“We forget how painfully dim the world was before electricity…open your refrigerator door and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the 18th century.”
– Bill Bryson
That’s something to reflect on the next time you replace a light bulb in a fixture or appliance. Or arrange a decadent candlescape for a dinner party for eight (or a bubble bath for two.)
All sorts of light bulbs went off for me yesterday when I turned off my morning alarm and turned on NPR to hear Renee Montagne’s interview with Bill Bryson on his new book. At Home: A Short History of Private Life represents Bryson’s challenge to himself to “write a history of the world without leaving home.”
“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”
Today we seek creative design solutions for historic remnants of “architectural reactions to new commodities”…like a telephone nook or butler’s pantry. Or lack of commodities. (I bought a 1922 bungalow with no driveway and no closets.)
Step into your hallway, if you don’t live in a studio apartment, and reflect on what Bryson identifies as the “most demoted room in the house.” If you can stand in the middle and touch the walls, then your hall isn’t great. Which is what halls were. In the Middle Ages, this space was more like a town hall or concert hall where everyone slept at night. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth has descriptions a plenty.
Did you make your bed this morning? I’d prefer to perfect the art of hospital corners and folding fitted sheets over the origin of that phrase. Try making and then getting a good night’s sleep on a heap of pea shucks, straw, reeds or palm boughs. (Vermin included.)
So what structural feature most radically transformed what we have come to know and love (and decorate) as a house? The chimney. At Home reminds us that our ancestors stayed warm in the winter by huddling around a hearth, or bonfire, in the center of the hall. And all the resulting smoke and sparks and soot exited the house out of a hole in the roof. Sort of.
The advent of the chimney in the 14th century brought about private spaces “upstairs” and new words for them like study, closet, cabinet and boudoir. Boudoir. What a great word. It even feels good to say. Bou…doir.
While the word boudoir typically inspires thoughts of sexual assignations, Bryson informs us the boudoir was originally “a place for the mistress of the house to retreat to.” Or host small dinner parties. Can you imagine doing that today? Boudoir comes from the old French word bouder meaning “to sulk.”
Share your lightbulb moments with us after you’ve given At Home: A Short History of Private Life a read or Bill Bryon’s interview a listen.