer who tested them and the shoemaker was Petr Hlavacek. Such a trivial error is easily excused, but it’s a useful reminder that not all that is printed is correct – not even if it’s contained within this amusing, engaging, and informative new book.

Sean Hughes lives and writes in Seattle.

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