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Bryson's 'Short History' Of Household Objects
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Bryson's 'Short History' Of Household Objects

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Bryson's 'Short History' Of Household Objects
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This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

A bit later, we'll talk about marriage in a recession. But first, Bill Bryson. He first made his name as a travel writer from Appalachia to Australia and points in between. For his latest work, he decided to stay right at home. In fact, Bryson frames his book around the old rectory where he lives in the English countryside.

A S: A Short History of Private Life," traces the history of many things we take for granted. Why do forks have four tines? Why do we have dining rooms? And what is the origin of the lowly hallway?

What mystifies you about your house? Perhaps a mystery door, an unexplained nook or staircase? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Or you can drop us an email:

Bill Bryson joins us from our studios in New York City. Welcome.

BILL BRYSON: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.

LUDDEN: And let me start by asking you that same question. Was there something that mystified you about your house, or what launched you on this?

BRYSON: Well, my starting point was in 2003, we moved from New Hampshire, where we'd been living for eight years, to England, and bought this old parsonage in the countryside, as you said. And I was just, I was first of all casting around for an idea for a book, and as I - when I was in that state, I was sitting at the kitchen table one day, and I was just idly fingering the salt and pepper shakers on the kitchen table.

LUDDEN: Why do we always have these two things? Why salt and pepper? Why not salt and cinnamon, or pepper or cardamom, or some other combination of spices? What is it that we have that makes us so attached to these two particular spices?

And then looking around the house more generally, I just thought, you know, I don't know anything about the history of home life at all. You know, when I was taught history at school, it was all about big affairs on the world stage, wars and diplomacy and politics and things like that. And there was nothing at all about really how our houses got to be the way they are.

So I thought I would make a trip around my own house and see what I could learn.

LUDDEN: So can you give us a sense - since your home is kind of the framework for this, I must say, wide-ranging - you do go far from your house here in going through history and so forth. But tell us a bit about the rectory as our starting point, here.

BRYSON: Well, you know, I mean, I used it as a kind of launch pad. I mean, I took this - my starting assumption was that people are not that interested in my house and in my life. So I just used it as a kind of convenient floor plan.

And the idea is that I go from room to room in the house and talk about how each of those rooms, a history of the earth in the context for each room, so that the bathroom is a history of hygiene, and the kitchen is a history of cooking, and the bedroom is sex and death and sleeping and so on - whatever was appropriate to those rooms.

LUDDEN: You just can't have a narrow focus, can you? I mean, after writing the history of everything, you just...


BRYSON: Well, that was part of the problem, is that I really was thinking, you know, I've done a history of a universe. So now what? What's left? And so that was when I thought, well, maybe I'll just look at my own house.

LUDDEN: Now, one of the themes of your book is the evolution of comfort in the house. It wasn't always so pleasant to be at home. Can you read a passage explaining - let's pick a - what a drawing room is here?

BRYSON: Sure. I happen to have it right here in front of me. Nowhere in the house is the spirit - if not always the actuality - of comfort better captured than in the curiously named room in which we find ourselves now: the drawing room.

The term is a shortening of the much older withdrawing room, meaning a space where the family could withdraw from the rest of the household for greater privacy, and it has never settled altogether comfortably into widespread English usage.

For a time in the 17th and 18th century, drawing room was challenged in more refined circles by the French world salon, which was sometimes Anglicized to saloon. But both those words gradually became associated with spaces outside the home so that saloon came first to signify a room for socializing in a hotel or on a ship, then a place for dedicated drinking, and finally, and a little unexpectedly, a type of automobile. Salon - I'm sorry.

LUDDEN: It's all right. Go right ahead.

BRYSON: So it goes on. Well, no, I mean, because I could go on for hundreds of pages. I do in the book.


BRYSON: So perhaps at least that gives you some sense of how the book goes.

LUDDEN: So, withdrawing room. So people, in their houses, had to have a room in the house to get away from it all. I mean, your book is called, you know, "A History of A Private Life," but a home wasn't always a private place.

BRYSON: No. I mean, for a long time, for a very long time, right up at least until - really, until about the age of Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, most houses, even quite well-to-do houses, were fundamentally a single room, which was called the hall.

And the hall was so important that that became the name of the whole house sometimes. And indeed, hall, in a wider sense, became a word signifying a grand space, which is why we have Carnegie Hall and Baseball Hall of Fame and the Halls of Montezuma, and so on.

So in kind of original sense, it was a really grand room. It was the whole house. But then as time went on, people, they discovered the comforts and attractions, the privacy, and they began to add more rooms onto the home and to spread the house both upwards and outwards.

And the hall became diminished in its importance until now. In most domestic settings, it's really just a kind of entryway in which we - where we hang our coats and take our hats off and that sort of thing.

LUDDEN: I love the story of how we started expanding upwards, and how it began - never would have thunk this - with some - the closed fireplace.

BRYSON: Yeah, well, this - it's - it is an interesting fact how one small thing often leads to bigger consequences or bigger changes in the way we behave. And there really isn't a much better example of that.

Originally, in a hall, if you went back to the Middle Ages, the time of Beowulf, say, the warmth in the whole hall was provided by a single, open fire in the middle of the room. The smoke just rose up to the ceiling, and there it accumulated and eventually leaked out through a hole in the roof.

But that meant that all of the roof space was useless. You couldn't go up there because you would choke on smoke. So it wasn't until the development of really good, functional chimneys - in about the time of Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century - that it became possible to direct the smoke out of the house, to channel it up through a chimney.

And for that - that made it possible then suddenly to have upstairs in homes. And the development of upstairs meant that it was possible now to start thinking in terms of having some privacy.

So it changed the whole world, the whole way we go about domestic life, and it really was the chimney that did it.

LUDDEN: Hmm. We have some calls on the line. Let's listen now - Alene(ph) is in Santa Cruz, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ALENE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

ALENE: Oh, okay. Well, I have a 100-year-old home here in Santa Cruz. It's a Victorian-style home, and it has the nine-foot ceiling. Some of the Victorians have 10-foot ceilings. And I was wondering why the ceilings were so high, and I wondered maybe it was because they used to have oil lamps, and by the time they hung the lamp on the wall so you wouldn't run into it with your head, the flame was going up high, and you wouldn't want the flames to get too high to the ceiling.

LUDDEN: You thought a lot about this.


ALENE: So I was just wondering: Why are those ceilings so high?

BRYSON: Well, I think a lot of it is - was fashion, and it was just kind of showing off. I mean, in humbler homes, in Victorian times, the ceilings wouldn't have been high. Having a high ceiling was a way of demonstrating to the world that you were pretty well-off and that you could afford to be kind of extravagant with space.

And the fact that central heating was getting so much better in the 19th century was - it was a way of demonstrating how you could keep even a quite spacious room warm.

LUDDEN: Oh, so it was a sign of prestige?

BRYSON: Yeah. And, I mean, also, things like large windows would admit more daylight. So - and that was a big concern in former times, too, because as I talk about in the book at some length, you know, illumination was - in interior spaces was always a real problem.

LUDDEN: Right. I want to ask you - Alene, thank you so much for your phone call. You - Bill Bryson, you talk about light bulbs. We take them for granted today, but it is interesting to learn the publishing industry had quite the boon from home lighting.

BRYSON: Yes. Well, when gas lighting came in in the 19th century, it really transformed everything. I mean, if we, you and I, were to go back and have an equivalent amount of lighting now, we would find it pretty dim and unsatisfactory.

But to the Victorians, when it came in, they were dazzled by how much light they suddenly had, and they were able to do all kinds of things they'd never been able to do before.

You know, if they dropped, if you were sewing and you dropped the needle, you could find it then instead of having to wait till daytime to find it. You could read, do fine reading. You could, you know, you could do crossword puzzles. You could - it was a lot more comfortable to do reading of all kinds.

And so people started reading a lot more, and it was a huge - the huge growth in popular fiction and, you know, just at the time of Charles Dickens and people like that, huge, huge growth in that - but also a huge growth in periodicals.

LUDDEN: Huh. That's so interesting. Daniel is in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Go right ahead.

DANIEL: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Mr. Bryson, I loved discovering your books and reading them over the years. I was fascinated by finding a stand-alone toilet in the basement of my house in Ann Arbor that was built in probably the late 1800s, and remembered that a similar one in Cleveland where I grew up was there.

And I did a little bit of search on the Web and found that it was called the Pittsburgh toilet. I don't know if you've come across that at all in your research for the book.

BRYSON: No. I've never heard - why was it called the Pittsburgh toilet? Do you have any idea?

BRYSON: What I understand is that in the Midwest and particularly the Upper Midwest, people who had industrial jobs would come home dirty from their job and would go right to the basement, where they'd wash up and then be able to come up to the rest of the house cleaner and able to enjoy their private life at home. And for some reason, Pittsburg was the city that got the acclaim.


BRYSON: I've never heard that reference before. But it is true. I mean, one of the things that was quite interesting about toilets is just how fairly recent the idea of, you know, completely privacy has been, that there were communal toilets up until fairly recent times.

I mean, for instance, if you go to Mount Vernon, just outside the back door, the main back entrance at Mount Vernon, is a two-seater privy. So people - the things that we do privately now we didn't necessarily do privately in former times.

LUDDEN: That is a hard one to imagine there. Daniel, thanks so much for the call.

DANIEL: Thank you. Enjoy the show.

LUDDEN: There's an email from Amy in Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania. I live in a fairly old farmhouse. There are no closets. Most of the house was built in the late 1800s. Did this have something to do with their wardrobes being very limited?

BRYSON: Well, that's - I mean, that's a very good question. I have never found an answer to the question, which is: Why don't English homes have closets? I do know that closet - closet in a sense that we think of it in America, the big, you know, extra little storage room in each bedroom - is an American invention, and it became popular in America in the second half of the 19th century. Why it didn't catch on elsewhere, I don't know. But it's something - you know, I grew up in America, and something I miss very much, the convenience of it, living in an English house. Because one of the problem you'll have in any English house, no matter how spacious it is, is you are always very, very limited for storage.

LUDDEN: Huh. Let's get another call in. Abigail is in Orlando, Florida.

ABIGAIL: Good afternoon. Yes, my question regards English homes. When I studied at Oxford for several months, I noticed that in the bathroom, there were two separate faucets for hot and cold water. Rather than having hot and cold faucets that you turned on and plumbed into one spigot head, there was actually a hot side and a cold side. And it was very common at the university and in the local restaurants. So I'm wondering is that an English custom? Is that a European thing?

LUDDEN: And I...

ABIGAIL: (unintelligible) evolved from two-to-one faucets?

LUDDEN: Abigail, I can just I just encountered one of those this weekend in Yorktown, Virginia, in a very old house. Bill Bryson.

ABIGAIL: Yes. I'm wondering the tradition there.

BRYSON: It is - I cannot begin to explain it. It's something that's been mystifying me for 35 years, since I first went to England. It's still routine for - even in, you know, even in houses newly built now. Although it's not universal any longer, but it's still pretty routine to have a cold and a hot tap. And if you're washing your hands, it's just - it's impossible to get the temperature right.

ABIGAIL: I completely agree.

BRYSON: The only thing I could think of is that the fashion in Britain used to be not to have a bath, but to have a sink wash. And so you would, you know, you would fill the sink with water, so you'd make the water in the sink the right temperature, and then you would wash yourself from that.


LUDDEN: Some mysteries just remain. Abigail, thanks for the phone call.

K: Perhaps Mr. Bryson will know about the nook in our stairwell. Our two-story house was built in about 1885 or '87. It has a mansard roof, and is in northern California. The stairwell is curved. And in the middle of the curve is a nook about five-and-a-half feet tall, a bit more than two feet wide and a foot deep. The top of the nook is arched, and the back of the nook is curved. We've been told it's a coffin corner, which allowed some form of respect to be paid to the dead person being carried downstairs in their coffin.

Hmm. Anything about that?

BRYSON: No. I've never heard of a coffin corner. That's - a lot of - I mean, it may well be. Who knows? But a lot of these things, the explanations - the kind of explanations that we commonly hear are - tend to be a little bit on the legendary side and not necessarily attached to reality, because they make a good story. But, again, a coffin corner, I've never heard of that in any other house ever have. These - the people have - the listeners have some very interesting homes, it seems.


LUDDEN: You know, I loved the - in your book, also, the - I just had never thought that houses did not used to have dining rooms, and the story of how we got them is pretty fun.

BRYSON: Well, yeah. And they're simply - I mean, really what happened was that it wasn't that suddenly people developed a longing to have a space dedicated to the idea of dining because for a long time, you just dined in whatever public room you decided to or even sometimes in bedrooms. It was very common in former times for - if a woman was dining on her own, to invite her friends to join her in her boudoir, which was not just a bedroom, but also a kind of reception room, but a kind of intimate one. And they would often have - take meals there. Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, often would do that.

What happened with - was that soft furnishings came in, and people began to get elegant fabrics in rooms like boudoirs and drawing rooms and living rooms and so on. And they - the lady of the house didn't want guests wiping their greasy fingers on her good chairs. And so...

LUDDEN: How rude of them.


BRYSON: Well, yes - or, you know, on the curtains or whatever. So they came up with the idea of we'll have a room is just devoted to dining, and it will be built so that people can go and eat in there and spill their crumbs and their drinks on special tablecloths, and so on. And then when they're finish eating, they can return to the main part of the house so that they don't - there's not food stains everywhere.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And we have another phone call. Joe is in Milton, Wisconsin. Hi, there.

JOE: Oh, hi. Thank you. I'm calling because we just bought the family farmhouse. And when the appraisers were going through the house, we had an awful hard time naming all the different rooms.

LUDDEN: It wasn't apparent to you what they were for?

JOE: Well, it was apparent what they were for, but we kind of start running out of names.


JOE: It's 17 to 19 rooms, depending on how you count things.

LUDDEN: Oh, my.

BRYSON: We had a bit of a problem like that ourselves in that there were rooms that - more rooms than we had purposes for. And one of the chapters in my book is called "The Plum Room," because we just call it the plum room. When we moved into the house, it was - the walls were painted a plum color. And...

JOE: Oh, okay.

BRYSON: ...I presumed that whatever - even if we change the color in the room, we will still always call it the plum room now because that's just - but we don't know - I mean, it was just a kind of extra room. We think it might have been originally a library, but I don't know. So we just, by default, by -without planning it, we just ended up calling it the plum room.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Joe, thanks for the phone call.

JOE: Okay.

LUDDEN: Bill Bryson, I think since we've teased people up top, we should let them know: Can you explain why forks do have four tines?

BRYSON: Well, they - originally, they had just two. And a fork was much larger, and it was really designed simply to hold down a turkey or other large hunk of meat for carving, just so that it - to steady it while you carved it with a knife with your other hand. And the idea of using forks as a way of putting food into your mouth was quite slow catching on. But initially, they - dinner forks, dining forks had just two tines, as well. But what you find, as you can imagine, with two tines, you've going to have a very good chance of stabbing yourself in the lip or the tongue. And so they started adding extra tines kind of as a safety precaution. And an experiment with different numbers, and some forks had six or even eight at various times.

But for some reason, that is beyond really explaining, we just feel more comfortable with four tines. It seems to be the number we feel comfortable with. Very occasionally, you will encounter, in other societies, in other countries, you'll encounter carving forks that have maybe five tines. And it feels slightly strange in your mouth. And I - who can say why it is?

LUDDEN: All right. Well, you can read an excerpt from Bill Bryson's new book, "At Home," on our website, Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joins us from our studios in New York. Bill Bryson, thank you so much.

BRYSON: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: And coming up: saying I do is a recession. Is the lousy economy killing marriage?

Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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