Book Review: “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson presented a short history of how each of the rooms in our home developed from the mid 19th century in the western world. It didn’t cover the “other” side of the world. There were many interesting and not-so-interesting stories, many of which seems to span wider than the original “home” theme. At times, I almost wanted to give up reading the rest of the book. But the boring parts were short enough to be passed over.

The story started from the old home originally built in 1851 by Rev. Thomas Marsham the author happened to visit. There was the story about rector (gets the big tithes) vs. vicar (gets the small tithes) and how they were so wealthy from collecting the tithes from the village people without having to do much other than providing some spiritual sermon or counsel. How the Crystal Palace came about – architected by a gardener, Paxton – and how elegant (covered in glass panel) and how inexpensively it was built (5M lb in today’s money.

He touched on the human history: Paleolithic to Mesolithic to Neolithic, to the Bronze ages. The history of archeology was covered. Childe one of the pioneer recognized the “Neolithic Revolution” – farming, irrigation, writing, architecture, government – civilization – a “global lightbulb” moment. Some of the history of human diets (like domesticated animals, corn, potatoes) were covered.

The Hall (where the house begins): The history of how Britons were invaded by the Angles, Saxon, and Jutes. Lots of smoke inside the Hall during to burning of wood inside until chimneys were invented.

The Kitchen: The history of foods like bread, alum, meats (transport of, with ice from Kennebec River), fruits and food preservation. The first cookbook The Book of Household Management was written by Mrs. Beeton.

The Scullery and Larder: Lots of servants were employed in those days. By 1851, 1/3 of all young women in London were servants, and another 1/3 was a prostitute. The life of a servants was pretty rough and long at times. Descriptions of their jobs were tedious. The comparison between Europeans’ servants and American’s slaves was drawn.

The Fuse Box: This chapter is about the history of lighting in the pre-electricity era: from rushlight, candles (tallow and wax), Argand lamp, whale oil lamp, kerosene lamp, rock oil lamp, gas lamp, and fat oil lamp, which often cause fires. Most people lived in the dim lighting without any concern before the invention of electricity and lightbulb. The poor/working class worked long hours while the rich kept gentler hours.

The Drawing Room: I don’t know what this have to with fertilization of the farm land. But the use of refresh crops appears to be a good decision.

The Dining Room: The discovery of well-balanced diet were so late, like scurvy due to lack of vitamin C, and beriberi due to deficiency of Vitamin B1. Salt, spices were the main reasons the explorers went out to the ocean. America had only 5 domesticated creatures: the turkey, duck, dog, bee and cochineal insect – no dairy products. Adding sugar to tea happened in the 18th century. In the 19th century, Britain got Chinese hooked on opium just to offset the trade imbalance of the tea import from China.

The Cellar: The building of the 363-mile Erie canal was mainly due to the use of a special cement – thanks to Canvass White’s research. The canal transformed New York into an export gateway. The use of wood, to bricks, to stones (Coade Stone), to iron (cast and wrought), to finally steel.

The passage: The building of Eiffel Tower and how he started out building the trusses and springs of the Statute of Liberty. Here the author introduced the history of the telephone invented by Bell. Thomas Watson was instrumental in the distinctive ringing bell and was given 10% shares of AT&T. He retired rich. Dreyfuss, early industrial designer, designed the upright phone with the handset on the cradle.

The Study: James Henry Atkinson invented the original mousetrap – Little Nipper – in 1899.

Some interesting factoids:
– The old churches seems have sunk below its court yard. It’s mostly due to the huge number of people being buried next to the church, which ran a profitable business of burying people.
– The weekdays: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Fridays were named after Tiw, Woden, and Thor and Frig (first 3 being gods and the last being Woden’s wife).
– Thomas Jefferson invented French Fries and he’s practically a vegetarian.
– Human and guinea pigs are the only two within the animal kingdom that are unable to synthesize vitamin C in their own bodies.
– The indigenous Peru had 150 varieties of potato.
– American income tax wasn’t introduced until 1914. “People would never be this rich again.”
– One of Edison’s costly failures: concrete house built by pouring concrete into molds.
– It’s widely believed that a quarter of all fires that can’t otherwise be explained may be attributed to rats chewing on wires. Rats have sex up to twenty times a day.
– Plagues are spread by rats’ flees as plague kills rats as energetically as it kills us and other animals.