Interesting Book

Posted by jcmaziquemd on October 2, 2010

Brass Beds and Broomsticks

Bill Bryson takes a journey through history and never leaves the house


When parents kiss their children good night and say, "Sleep tight," it’s a fair bet that neither party realizes that the phrase originated in the era of straw-stuffed mattresses. Before the invention of spring mattresses in 1865, bedding would have been suspended by rope lattices that, when they sagged, could be tightened with a key. This is the sort of historical oddity in which Bill Bryson delights, and "At Home: A Short History of Private Life" is stuffed with them.

Did you know, for instance, that the 19th-century vogue for brass beds grew not from anyone’s fondness for the metal but from the way a smooth, hard surface discourages climbing vermin? While we’re on the bedroom theme, consider: If your pillow is six years old (the average age of a pillow, according to Mr. Bryson) "one-tenth of its weight will be made up of sloughed skin, living and dead mites, and mite dung—or frass, as it is known to entomologists."

Readers who enjoyed Mr. Bryson’s apparently inexhaustible supply of nifty facts in such previous books as "A Short History of Nearly Everything" (2004) or "The Mother Tongue" (1991) will be happy to find the author’s pen as nimble and his narrative persona as genial as ever. This time Mr. Bryson uses his own house as a framework for exploring the origins of domestic objects and customs that most of us take for granted.

Mr. Bryson is an American, but he and his family live in an old Church of England rectory in rural Norfolk. One day, as he tells it, he was hunting for the source of a leak when he found himself up on his own roof. Before him spread the verdant, nubbly English countryside, and with the force of epiphany it occurred to him how little he knew about the ordinary things and practices of life. On the land he surveyed, generations had risen and fallen since long before Roman times, eventually producing a society in which forks have four tines (not three); in which women wear brassieres (which alas were not invented, as schoolboys claim, by one "Otto Titzling"); in which the word "cabinet" denotes both a cupboard and a coterie of government advisers. What were the stories behind these seeming mundanities?

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Mr. Bryson discovered—and, in these pages, he clearly enjoys relating—that many commonplace objects have fascinating pedigrees. "The history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be," he explains, "but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has ever happened. Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up."

The book is divided by item, area or room, though each chapter heading is really only the starting point for a jolly Brysonian ramble. "The Dining Room," for example, quickly moves from home-base to the practice of tarring and feathering, the opium and tea trades, and the massacre of women and children in the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion in India, before circling back to the dinner table and the question of why anyone would need a fish knife, ever. A chapter called "The Fusebox" begins with the enforced blackouts in World War II Britain and proceeds to a lively discussion of the attributes of tallow, wax, spermaceti and other materials (including dried dung) that were used for lighting ahead of Edison’s invention.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

By Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 497 pages, $28.95

One recurrent theme is the way that ideas and money have traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, and Mr. Bryson makes us very aware of the poignant simultaneity of America’s rise and Britain’s decline. Among other things, we learn about the inadvertent sacking of landed English families, bloodlessly achieved through a combination of death taxes (imposed in 1894), agricultural crisis and the emergence of a class of Americans rich enough to buy anything they liked. It was during the Gilded Age that the Folger family began acquiring first folios of Shakespeare’s plays and the Mellons, Fricks and Carnegies began to fill their mansions with furniture and paintings from the cash-starved great houses of England.

It seems almost unsporting to say so, but though Mr. Bryson ushers us through every manner of interesting thing, "At Home" doesn’t really go anywhere. There is no overarching argument or point. The effect, after reading it, is that of having been at a dinner party with a delightful raconteur, a man whose diverting anecdotes gradually silence the table.

And indeed, like a loquacious dinner guest who has one too many glasses of wine, near the end Mr. Bryson almost spoils his own effect. For in his closing paragraphs, amazingly, he suddenly lectures us on . . . carbon emissions!

"Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every 28 hours by an American," we are told. "We are, in short, able to live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet’s other citizens."

Yes, after 450 pages packed with fascinating topics, from the decimation of country parsonages to the miracle of hydraulic cement (it made the Erie Canal possible)—after discovering worms in the sturgeon at Samuel Pepys’s table and dressing with Beau Brummell, after reading of man’s long struggle to tame sewage and prevent cholera—we are asked to hang our heads in shame at the units of carbon we emit. It’s a disappointingly modish note on which to end an otherwise charming book.

—Mrs. Gurdon is a frequent contributor to the Journal’s books pages.


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