At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
In this latest book, Bill Bryson takes a close look at the history of something we all take for granted: our homes. When Bryson bought an old rectory for his home upon returning to England, he began to wonder why it was laid out the way it was. For example, why is the kitchen was at one end of the house and the dining room at the other. Characteristically of Bill Bryson, a question like that leads to a research project. Like his other books, he provides a brilliant insight into questions I’ve always contemplated, but hadn’t put into words.
Bryson takes his home apart, room by room, and discovers the origin. He begins, naturally, at the very first houses and investigates what each room was used for, how they evolved over the years and the history of the world along the same time. He talks about building materials, lay outs, why certain rooms were put next to each other and why others were put at opposite ends.
He studies the people that lived in the houses, too. Explanations of the people who owned the houses are told right along side the servants, those who really ran the house. I found this explanation most enlightening. It was horrid work to run a house in the era before electricity. Servants worked 18 to 20 hours days to keep everything perfect for their wealthier masters. The worst task had to have been the endless hauling of water to all points of the house, several times each day. I can’t imagine the effort involved for the servants should the lady of the house decide to take a bath. First the water had to be drawn from the well to the fire to be heated. Then it had to be hauled up the steep back stairs to the mistresses bath. It had to be kept the correct temperature. Once the bath was complete, the water had to be hauled back down again. The request for a bath could easily create several hours of work for someone else.
From the vantage point of where we are in history, it is hard to remember most labor saving devices at home have come along in just the last 50 to 100 years. I can remember growing up in a house without a dishwasher. Most people wouldn’t consider it a luxury appliance anymore. Plumbing, electricity, vacuums, stoves, refrigerators and even closets are such wonderful improvements that didn’t exist until recently. The notion of living without them is now a hobby called camping.
Bryson, with his usual quick wit, tells story after story of the evolution of the way we live. It is a lively and fascinating narrative that only bogs down in a few places. The breadth of Western civilization history he covers in commendable. Tying it all back to his house, room by room, is very novel. I thoroughly enjoyed my education. I will no doubt revisit this book again, as I found it fascinating and engaging. After enjoying A Short History of Nearly Everything, I can hardly wait to see the next topic Bryson decides to take on. Few people can get away taking on such a large subject, covering it completely and keeping the reader from falling asleep. Well done, Mr. Bryson!