Eric_W's Reviews > At Home: A Short History of Private Life

At Home by Bill Bryson
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's review
Nov 28, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: history-historiography

Bryson brings us another fascinating tome filled with delightful trivia and anecdotes in this history of housing in Britain.

The “hall” as we know it today is a place to leave the muddy boots and hang coats. Originally, it *was* the whole house. With an open hearth in the middle and members of the family (this included slaves and servants since the one large room made everyone party of the unit) congregating around it, little was private and everyone shared in the heat (or lack thereof.) The invention of the chimney and fireplace (in the early 14th century) changed all that. Now private spaces could be created including an upstairs and separate rooms from which lesser members of the unit could be excluded. Sometimes fireplaces were built big enough to have seats in them since they radiated much less heat than the open hearth. On the other hand, smoke collecting on the ceiling would prevent birds from nesting there and many people complained that without the smoke they were more subject to ill-health.

Bryson, as is his wont and to my delight, wanders all over the place. His section on food, the politics and reality of adulteration, and the early methods for saving and transporting ice are simply fascinating. Lots of delectable trivia regarding eating habits and what they ate. The 18th century was notoriously gluttonous. Queen Anne got so fat she couldn’t walk upstairs and had to be lowered and raised through a trapdoor in the floor. That must have been a sight. And they ate foods we would never consider eating and sometimes vice versa. Lobster was considered such trash food that it was often written into agreements with servants they would not be served it more than twice a week, and in Massachusetts it was forbidden to serve it to prisoners. On the other hand in America Sturgeon was so plentiful that caviar was laid out on bars as snack food.

The relationship between servants and upper crust is detailed enough to provide a useful companion to Gosford Park. It’s perhaps ironic that servants might be said to really run the place and the tipping required of guests could make a weekend visit to the manor expensive indeed. Servants in America had a more egalitarian position - except in the South where slavery predominated. (It was pretty much abolished in the North after 1827.) The presence of servants and slaves had an effect on inventiveness and northern America was particularly adept at developing labor-saving devices although it must be noted that most of the labor saved was that done by men, some of the devices even increasing the workload of women. Electricity was to change all of that, and by WWI when blackout restrictions were vigorously enforced, people soon realized how accustomed they had become to having some ambient light at night. Cars were forbidden from even having dash lights so moving about at night became a distinct hazard. Bryson notes that during the first year of the war some 4000 people were killed in traffic accidents, a 100% increase over the previous year and the Germans, without dropping a bomb, were killing Britons at the rate of 600 per month.

This book serves as a welcome antidote to those of us suffering from a delusional nostalgia for the past when the society we yearn for existed only among the rich; the rest dying young from numerous diseases we no longer even recognize, or working at laborious twelve-hour jobs for miserable pay, and having nothing to show for it.

One of the most interesting sections dealt with the hazards of paint and wallpaper. I had no idea. Apparently, wallpaper was filled with toxic chemicals including a form of arsenic and moving a patient outside to fresher air had real benefits. It was noted early on that rooms with wallpaper had no bedbugs -- for good reason. Paint, as we now know, was also filled with noxious toxins and vivid, bright colors were prized, unlike the muted pastels we seem to favor today.

The temptation when reading such a book is to fill one’s review with delectable tidbits of trivia, a temptation to which I usually succumb.

And, by the way, Thomas Jefferson created the french fry.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 28, 2011 – Shelved
November 28, 2011 – Shelved as: history-historiography
November 28, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Trevor I was eating lunch in the city today beside a pretty young woman reading Bryson's History of Everything and I wanted to tell her to read this one too. Like you, I really love the kind of yum cha experience of some of his books. Really enjoyed your review - it reminded me of things that are nice to be reminded of.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Freedom fries, please.


message 3: by Lindig (new)

Lindig Remember the time in "Shogun" after Anjin has been forcibly introduced to the joys of bathing and soaking -- he is enraged by the thought of the squalor endemic in Europe, lots of it approved by the church as bathing was thought to be sinful.

Eric_W Lindig wrote: "Remember the time in "Shogun" after Anjin has been forcibly introduced to the joys of bathing and soaking -- he is enraged by the thought of the squalor endemic in Europe, lots of it approved by th..."

I haven't seen or read Shogun, but the comment reminded me of a great line from Confederates in the Attic (excellent book by the way.) Horwitz quoted someone as saying the 19th century Charlestonians were so religiously conservative "they would not f&@k standing up for fear someone might thinking they were dancing."

message 5: by Lindig (new)

Lindig Hilarious, Eric! I grew up about 100 miles from Charleston so I know *exactly* what that means. LOL

Mary Ronan Drew "Bryson, as is his wont and to my delight, wanders all over the place." Love it! And like you I loved the book.

Eric_W Mary Ronan wrote: ""Bryson, as is his wont and to my delight, wanders all over the place." Love it! And like you I loved the book."

I'm in awe when he uses such phrases as, "a veritable kudzu of Baroque ornamentation."

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