At Home by Bill Bryson is a mammoth book. It takes you around the world, across the eras without really stepping out of the Home. This is the second Bill Bryson book I have read. ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ was the first. The author’s knack for looking at ordinary things fascinates me. And bringing out the extraordinary history hidden behind them. Have you ever thought about the evolution of most obvious things around you – your own home and the various parts of it? The homes also have an evolutionary history much like human race and there can be so many elements is beyond your imagination till you read ‘At Home’ and put 2+2 together.
At home by Bill Bryson starts with the oldest living houses called ‘Skara Brae’. It belonged to the stone age that had most features of a modern house. Including a drainage system and storage space. He talks about the evolution of food like an engineered variety of Corn. And the fact that corn probably domesticated us. The history of food and diet is amusing but the history of health and hygiene is disgusting.
At home by Bill Bryson takes you through the history of bathing post-Roman Baths era. And he quotes examples of people who never took bath all their lives. Or some who did not take it as long as they could avoid it. Bathing became a part of living only when a linkage between hygiene and health was established. And if I may add leading to other ends of the obsession. It seems in 1778 the sermon mentioned ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ for the first time. But it meant clean clothes, not the clean body.
It is fascinating to learn that people valued various things at various points in time in history. For example, At some point in time, people valued glass so much that a gentleman willed his house to his wife and windows to his son. At another point in time, people prized wigs, giving them an inheritance, giving birth to the word ‘BigWig’. Before refrigeration became common Ice was a big item. Traders traded it between Europe and America.
To be able to identify the varieties of Potato was as snobbish as it is to identify the varieties of grapes today. On the contrary, tea was a classless beverage and everyone from a laborer to society women sipped it with joy. The etymology of word ‘Toilet’ is amazing – in 1540 it meant a kind of cloth, then it meant cloth for use on the dressing table, then items on dressing table (toiletries). The Later act of dressing, then acts of receiving visitors while dressing. The dressing room itself, then any kind of room attached to the bedroom, later a room used lavatorial and finally the lavatory itself.
Dining rooms emerged with an intention to save the precious upholstery of the living room from food stains. Coade stone stoneware utensils appeared because they were resistant to weather and pollution. And looked new after many uses too. Bill Bryson talks about the emergence of gardens and city parks. He reveals how the Central Park is really an engineering project. Do you know there were fanatic laws that dictated who could wear what? Right down to materials and colors and you had to buy the license to wear colors and the materials other than those assigned to you?
Some nuggets from the book:
- The English word for Slave is the thrall, which is why when we are enslaved by an emotion we are enthralled.
- In 1865, John Ruskin opined in an essay that women should be educated just enough to make themselves practically useful to their spouses, but o further.
- Roman baths had libraries, shops, exercise rooms, barbers, beauticians, tennis court, snack bars and brothels. People from all classes of society used them. It was common when meeting a man to ask where he bathed?
- Christianity was always curiously ill at ease with cleanliness anyway, and early on developed an odd tradition of equating holiness with dirtiness.
- Wash your hands often, your feet seldom and your head never – was a common English Proverb.
- Throughout many periods of history – perhaps most- it can seem as if the whole impulse of fashion has been to look maximally ridiculous. If one could be maximally uncomfortable as well, the triumph was all the greater.
The author mentions too many names, which makes you get lost.. Histories of architects and their whimsical lives. And too much lament on what was potentially missing in their documentation. I could not relate to knowing everyday details of people. I would rather understand their work and their impact on future. However, his mention of unpaid bills of architects tells me that independent workers always had a problem with getting paid from the clients. A bit lengthy but an amusing read nonetheless.
A thought that the book left me with is that every choice that we make changes or at least re-adjusts the future as a whole. We may not realize it while making the choice. But when we look back at that choice in retrospect, the answer is right there for us to see.
You may buy this book – At Home A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson at Amazon.