RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Bill Bryson is an author known for exploring far-flung places. He's written about the Australian outback, the Appalachian Trail. He's even written a history of the universe. Now, he's found inspiration at his own door. Bill Bryson's new book, called "At Home," is a room-by-room history of domestic life.
He started the project wondering about his house, an old Victorian parsonage in England.
Mr. BILL BRYSON (Author, "At Home"): What if I just treated our own home as a universe in its own right, and I just kind of wandered around it and wrote about the history of that? And my idea was that the book is tied to this specific house, but it's looking at more general history of domesticity everywhere.
MONTAGNE: And you started the book with the part of the house that we hardly ever think of today. We merely pass through it - the hall.
Mr. BRYSON: The hall, yeah. I mean, I'd always wondered a little bit about that way. You know, hall denotes important spaces in the wider world, you know, Hall of Fame or Carnegie Hall - that kind of thing. And yet in our own homes, it's this dinky room that's the most demoted room in the house because at one time the hall house was the hall. I mean, originally in the middle ages, the house was just a single room with perhaps a couple of annex rooms - a kitchen - off of it. But most living was done in the great hall.
MONTAGNE: Right. I mean, people slept together, basically, in the same space. In fact, there's a wonderful moment when we discover that make a bed - it doesn't mean to put sheets and towels, and the lovely linens on it; it literally meant make a bed.
Mr. BRYSON: Yeah, I mean, you know, originally, you either rolled out a kind of cloth pallet or you just kind of heaped straw and put a blanket down on top of it, and that was it. You know, you sort of made a bed for yourself for the night. It was a much more fluid and informal arrangement that we are used to now.
MONTAGNE: Now, when the house was still a hall, it was warmed by an open hearth, which had some really distinct disadvantages. For instance, you write that it was like having a permanent bonfire in the middle of the living room.
Mr. BRYSON: Well, it's essentially what it was. I mean, there were no chimneys up until about the 14th century. What you did is you had an open fire and all the smoke just kind of leaked out a hole in the roof. And an open, you know, fire in the middle of a room, radiates heat much better than a fireplace does, but it also meant that there was a lot of smoke and sparks and things drifting about.
MONTAGNE: When chimneys came into being and you got the hearth out of the middle of the room, what did that mean in terms of how people lived?
Mr. BRYSON: Well, it had one really, really huge revolutionary effect, which was that all this roof space that used to be taken up and filled with smoke would have been unlivable. That was now comparatively clean and so people could move up there. And it really meant that people could start thinking about building an upstairs. From that point, they started to discover the whole concept of privacy and having space of your own.
MONTAGNE: And then, you know, language took this up. You describe the names of some of the rooms. Tell us about some of the rooms.
Mr. BRYSON: All kinds. It was study and boudoir and cabinet and the closet and all these other words all began to come into the language.
MONTAGNE: I like the one word you just mentioned, boudoir, which is usually connected in - was then - even to sort of sexual intrigue. But it actually translates into what?
Mr. BRYSON: It means a place to sulk.
MONTAGNE: To sulk?
Mr. BRYSON: Sulk, yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: So, those two go together - at least for the French.
Mr. BRYSON: Apparently. But it's certainly a place to...right from the very beginning, it was a place for kind of the mistress of the house to retreat to and those private rooms upstairs were also where people now began to invite guests. So, that what we now think of as a bedroom is a place that's dedicated to sleeping - they would use not only for sleeping, but also it would might where you'd have a little dinner party.
MONTAGNE: All of these rooms, which were a little hard to keep warm but they were also hard to keep lit, for many centuries - really until the last 150 years - you have a chapter titled Fuse Box. Read for us a little section where you begin speaking of that.
Mr. BRYSON: Sure.
(Reading) We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle, a good candle, provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt light bulb. Open your refrigerator door and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the 18th century. A world at night for much of history was a very dark place, indeed.
MONTAGNE: That is a stunning thing to hear, that to open up a refrigerator, that, you know, there's more wattage there.
Mr. BRYSON: Yes, I know. Isn't it an amazing thought? And when I came across that fact, when I was doing the research for the book, it was wintertime in England and completely dark. And I got one candle and I went into one of the rooms of our house where there was absolutely no other illumination. I lit the candle and put it beside me and tried to read, just picked up a book and tried to read by it. It's nearly impossible.
I mean, everybody should try it as an experiment some time, because not that long ago, a very large proportion of people, that was all the illumination they would have.
MONTAGNE: Give us an example of this, how people lived in the evening.
Mr. BRYSON: Can I read...
MONTAGNE: Yeah, yes.
Mr. BRYSON: ...a passage or two; would that be all right? There's a paragraph in here that I think explains it a little bit.
(Reading) Occasionally, we can see into the dimness, as it were, when we find descriptions of what was considered socialist. That's when a guest at the Virginia plantation, Nomini Hall, marveled in his diary, how luminous and splendid the dining room was during a banquet because seven candles were burning - four on the table and three elsewhere in the room. To him, this was a blaze of light.
MONTAGNE: Let's go to the dining room, which didn't come into being 'til fairly recently - the late 1700s. Tell us about its origins.
Mr. BRYSON: Yeah. Well, I mean, I never stopped to think about that, but you don't have dining rooms in your home because at some point in history somebody, people suddenly decided they wanted a room dedicated to eating. What happened, rather, was that for a long time there was no upholstered furniture and when it finally began to happen - it could make up this stuff in the late 18th century - they were also finding that guests, when they were sitting in these chairs, were tending to wipe their fingers on the upholstered furniture.
So, the mistress of the household essentially decreed it was necessary to put aside a particular room dedicated to the purpose of eating so they weren't too, you know, kind of spilling food and messing up the really good furniture in the living rooms.
MONTAGNE: Was there something that completely changed the way you looked at your own home, things you would never think are connected?
Mr. BRYSON: The thing that I hadn't expected and that was kind of the main discovery for me in the book is that the house is just full of surprises, mostly because we don't stop to think about these things because it's part of our everyday life.
We don't stop to ask why do we have salt and pepper and not salt and cinnamon. And when they talk about things like room and board, what's the board? What are they talking about and all these things that are just part of everyday life. There are reasons for why we have four tines on our forks and so on, because that's what history made them.
MONTAGNE: Bill Bryson's new book is "At Home: A Short History of Private Life." Thanks very much for joining us.
Mr. BRYSON: It's been my pleasure, Renee. Thank you for having me.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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