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At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Bill Bryson considers the history of household life – and just about everything else.

At Home:
A Short History of Private Life
By Bill Bryson
Doubleday
448 pp.,$28.95

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Bill Bryson has the good fortune of living in an English rectory built in 1851. And his readers are lucky to be able to tag along in At Home, Bryson's delightful history of household life.

It struck Bryson that history is mostly “masses of people doing ordinary things,” so a history of private life would turn out to be a history of, well, nearly everything – or at least nearly everything in Britain and America during the last 150 years.

One might hesitate to pick up a history of household life, fearing a dry treatise on arcane improvements in furniture care and cleaning technology. Fear not – for Bryson the domestic is just a starting point.

Bryson builds each chapter from one of the rooms in his rectory. In the dining room he wonders why salt and pepper are the two spices on every table, which prompts him to explore European explorers, the slave trade, coffee, tea, silverware, and etiquette. The dressing room leads to the origin of clothes; the manufacture of fabric, fashion, wigs, cotton; and, not least, the Industrial Revolution.

These most common of rooms begin to take on a new light. Bryson writes that “nothing about this house, or any house, is inevitable. Everything had to be thought of – doors, windows, chimneys, stairs – and a good deal of that ... took far more time and experimentation than you might have ever thought.” Suddenly, nothing around you seems obvious or natural, the world becomes strange and wonderful.

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