At Home: A short history of private life

I started the book on Friday and I just finished it. I should point out that it doesn’t actually take that long to read; I had social obligations this weekend as I was visiting family, and so I didn’t read very much Saturday and Sunday.

Like A short History…, the book covers a lot of ground. It’s really hard to summarize, but here are some introductory remarks from the first pages of the book:

“I don’t know how many hours of my school years were spent studying the Missouri Compromise or the War of the Roses, but it was vastly more than I was ever encouraged or allowed to give to the history of eating, sleeping, having sex or endeavouring to be amused. So I thought it might be interesting, for the length of a book, to consider the ordinary things in life, to notice them for once and treat them as if they were important, too. Looking around my house, I was startled and a little appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five? There must be reasons for these things. […] Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me. So I formed the idea to make a journey around it, to wander from room to room and consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life. The bathroom would be a history of hygiene, the kitchen of cooking, the bedroom of sex and death and sleeping, and so on.”

How was life like for servants living in Victorian England? Which materials did American settlers have problems procuring, and how did this change over time? Which kinds of building materials have people been using over time? Which kinds of clothes were popular in 1650 (…and which clothes were you even allowed to wear..?)? What about furniture like chairs and beds? What did people eat and drink during the Middle Ages? Child labour during the Industrial Revolution. The construction of the Eiffel Tower. The history of incandescent lighting. Crop rotation. English country houses. The Sepoy Rebellion. Flushing toilets. Ötzi the Iceman. The power loom. The Columbian Exchange. There’s a lot of stuff covered in this book. Did you know that Britain used to have a tax on bricks? And another tax on glass? And a wallpaper tax? I didn’t.

A few times while reading the book I had a, ‘Hey, based on what I know that doesn’t sound quite right’-experience. Or a, ‘Whereas this may not be completely wrong, it also does not seem entirely accurate.’ This was especially the case in the beginning of the book, where Bryson writes about stuff which I’ve read about before; e.g. he briefly discusses the Völkervanderung and how this period affected Britain, but he doesn’t seem to have deep knowledge about the period or what was actually going on. At the very least he makes some questionable conclusions along the way without providing a lot of supporting evidence in the text. His knowledge of prehistory and stuff like the origins of farming, which he briefly touches upon in the beginning, also doesn’t seem extensive; I don’t think he’s read Scarre or an equivalent work (just as he most certainly hasn’t read Heather). He’ll occasionally make inferences about specific aspects of home life such as the timing of the introduction of specific types of furniture based on (sparse) linguistic evidence. He includes an extended form of Bayes’ Theorem in the book early on (one of only two equations in the book, if I remember correctly) but doesn’t actually convince me that he understand how the theorem works; he doesn’t explain what the parameters in the equation he’s written down actually are, and it seems as if even though he knows what the equation looks like, it’s still just a black box to him.

But the comments above refer to minor specific points of small relevance to the overall reading experience. In general I’d have to say that the book is well written, and it’s occasionally hilariously funny. To me the far most problematic thing about the book is that there is no way to link a specific piece of information to a specific source (wikipedians would say that there are no inline citations). There’s an extensive bibliography with 508 books, according to one review (I haven’t counted them), which is almost, though not quite, a book per page. So don’t for a second think Bryson hasn’t read a lot of stuff in order to write this book, including a lot of interesting original sources. But I still can’t figure out where a given piece of information comes from, and when I can’t do that I tend to get annoyed. Especially as there were quite a few errors in A Short History… I subtract roughly a star from my final goodreads rating because of this problem. Which means that I’ve given it four stars. The average rating on goodreads is 3.93.

I’ve added some random observations from the book below:

“By 1851, one-third of all the young women in London – those aged from about fifteen to twenty-five – were servants. Another one in three was a prostitute. For many, that was about all the choice there was.” (I’d love to see a source for these estimates, but I’m not going to go through the bibliography in order to figure out where those numbers are derived from. However even if the estimates are inaccurate, it’s beyond doubt that this was a very different world.)

“Visiting his daughter in the 1920s, in a house too small to keep his servants with him, the tenth Duke of Marlborough emerged from the bathroom in a state of helpless bewilderment because his toothbrush wasn’t foaming properly. It turned out that his valet had always put the toothpaste on the brush for him and the duke was unaware that toothbrushes didn’t recharge automatically.”

“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 light bulb. 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. […] The widespread belief that people in the pre-electrical world went to bed at nightfall seems to be based entirely on the presumption that anyone deprived of robust illumination would be driven by frustration to retire. In fact, it appears that most people didn’t retire terribly early – nine or ten o’clock seems to have been standard for most people in the days before electricity, and for some, particularly in cities, it was even later. […] Visitors to eighteenth-century London often noted that the shops were open till 10 at night, and clearly there would be no shops without shoppers. When guests were present it was usual to serve supper at 10 and for company to stay till midnight or so.”

“electric lighting was ultimately irresistible. It was clean, steady, easy to maintain, and available instantaneously and in infinite amounts at the flick of a switch. Gas lighting had taken half a century to establish itself, but electric lighting happened much more quickly. By 1900, in cities anyway, electric lighting was increasingly the norm – and electric appliances ineluctably followed: the electric fan in 1891, the vacuum cleaner in 1901, the washing machine and iron in 1909, the toaster in 1910, the refrigerator and dishwasher in 1918.”

“A typical stove in 1899, according to a study in Boston, burned some three hundred pounds of coal in a week, produced twenty-seven pounds of ash, and required three hours and eleven minutes of attention. […] By 1842, Britain was using two-thirds of all the coal produced in the western world.”

“Between 1699 and 1721 tea imports [to Britain] increased almost a hundredfold, from 13,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds, then quadroupled again in the thirty years to 1750. […] By 1800 tea was embedded in the British psyche as the national beverage, and imports were running at 23 million pounds a year. Virtually all that tea came from China. This caused a large and chronic trade imbalance. The British resolved this problem in part by selling opium produced in India to the Chinese. […] tea cultivation was introduced to India in […] 1851 […] In half a century, from a base of nothing in 1850, tea production in India rose to 140 million pounds a year.”

“Throughout history Britons have used and needed a lot of wood. A typical farmhouse of the fifteenth century contained the wood of 330 oak trees. […] Hauling a cartload of stone ten or twelve miles could easily double its costs, so medieval stone didn’t travel far, which is why there are such appealing and specific regional differences of stone use and architectural style throughout Britain.”

“By the early twentieth century, 10 per cent of all British aristocratic marriages were to Americans”

“By the early 1880s America had sixty thousand telephones in operation. In the next twenty years that figure would increase to over six million.”

“One of the conventions of the age was to feed and put up any respectable-looking person who presented himself at the door. [George] Washington was plagued with guests – he had 677 of them in one year – and many of those stayed for more than one night.”

“By the late nineteenth century, 80 per cent of English wallpapers contained arsenic, often in very significant quantities. […] It has […] been suggested that poisonous wallpaper could well account for why a change of air was so often beneficial for the chronically ill. In many cases they were doubtless simply escaping a slow poisoning.”

“For much of history a bed was, for most homeowners, the most valuable thing they owned. In William Shakespeare’s day, for instance, a decent canopied bed cost £5, half the annual salary of a typical schoolmaster. […] Privacy was a much different concept in former times. In inns, sharing beds remained common into the nineteenth century, and diaries frequently contain entries lamenting how the author was disappointed to find a late-arriving stranger clambering into bed with him.”

“In 1954 just one French residence in ten had a shower or bath.”

“Halley was a tireless investigator into scientific phenomena of all kinds, and produced papers on everything from magnetism to the soporific effects of opium. In 1693, he came across figures for annual births and deaths in Breslau, Silesia (now Poland), which fascinated him because they were so unusually complete. […] In Breslau, slightly over a quarter of babies died in their first year, and 44 per cent were dead by their seventh birthday.”

“Between 1872 and 1902, American wheat production increased by 700 per cent. In the same period, British wheat production fell by more than 40 per cent.”

October 21, 2013 - Posted by | anthropology, books, history

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