" /> I write: December 2010
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December 13, 2010

At Home

A Short History of Private Life
Bill Bryson - ISBN - 9780767919388

As is his usual, this is a most readable book; clever, informed and interesting. Critics have observed that he often misses his own points and/or provides information not relative to the subject. Of that he is guilty--and misleading from time to time as well, but it is still a satisfying and knowledgeable tour.

The idea promulgated is that, as he walks thru his house--built in the early 19th century as a church rectory--he identifies each room and relates activities which occur therein. He offers historic facts and observations relevant to each room visited; trouble is, he often digresses into wildly tangential discussions which bear no relevance to the room being toured, and some are only vaguely concerned with the subject of home. Said disquisitions are, however, well researched and captivating, as is his exploration of the comforts of the rural pastorate at the time of construction of his home. One if his most interesting forays into the unrelated is the notation that ancient parish churches are often several feet below ambient ground level. Have they sunk? No, he muses. There have been many thousands of people buried in the same confined area over hundreds of years, and the cumulative detritus of these multiple burials has raised ground level.

In The Scullery and Larder he mentions that in addition to distilling spirits and brewing, most all of the household items were manufactured on site: inks, weed killers, soap, toothpaste, candles, waxes, vinegars, pickles, cold creams, cosmetics, poisons, flea powders, shampoos, medicines, starches, etc. It is hard to imagine an age when none of these were available commercially.

When discussing electricity he comments that it came to the rich much later than to the middling classes. (Incidentally, the middle classes did not exist until the mid-18th century.) The rich had servants to tend the lamps, trim the wicks and clean the chimneys, etc., so it didn't concern them. "Servants constituted a class of humans whose existences were fundamentally devoted to making certain that another class of humans would find everything they desired within arm's reach."

The Cellar necessarily (?) begins with a discussion of New York after the revolution, graduates too the movement of produce down the Mississippi to New Orleans, from whence to other ports; this as he works his way to the Erie Canal, where he opines on the American invention of hydraulic cement which made the canal possible. (Keep in mind he's discussing his home, located in Great Britain.) While not irrelevant--produce, that is--he omits any and all discussion the "cellaring" of root vegetables or the storage of other such items in the cellar. That along with most other things for which a cellar is used.

His discussion of stairs is fascinating, as is his diversion into the invention and uses of wallpaper at the time. Such papers contained significant quantities of arsenic, making manufacture and hanging of it an occupational hazard. The most expensive color was verdigris, "made by hanging copper strips over a vat of horse dung and vinegar and then scraping off the oxidized copper which resulted." (He also manages to expound upon Karl Scheele, discoverer of chlorine, fluorine, manganese, barium, molybdenum, tungsten, nitrogen and oxygen, all without crediting him.)

He quite often detours into the arcane: "Christianity" he opines "was always curiously ill at ease with cleanliness . . . and early on developed an odd tradition of equating holiness with dirtiness. When Thomas Becket . . . died in 1170, those who laid him out noted approvingly that his undergarments were 'seething with lice.'" He humorously recalls Thackeray's coined phrase which is not without cause: "the great unwashed."

Obviously, any discussion of The Attic would be incomplete without explaining estate and death taxes, which began at eight percent on estates valued at over one million pounds. By WW II they were up to sixty percent, which explains why there are few large estates remaining. At one time even Stonehenge was sold for 6600 British pounds (the equivalent of 300,000 pounds today, a century later; ouch, that's a 4500% devaluation.) Eventually Stonehenge was saved and preserved, but it was almost leveled for its rocks and surrounding fields. Imagine.

Discussions of The Bathroom and related hygienic topics are especially fruitful. "Washing for the sake merely of being clean and smelling nice was remarkably slow in coming." (John Wesley, in observing cleanliness as next to Godliness, was commenting upon clean clothing.) "What really got the Victorians to turn to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing." (All that brush scrubbing could be quite arduous and uncomfortable.) In 1861 an English physician actually wrote a book on how to bathe. Even now the English--indeed Europeans--are not all that keen on bathing; their toilet paper is kin to pages of a Sears catalogue if not as slick and shiny. And he manages to get into an absorbing discussion of the invention of modern porcelain . . . itself a real feat.

The Dressing Room is introduced by a several page discussion of the famous 5000 year old, frozen corpse which emerged from a melting glacier and became famous as "The Iceman." It is intriguing, and does deal with his clothing, but seems a bit removed from this tour. Obviously the discussion brought up the subject of cotton and, thus, Whitney's gin which reinvigorated slavery in America's south, paving the way to the Civil War. Not much about wool, or moths, or styles, or means of storage/hanging, but, hey, what the hell? It's interesting nonetheless.

And so it goes; it's altogether fascinating if not always, or even commonly, on course.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 10:24 AM