At Bryson's House, 'Home' Is Where The History Is

October 4, 2010

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Author Bill Bryson is known for exploring far-flung places: His previous books cover the Australian outback and the Appalachian Trail -- and even the history of the universe.

But the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything found inspiration for his most recent book after a hike through his own old, Victorian house in England.

The idea, he tells NPR's Renee Montagne, was to treat his own home as "a universe in its own right." The result is At Home: A Short History of Private Life, a book which Bryson says uses his own house as a jumping off point to explore the general history of domesticity everywhere.

What It Really Means To 'Make A Bed'

Bryson's research into the history of the average Western home yielded some unexpected finds -- as recently as 200 years ago, the rooms of a common house might have been barely recognizable.  Take, for instance, the long history of the hall, which Bryson refers to as "the most demoted room in the house."

"Hall denotes important spaces in the wider world," Bryson says. "Hall of Fame, Carnegie Hall, that kind of thing. And yet in our own homes it's this dinky room, where we just take off our shoes and hang our coats and hats."

Bryson discovered that the discrepancy could be traced back to the Middle Ages. In Medieval Europe, the average house was comprised of a single room -- the great hall -- with a kitchen and a few other annexed rooms to the side.

At the time, the private life that Bryson chronicles did not yet exist. Families slept together in the hall, and usually did not even have beds of their own. The term "make a bed," Bryson says, is derived from the literal practice of making a new bed each night; while some families rolled out cloth pallets to sleep on, many simply heaped a nest of straw in the hall for themselves, and then put a blanket down on top of it.

"It was a much more fluid and informal arrangement then we are used to now," Bryson explains.

The architecture of the average home in the Middle Ages was heavily influenced by the absence of one critical factor: chimneys. Houses were warmed in winter by an "open hearth" in the hall, which Bryson compares to "having a permanent bonfire in the middle of the living room."

"There were no chimneys up until about 14th century," he says. "What you did was you had an open fire, and all the smoke just kind of leaked out a hole in the roof. A fire in the middle of the room radiates heat much better than a fireplace does, but it also meant that there was a lot of smoke and sparks and things drifting about."

When the chimney was finally introduced, it permanently revolutionized the Western house. Perhaps most significantly, it gave way to subsequent invention: the upstairs.

Before chimneys, Bryson says, "all this roof space that used to be taken up filled with smoke and would have been unlivable. That [area] was now comparatively clean, and so people could … start thinking about building an upstairs."

"From that point, they started to discover the whole concept of privacy and having space of your own," he adds.

It was at this point that the different rooms we take for granted -- bedroom, study, closet -- began to enter the common vernacular. However, Bryson notes that many of these rooms served very different functions hundreds of years ago than they do today.

Though a boudoir is now commonly connected with a sense of sexual intrigue, Bryson says that the French word actually translates into "a place to sulk." For the French, these two things go together, Bryson suggests. And they were not the only two things the room was used for.

"Right from the very beginning," Bryson says, "[the boudoir] was a place for the mistress of the house to retreat to, and those private rooms upstairs were also where people now began to invite guests. So while we now think of a bedroom as a place that's dedicated to sleeping ... [in the Middle Ages, a boudoir] might be where you'd have a little dinner party."

A House Full Of Surprises

Homes were not only historically hard to keep warm -- until the last 150 years or so, they were also extremely hard to keep lit. In his chapter "Fuse Box," Bryson attempts to convey what a pre-industrial world was actually like:

 

 

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 18th century. The world at night, for much of history, was a very dark place indeed.

 

 

When Bryson came across the refrigerator statistic during the course of his research, it was winter in England, and completely dark. As an experiment he went into the darkest room in his house and attempted to read by candlelight.

"It's nearly impossible," he says. "I mean, everybody should try it as an experiment sometime. Because not that long ago, a very large proportion of people, that was all the illumination they would have."

Unsurprisingly, Bryson adds, this lack of light defined the way people spent their evenings. In his book, he quotes a guest at a Virginia plantation in the 18th century, who wrote in his diary that a dinner was "luminous and splendid" because of the seven candles that illuminated the room.

"To him it was a blaze of light," Bryson writes.

While the effect of electricity on the average Western home was clearly revolutionary, dramatic shifts in domestic life also came from unexpected places. In addition to the critical importance of chimneys, Bryson explores the defining influence of, of all things, upholstered furniture. Before upholstery, there were no dining rooms.

"I never stopped to think about that, but you don't have dining rooms in your home because at some point in history people suddenly decided they wanted a room dedicated to eating," Bryson says. "When [upholstered furniture] finally began to happen the late 18th century, guests, when they sat in these chairs, were tending to wipe their fingers on the upholstered furniture."

"The mistress of the household essentially decreed that it was necessary to put aside a particular room dedicated to the purpose of eating so that they weren't spilling food and messing up the really good furniture in the living rooms."

Bryson says that these historical tidbits were a daily discovery for him as he researched his book. A house is just full of surprises, and the historical significance of domestic spaces, phrases and traditions are often overlooked in our day-to-day lives.

"Why do we have salt and pepper, and not salt and cinnamon?" Bryson says. "And when they talk about things like 'room and board,' what's the 'board'? What are they talking about? All these things that are just part of everyday life -- there are reasons for why we have four tines on our forks, and so on. That's what history made them." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.