At Home: A Short History of Private Life

By Bill Bryson; Published In 2010
Genres: Nonfiction, History, Audiobook, Humor
[Americans] were, for one thing, so smitten with the idea of progress that they invented things without having any idea whether those things would be of any use.

America's industrial success produced a roll call of financial magnificence: Rockefellers, Morgans, Astors, Mellons, Fricks, Carnegies, Goulds, du Ponts, Belmonts, Harrimans, Huntingtons, Vanderbilts, and many more based in dynastic wealth of essentially inexhaustible proportions. John D. Rockefeller made $1 billion a year, measured in today's money, and paid no income tax. No one did, for income tax did not yet exist in America. Congress tried to introduce an income tax of 2 percent on earnings of $4,000 in 1894, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Income tax wouldn't become a regular part of American Life until 1914. People would never be this rich again.
Spending all this wealth became for many a more or less full-time occupation. A kind of desperate, vulgar edge became attached to almost everything they did. At one New York dinner party, guests found the table heaped with sand and at each place a little gold spade; upon a signal, they were invited to dig in and search for diamonds and other costly glitter buried within. At another party - possibly the most preposterous ever staged - several dozen horses with padded hooves were led into the ballroom of Sherry's, a vast and esteemed eating establishment, and tethered around the tables so that the guests, dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, could enjoy the novel and sublimely pointless pleasure of dining in a New York ballroom on horseback.

...and it occurred to me, with the forcefulness of a thought experienced in 360 degrees, that that's really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things.

A plumped feather bed may have looked divine, but occupants quickly found themselves sinking into a hard, airless fissure between billowy hills. Support was on a lattice of ropes, which could be tightened with a key when they began to sag (hence the expression "sleep tight").

At one time he [Cornelius Vanderbilt] personally controlled some 10 percent of all the money in circulation in the United States.

Because bread was so important, the laws governing its purity were strict and the punishment severe. A baker who cheated his customers could be fined £10 per loaf sold, or made to do a month's hard labor in prison. For a time, transportation to Australia was seriously considered for malfeasant bakers. This was a matter of real concern for bakers because every loaf of bread loses weight in baking through evaporation, so it is easy to blunder accidentally. For that reason, bakers sometimes provided a little extra- the famous baker's dozen.

Columbus's real achievement was managing to cross the ocean successfully in both directions. Though an accomplished enough mariner, he was not terribly good at a great deal else, especially geography, the skill that would seem most vital in an explorer. It would be hard to name any figure in history who has achieved more lasting fame with less competence. He spent large parts of eight years bouncing around Caribbean islands and coastal South America convinced that he was in the heart of the Orient and that Japan and China were at the edge of every sunset. He never worked out that Cuba is an island and never once set foot on, or even suspected the existence of, the landmass to the north that everyone thinks he discovered: the United States.

Even though sugar was very expensive, people consumed it till their teeth turned black, and if their teeth didn't turn black naturally, they blackened them artificially to show how wealthy and marvelously self-indulgent they were.

For anyone of a rational disposition, fashion is often nearly impossible to fathom. Throughout many periods of history – perhaps most – it can seem as if the whole impulse of fashion has been to look maximally ridiculous. If one could be maximally uncomfortable as well, the triumph was all the greater.

If a potato can produce vitamin C, why can't we? Within the animal kingdom only humans and guinea pigs are unable to synthesize vitamin C in their own bodies. Why us and guinea pigs? No point asking. Nobody knows.

Incidentally, the long-held idea that spices were used to mask rotting food doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. The only people who could afford most spices were the ones least likely to have bad meat, and anyway spices were too valuable to be used as a mask.

I refer of course to the soaring wonder of the age known as the Eiffel Tower. Never in history has a structure been more technologically advanced, materially obsolescent, and gloriously pointless all at the same time.

It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.

It is not as if farming brought a great improvement in living standards either. A typical hunter-gatherer enjoyed a more varied diet and consumed more protein and calories than settled people, and took in five times as much viatmin C as the average person today.

It was an odd situation. For a century and a half, men got rid of their own hair, which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig. People who couldn't afford wigs tried to make their hair look like a wig.

Marrying cousins was astoundingly common into the nineteenth century, and nowhere is this better illustrated than with the Darwins and their cousins the Wedgwoods (of pottery fame). Charles married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, daughter of his beloved Uncle Josiah. Darwin's sister Caroline, meanwhile, married Josiah Wedgwood III, Emma's brother and the Darwin siblings' joint first cousin. Another of Emma's brothers, Henry, married not a Darwin but a first cousin from another branch of his own Wedgwood family, adding another strand to the family's wondrously convoluted genetics. Finally, Charles Langton, who was not related to either family, first married Charlotte Wedgwood, another daughter of Josiah and cousin of Charles, and then upon Charlotte's death married Darwin's sister Emily, thus becoming, it seems, his sister-in-law's sister-in-law's husband and raising the possibility that any children of the union would be their own first cousins.

Mrs Loudon was even more successful than her husband thanks to a single work, Practical Instructions in Gardening for Ladies, published in 1841, which proved to be magnificently timely. It was the first book of any type ever to encourage women of elevated classes to get their hands dirty and even to take on a faint glow of perspiration. This was novel almost to the point of eroticism. Gardening for Ladies bravely insisted that women could manage gardening independent of male supervision if they simply observed a few sensible precautions – working steadily but not too vigorously, using only light tools, never standing on damp ground because of the unhealthful emanations that would rise up through their skirts.

Nothing - really, absolutely nothing - says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century's most daring and iconic building was entrusted to a gardener.

One consequential change is that people used to get most of their calories at breakfast and midday, with only the evening top-up at suppertime. Now those intakes are almost exactly reversed. Most of us consume the bulk--a sadly appropriate word here--of our calories in the evening and take them to bed with us, a practice that doesn't do any good at all.

Out of the thirty thousand types of edible plants thought to exist on Earth, just eleven—corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye, and oats—account for 93 percent of all that humans eat,

Out of the thirty thousand types of edible plants thought to exist on Earth, just eleven—corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye, and oats—account for 93 percent of all that humans eat, and every one of them was first cultivated by our Neolithic ancestors.

Pantaloons were often worn tight as paint and were not a great deal less revealing, particularly as they were worn without underwear. . . . Jackets were tailored with tails in the back, but were cut away in front so that they perfectly framed the groin. It was the first time in history that men's apparel was consciously designed to be more sexy than women's.

Part of the reason people could eat so well was that many foods that we now think of as delicacies were plenteous then. Lobsters bred in such abundance around Britain's coastline that they were fed to prisoners and orphans or ground up for fertilizer.

So, if people didn’t settle down to take up farming, why then did they embark on this entirely new way of living? We have no idea – or actually, we have lots of ideas, but we don’t know if any of them are right. According to Felipe Fernández-Armesto, at least thirty-eight theories have been put forward to explain why people took to living in communities: that they were driven to it by climatic change, or by a wish to stay near their dead, or by a powerful desire to brew and drink beer, which could only be indulged by staying in one place.

The dining table was a plain board called by that name. It was hung on the wall when not in use, and was perched on the diners' knees when food was served. Over time, the word board came to signify not just the dining surface but the meal itself, which is where the board comes from in room and board. It also explains why lodgers are called boarders.

The real significance of Magellan's voyage was not that it was the first to circumnavigate the planet, but that it was the first to realize just how big that planet was.

The Reverend Sydney Smith, though a man of the cloth, caught the spirit of the age by declining to say grace. 'With the ravenous orgasm upon you, it seems impertinent to interpose a religious sentiment,' he explained. 'It is a confusion of purpose to mutter out praises from a mouth that waters.

Victorian rigidities were such that ladies were not even allowed to blow out candles in mixed company, as that required them to pucker their lips suggestively. They could not say that they were going "to bed"--that planted too stimulating an image--but merely that they were "retiring." It became effectively impossible to discuss clothing in even a clinical sense without resort to euphemisms. Trousers became "nether integuments" or simply "inexpressibles" and underwear was "linen." Women could refer among themselves to petticoats or, in hushed tones, stockings, but could mention almost nothing else that brushed bare flesh.

Vitamin B proved to be not one vitamin but several, which is why we have B1, B2, and so on. To add to the confusion, Vitamin K has nothing to do with an alphabetical sequence. It was called K because its Danish discoverer, Henrik Dam, dubbed it "koagulations viatmin" for its role in blood clotting.

Widespread commercial distribution of ice was so new that 300 tons of the precious commodity melted at one port while customs officials tried to figure out how to classify it.