Wednesday, October 20, 2010

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Readers who enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (in which he covered the world of science), are likely to be equally taken by At Home: A Short History of Private Life in which the author turns his attention to social history. At first glance, I feared that Bryson was going to do little more than wander from room to room of his home, explaining along the way the development of the form and function of each of the old house’s rooms. This 19th century-built home, a former parsonage located in rural England, certainly lends itself to that type of discussion. Luckily, however, Bryson had much more in mind for At Home.

The author does use each of the home’s many rooms as fresh jumping-off points to turn his book in different directions. Some of the book’s chapters are specific to the particular rooms from which the author speaks, while others only begin in the room in which the reader finds himself figuratively standing. This device allows Bryson to relate some rather fascinating, and often shocking, social history in the witty style his readers have so much come to appreciate.

Many, if not most, readers will be surprised to learn that only in relatively recent times did houses develop into the style we live in today. Humans, for multiple reasons, were slow to adapt their dwellings into something offering much more comfort than was found sleeping outside. Bryson points out that much can be learned about social mores from the way rooms of the house were given over to special uses. That bedrooms and bathrooms, for instance, were two of the last rooms to evolve for special usage, reveals much about the accepted privacy standards of the day. Making love and bathing were not always activities that people expected to do in complete privacy – for practical reasons involving limited space, large families, communal dining, and limited wealth.

Perhaps it is just me, but I found the pages about the problem of disposing of human excrement in large cities to be particularly intriguing. We are all familiar with the notion that chamber pots were often dumped into the streets from upstairs windows. But I am willing to bet that most of us never considered that a cellar could be filled with human waste up to a depth of six feet or that the space behind a home could be two feet deep in the same product. What Bryson describes is appalling and says much about how desperate people had to be to choose city life over a life in which one did not have to wade through excrement of all varieties on a daily basis.

Bryson has great fun in describing the evolution of male and female fashion. Some of what he describes from prior centuries even mirrors the “reasoning” behind some of today’s more ludicrous fashion statements - and the slavish way that people follow hot trends. Wigs for men, of the type still worn in British courtrooms, were such a popular status symbol when first introduced that men were actually shaving their own hair off and replacing it with the obviously expensive (and exclusive) new head gear. That their own hair often looked nicer than the wigs they could afford, did not bother these men. It was all about displaying their wealth and status.

At Home is an interesting and fun look at the societal evolution of much of the Western World. That Bill Bryson infuses the facts with his own brand of humor, makes it all more fun than it would have been if written as straight history. This is a trivia-collector’s delight.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I've loved everything I've ever read by Bryson, and I'm looking forward to this one!

  2. I agree, Annie. I think I've read everything that Bryson has written and I can't think of a single book I didn't enjoy. Good stuff.

  3. I'm really looking forward to this one...I hope it's not his last since Home would be the logical place you'd end up after a lifetime of traveling.

  4. Hmm, I never thought of it that way. Here's hoping you are wrong...