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At Home

Bill Bryson





English county churchyards seem to be sinking into the ground - typical church foundations are about three feet below level of the churchyard. Hasn't sunk; the land has risen. A county parish with 2500 people living in it translates to 3 or 4000 deaths a century, so average English churchyard has 20000 burials, and that's a lot of biomass.

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Medieval banquets served all sorts of things no longer eaten - eagles, swans, swallows - not because they were tasty, but because better meat wasn't available. Beef, mutton, lamb rarely eaten because animals valued for their fleece or muscle.

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Up until 1600's few houses cd afford windows. One 1590 will left house to his wife but windows to his son. Castle owners had windows taken out and stored to minimise breakages.

Took a long time to invent chimneys (had to wait for firebricks to be invented). Early ones very inefficient, so constantly got larger. Some so big that you cd pull up benches inside them - only place in the house where you cd really get warm.

1840's miracle product was ice. Had advantage of being 'free' but someone had to figure out how to transport it and then to create a market for something that few had ever used. For several decades, ice was, by weight, America's 2nd biggest 'crop'. Sawdust, previously worthless, now became a valuable insulator.

1851 London 1/3 of young women (15 - 25) were servants, and anther 1/3 were prostitutes. For many that was the only choice they had.

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The bachelor Earl of Lonsdale lived alone, but had 49 people to look after him.

If you wanted a bath, the water had to be heated in the kitchen and carried upstairs in special cans. A gallon of water weighs 8lbs and a bath takes 45 gallons to be filled, and then of course has to be emptied as well. And if a house had visitors there might be 20 or more baths to be filled each evening.

Casual humiliation a regular feature. Servants often required to adopt a new name, so the family was spared the tedium of learning a new name every time a servant retired or fell under the wheels of a coach.

WW2 stringent blackout regulations. Drivers weren't even allowed dashboard lights at night, so to avoid hitting parked cars, they drove in the middle of the road, which of course led to head on collisions. In first four months of the war 4000 people were killed on the roads, twice the peace time rate. Without dropping a single bomb, Germans were killing 600 people a month/

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A British naval expedition in 1740's started with 2000 men - 4 died in battle and another 1400 died of scurvy. captain Cook circumnavigated globe 30 years later and didn't lose a single man. But it still took the RN another 30 years to understand the benefits of daily dose of lemon juice.

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In 1861 a German schoolteacher named Philip Reis built a prototype telephone but which cd only transmit clicks and a few musical notes. Ironically it was discovered later that when the contacts got gummed up with oil and dirt, it transmitted speech perfectly, but with Teutonic thoroughness, Reis kept his equipment shiny and clean, so he never realized how close he was to creating a workable invention.(Alexander Graham Bell assembled his in 1876).

Rats are very smart. A poultry market in NY cd not figure out how rats were stealing eggs. Turned out that one rat would wrap his legs around an egg, then roll over on his back. A second rat would then drag him back to the burrow. Similarly a freezing works cdn't work out how rats were getting sides of beef off hooks at night. Swarms of rats wd form a pyramid underneath a beast, and one rat wd scramble up the pyramid and jump onto the side of meat. He'd climb to the hook , gnaw round it till it dropped to the floor for the rest of the rats to fall on it.

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In US, lawns cover about 50,000 square miles - more than any other single crop. In parts of America, 70% of water use is for lawns. Each year 70m tons of weedkiller are used on them. Ironic that for most Americans, keeping a lawn is the least green thing they do.

One of most underrated human inventions is string - 2 pieces of fibre twisted together to make a cord that is strong, and allows long cords to be built up from short fibres. Basis of clothing, fish lines, leashes, tethers, bows. Without it the human race could not have conquered the Earth.

************************** Review LST *****************************************

Many adults have a fantasy that if they could go back to college - now that the desire to party, drink and sleep around has faded to a burnished memory - they'd get so much more out of it. The publishing industry often reflects this wish. Every season brings offerings that are right at home on anyone's continuing-ed syllabus: innovative, original ways to study world history through lenses trained on the minutiae of salt or cod, earthworms or spices, tea or telephones. Now, finally, for those of us who wrestled with Rocks for Jocks, pined amid Physics for Poets and schlepped through college on 101s of any and every subject - the beloved survey courses - here's that most popular professor, Bill Bryson, with a fascinating new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

Bryson is best known for A Short History of Nearly Everything, which took a cosmic perspective on the creation of the place we call home, our planet - no, make that our solar system - and created a run on yellow highlighters. Why he insists on calling these histories short is beyond me, when each runs to more than 450 pages. Perhaps they're short when compared with the stacks of tomes that have to be ingested, digested and egested in order to produce them? With At Home, Bryson's focus is domestic; he intends, as he puts it, to write a history of the world without leaving home. You can take this class in your pajamas - and, judging by the book's laid-back, comfy tone, I have a sneaking suspicion that Bryson wrote much of it in his.

Or he should have. Pajamas might be one of the few subjects not covered in At Home. Bryson's conceit is nifty, providing what business majors might recognize as a loose-tight management structure, flexible enough to maintain a global scope without losing track of the mundane. Join this amiable tour guide as he wanders through his house, a former rectory built in 1851 in a tranquil English village. At Home takes off from the second half of the 19th century, when, Bryson reminds us, private life was completely transformed. . . . It is almost impossible to conceive just how much radical day-to-day change people were exposed to.

Moving from room to room, talking while we walk, please notice that the backs of those antique parlor chairs are never upholstered. They were kept against the wall to make it easier to walk through rooms without tripping over furniture in the dark. Now admire the suits hanging in the closet: When buttons came in, about 1650, people couldn't get enough of them and arrayed them in decorative profusion on the backs and collars and sleeves of coats, where they didn't actually do anything. One relic of this is the short row of pointless buttons that are still placed on the underside of jacket sleeves near the cuff. These, Bryson insists, have always been purely decorative and have never had a purpose. (Actually, I can think of a few men for whom the purpose of those buttons is to leave them unbuttoned, a sartorial display of status that only those with custom-tailored suits will recognize.)

A trip to the larder involves a discussion of the servant classes. In the dining room we learn about vitamins (not even a word until 1912). As we move to the second floor, you may be interested to learn that stairs are very dangerous places; they rank as the second most common cause of accidental death, well behind car accidents, but far ahead of drownings, burns and other similarly grim misfortunes. A visit to the cellar is the occasion for a survey of building materials in the Western world - stone, wood, brick, concrete. And we can't talk about hydraulic cement without going into the history of the Erie Canal.

Reach into the freezer for a pint of Ben & Jerry's Everything but the . . . and there you'll find the history of ice, beginning with the blocks that were carved out of Wenham Lake in Massachusetts in 1844 and shipped to London. (For several decades, ice was America's second-largest crop, measured by weight.) Consider the contents of the bedroom: It has been calculated that if your pillow is six years old (which is the average age for a pillow), one-tenth of its weight will be made up of sloughed skin, living and dead mites, and mite dung. This may be more than you want to know, but one thing is clear: Climate change notwithstanding, the history of pestilence, plague and the potty - not to mention sewage - should make us glad to be living in the here and now.

Throughout At Home, I kept thinking, Who knew? But many's the time I realized, actually, I did know. If you have any interest in furniture, food, fashion, architecture, energy or world history, chances are you've stumbled across some (or all) of the information Bryson has on offer. Countless books have been written on every subject covered in At Home; many are credited in the ample bibliography. But while Bryson may not have done much original research, it takes a very particular kind of thoughtfulness, as well as a bold temperament, to stuff all this research into a mattress that's supportive enough to loll about on while pondering the real subject of this book - the development of the modern world. Very few of us know much about everything, and the appeal of Bryson's sprawling history is in the warp of the material as much as its weft - in the way the whole thing is strung before it is woven. (And speaking of weaving, in the 17th century India dominated the cotton trade, as we are reminded by the endless numbers of words that came into English from there: khaki, dungarees, gingham, muslin, pajamas, shawl, seersucker, and so on.)

Bryson has mastered the art of making sweeping generalizations and bold pronouncements. With the discovery of how to extract rock oil (what we now call petroleum) on an industrial scale, George Bissell changed the world completely and forever. The realization that land did not have to be rested between plantings also changed the world. The history of early America is really a history of coping with shortages of building materials. If you had to summarize it in a sentence, you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly. About guano, used as a fertilizer, suddenly there was nothing in the world people wanted more. It must be hard to keep track of so many things. Then again, word processing, and with it the ability to cut and paste with ease, has also changed the world.

At Home is baggy, loose-jointed and genial. It moves along at a vigorously restless pace, with the energy of a Labrador retriever off the leash, racing up to each person it encounters, pawing and sniffing and barking at every fragrant thing, plunging into icy waters only to dash off again, invigorated. You do, somehow, maintain forward momentum and eventually get to the end. Bryson is fascinated by everything, and his curiosity is infectious. As a reviewer, I ought to be concerned with matters of focus and organization. Bryson himself seems to have had moments of anxiety on the matter. We might pause here for a moment, he writes, about midway through, to consider where we are and why.

Indeed. We have wondered, many times, just exactly where we are and why. By the time he thinks to do a head count, we have just examined the skeleton of the Statue of Liberty, watched the erection of the Eiffel Tower and met the nouveaux riches of the Gilded Age - while standing in the gloomy recesses of a windowless corridor. No matter. Bryson's enthusiasm brightens any dull corner. I recommend that you hand over control and simply enjoy the ride. You'll be given a delightful smattering of information about everything but, weirdly, the kitchen sink.

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