At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson is the first book of his I’ve read. I don’t know why this is because his books seem to be everywhere and I think I even own a couple. I can’t say what made me pick up At Home instead of one of his other books except that it was available to borrow as a Kindle e-book from my library and I really wanted to borrow an e-book and try out the process. I can say I was happy with both experiences.
While the book ended well, I was a bit disconcerted at the beginning. I expected a book about houses and the things inside houses and it seemed that Bryson spent a lot of time talking about the Crystal Palace and the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. What did any of this have to do with houses? Can we just get to the point please? But then he finally does come around and I realized that to talk about houses one needs to also talk about a lot of other things besides houses. Once I got that, I was able to settle in and with each page my enjoyment grew.
Bryson meanders from room to room of a modern house and uses each room as a jumping off point to talk about all kinds of things. Like in the kitchen chapter he talks not only about the way kitchens used to be set up and run, but also what sorts of food were cooked in them and how. This dovetails with his discussion on dining rooms which also seems to have inspired lots of interesting things about the keeping of servants. But the food, gah! And then the settings on a table. Good lord! If you were wealthy there was so much that went onto a table it got to be rather ridiculous.
While the parts about food, and a general lack of nutritional knowledge, made my stomach turn, the chapter on bedrooms gave me the creepy-crawlies and made my back hurt on top of it. Comfortable mattresses are a fairly recent development and for the greater part of human existence, beds were mostly straw or similar plant material. And the things that live in bedding and pillows!
The chapter about bathrooms leads to a long diversion into hygiene, or rather, lack of. Bathing was not a common happening even among the upper classes. People were filthy and they stank to high heaven. When John Wesley in his 1778 sermon declared that “cleanliness was next to Godliness” he meant clean clothes, not a clean body. People believed that baths opened the pores and made one more susceptible to disease. For some, a once a year bath was considered excessive and if you took a bath once a month you were just plan weird.
People apparently didn’t really start bathing regularly until the Victorians and Bryson made me laugh with this passage:
What really got the Victorians to turn to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing. The Victorians had a kind of instinct for self-torment, and water became a perfect way to make that manifest. Many diaries record how people had to break the ice in their washbasins in order to ablute in the morning, and the Reverend Francis Kilvert noted with pleasure how jagged ice clung to the side of his bath and pricked his skin as he merrily bathed on Christmas morning 1870. Showers, too, had great scope for punishment, and were often designed to be as powerful as possible. One early type of shower was so ferocious that users had to don protective headgear before stepping in lest they be beaten senseless by their own plumbing.
Can you imagine having to wear protective headgear in the shower?
The book is chock-full of fascinating facts and horrifying glimpses into the past and all the things we used to do to ourselves. I found myself wondering frequently how we managed not to poison the human race into extinction. No doubt people 100 – 200 years from now will look back at us and marvel at how we managed survive the insanity of the things we believe to be normal and good for us or at least perfectly harmless.
If you are interested in viewing passages I highlighted in the book as well as the books Bryson lists in his bibliography that I thought looked interesting enough to imagine that someday I might read them, you can do so at my Kindle page.
Now that I have finally gotten around to reading Bill Bryson, I can definitely say it won’t be too long before I pick up another one of his books.