In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, the inimitable Bill Bryson uses his own home, an English country parson’s house built in 1851, as the scaffolding for a romp through several centuries of English history.
This is not the kind of history we learned in school; all that stuff about wars, kings and queens, treaties, dates and all those other things that flee the brain once the exam is over. No, this book is an eye-opener about just how miserable, risky and damned uncomfortable most people’s lives were until the advent of all kinds of inventions (a huge percentage of which appeared in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century).
Bryson takes his readers on a room-by-room tour of his home to educate us about all kinds of everyday “things” and experiences that were part of people’s lives, covering a period roughly from the 1600s to 1900. At first I was going to use his book as a source of words for my WordNerds page; then I realized that this book was introducing me to hundreds, if not thousands of new words! Or, more correctly, old words that I’d never heard of before. For example, in a section on how surfaces of wood or plaster could be individualized for decorative purposes, Bryson gives a list of “esoterically named motifs” that include the following words:
- evolute spirals
- Lesbian cymatium
You don’t have to be a WordNerd like me to find endless entertainment in Bryson’s book (though it helps.) It’s fascinating to read about inventors and the contraptions they came up with. Some of them became famous and/or fabulously wealthy from their life-changing devices; others remained obscure.
You are guaranteed to become a popular cocktail-party guest if you can memorize but a few bits of trivia from At Home. For example, on the subject of sleep, I learned:
- The expression “sleep tight” has its origins in the fact that before bedsprings were invented (in 1865), the ticking of beds (perhaps straw, goosefeathers or sawdust) was supported by a lattice of ropes that could be tightened with a key when the ropes started to sag.
- The average pillow contains over two million bed mites. The word for bed mite dung is frass. In fact, one tenth of the weight of an average pillow is made up of human skin, living and dead bed mites, and their frass.
And did you know that the word “scientist” wasn’t coined until 1834?
The one part of At Home that I found most unforgettable was its treatment of just how miserable people’s lives were before the Industrial Revolution and for quite a long period after it had begun. In particular, the poor of London (who teemed in that metropolis in the millions) lived in unimaginable filth, crowding and constant hunger. They were surrounded by industrial London’s horrendous air pollution and exposed to toxic materials and pathogens in practically everything they ate, drank or touched. If they had the fortune to be employed, their work hours were long and the work usually tedious, dangerous and dirty. Children as young as three worked for a pittance.
For most people, life was short. Death could arrive unexpectedly in countless ways. Accidents were common, as were disease and starvation. Cholera could kill quickly; a person might be healthy at breakfast and dead by dinnertime.
As I read through some of these disturbing sections of the book, the thought struck me that at my age, I’m already experienced an “extra” life compared to what most people were given before the twentieth century. Our culture has gone through a fad of trying to define and explain “happiness” in recent years.Our obsession with finding happiness seems irrelevant compared to what life was for the vast majority of people until relatively recent times: a struggle for survival encompassing almost constant pain, toil and privation.
Lest you’re worried by the seriousness of the above subject matter, let me emphasize that the author of A Walk in the Woods, Notes from a Small Island and In a Sunburned Country (plus many other great books) can’t help but be funny. At Home is Bryson in top form!