“Less than a decade after the Great Exhibition, iron as a structural material was finished – which makes it slightly odd that the most iconic structure of the entire century, about to rise over Paris, was made of that doomed material. I refer of course to the soaring wonder of the age known as the Eiffel Tower. Never in history has a structure been more technologically advanced, materially obsolescent, and gloriously pointless all at the same time. And for that remarkable story, it is necessary to go back upstairs and into a new room.”
Thus ends the chapter on the cellar in Bill Bryson's latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. It's a fascinating look at the Victorian parsonage where Bryson and his family live, but it's much more than that, being a history of how many of the ordinary things found in houses everywhere came to be. Each chapter covers a different room, and comes with details of how everything from the spice trade to the use of brick as a building material has figured in the evolution of private life. As Bryson notes in the introduction;
“Houses are amazingly complex repositories. 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. Wars, famines, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment – they are all there in your sofas and chests of drawers, tucked into the folds of your curtains, in the downy softness of your pillows, in the paint on your walls and the water in your pipes. So the history of household life isn't just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has ever happened. Houses aren't refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”
Here is a bit of the chapter on the fuse box:
“We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle – a good candle – provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt lightbulb. Open your refrigerator door and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the eighteenth century. The world at night for much of history was a very dark place indeed.”
From lightbulbs to bathtubs, and Coade stone to adulterated bread, from gardening to medical care, Bryson brings to bear his considerable talents as a writer, and guarantees that no-one will view his or her home in quite the same way again. Be sure to read all about it!
Copyright © 2009, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.