At Home by Bill Bryson

June 3rd, 2023

At Home feels much more sprawling than the title might suggest—more sprawling, even, than the old parsonage in which Bill Bryson lives and from which the book takes its structure. Bryson is theoretically going room by room through the parsonage and describing the history of that sort of room (the kitchen, or the drawing room, or the dining room) or some of the objects it contains, but really he’s looking at the “history of private life,” as the subtitle puts it—though even that is a bit misleadingly narrow, as lots of interesting history of various public spheres finds its way into the book too. I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s conversational tone and its humor, and had lots of fun relating interesting facts and anecdotes from just about every chapter to my husband and various friends. Though Bryson says that the book “mostly concentrates on the events of the last 150 years or so,” i.e. the mid-1800s on (partly because that’s when the parsonage was built), it reaches much farther back than that in multiple chapters, for example in in discussions of the Neolithic houses of Skara Brae (which were unearthed by a storm in 1850) or the clothes worn by Ötzi, a man from the late Neolithic whose body was found by hikers in 1991. There were some things I knew about already (like cholera epidemics and how Joseph Bazalgette rebuilt London’s sewer system) but a lot of things I had never really considered (like: how dining tables were originally boards that were “perched on the diners’ knees when food was served”, or how smoky the upper reaches of people’s houses in England would have been in the days before chimneys/when homes just had a central open hearth—Bryson points out that once chimneys were in the picture, people could then “lay boards across the beams and create a whole new world upstairs”). There were so many interesting parts of this book that I can’t list them all, but other highlights for me included the part about laundry (which was a whole lot of work for a whole lot of servants) and the part about electricity and various forms of illumination used before electricity and the incandescent light bulb were widespread.

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