Book Review: At Home - A Short History of Private Life

As the year is just beginning, we thought we would, from time to time, share with you what we here at Frontier Homestead are reading. Our first review comes from our long-time staffer Stephen J. Olsen. We encourage you to share with us your favorite reads as the year progresses. at-home-bill-brysonFor those who wonder from time to time why something is called what it is called; how and when it was called that; when did what we are commonly familiar with become familiar; and for those who are curious about the progression of society from the so called primitive to the so called refined or civilized, read Bill Bryson’s book At Home, A Short History of Private Life.

Have you ever wondered when you walk down a hall, why it is called a hall, and when did they start calling it a hall. Do you live or have you lived in a two story house, or at least been in a two story house? When did such structures become popular and how did that all come about? Or should the question be phrased: which came first the second story or the chimney? What does a chimney have to do with multiple story houses? During the Victorian era in the United States, there were “ten levels” or types mattress available. Down, feathers, wool, wool-flock, hair, cotton, wood shavings, sea moss, sawdust, and straw. Which would you have preferred? Which could you have afforded?

Mr. Bryson gives the answers to these questions and a great deal of information about daily living. Bryson unveils this information by leading the reader through a small, common house room by room. Bryson uses his home in England, which had belonged to Reverend Thomas Marsham in 1851. Using Bryson’s words, the house “looks the way a house should look. It has a homely air. So it is perhaps slightly surprising to reflect that nothing about his house, or any house, in inevitable. Everything has to be thought of, door, window, chimneys, stairs, and a good deal of that, as we are about to see, took far more time and experimentation than you might ever have thought.”

The Hunter House, our own historic home.

Bryson sets up the book, beginning with the time period of the building of Thomas Marsham’s house. Then Bryson details the setting, England. Beginning with chapter three, Bryson takes the reader room by room, each chapter a different room. The Hall, The Kitchen, The Fuse Box, The Drawing Room and so forth to the Attic. For us Americans, Bryson relates the house to the United States as well. He does point out where there were unique differences in things or names in the USA and England during the Victorian Era. This reader found the book to be fascinating, chuck-a-block-full of wonderful information and insight. The book is an easy read, well written, and organized. Once you have read the book you will be a wiz at trivia, a wonder at parties, and educated in the common things of life associated with the house you live in.

I’ve not begun to reveal a thousandth part of what Bill Bryson’s At Home contains. But I hope I’ve sparked an interest in you to beg, borrow, don’t steal, just borrow and don’t return the book for decades, or buy a copy of the book. If you have a bit of inkling for history, interest in facts, or just a good read with some humor, you should enjoy the book.