At Home – A Short History of Private Life

by Bill Bryson 


At Home – A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson is one of those authors whose books that I automatically read as they come out because I love the fact that he can write in a way that makes any subject interesting. He also has the ability to find out surprising details of history and science. However there is another reason why we have reviewed this book. This story is basically about the history of the world and it is important when we think about the future that we have as thorough an understanding of the past as possible. It is even more important that we understand the past from different perspectives than seen in the standard history texts. The book is basically framed around the idea that large parts of the history of the world are related to what ends up in our homes. Bill moved into an old rectory and started thinking about what had gone into the building of what is now a house, and all the contents of various rooms. This was a great starting point but in the end because Bill likes to range far and wide the framework became a bit of an artifice as more and more subjects were stuffed into the book. This can be forgiven though because the quality of the writing and the research is so good. Examples of interesting stories in the book are:

  • The city of Catahoyuk was discovered in Turkey in 1958. It is over 9000 years old and house over a thousand people with evidence of lots of specialised trades.
  • One of the reasons that many old buildings in the UK have narrow or nonexistent windows is due to the fact that there was at one stage a large tax on windows. Once it was removed and glass became cheaper the whole nature of the house changed.
  • The initial blackout during the war killed an extra 600 people a month on the roads in England until the absolute restrictions were relaxed a bit to allow people to see where they were walking and driving.
  • Spermaceti used to be the best whale oil for lighting. Sperm whales store up to 3 tons of this material in a cavity in their heads. To this day nobody knows what it is for.
  • When oil was first pumped commercially the USA produced 2 thousand barrels of oil. Within 10 years this volume grew to 4 million barrels. In fact so much was produced that in 1861 the price of oil fell from $10 a barrel to 10 cents a barrel. This ruined many of the early investors. This was the basis of the Rockefeller fortune as the previous farm commodity dealer moved in and bought up 90% of America’s oil producing leases.
  • Sir William Grove, an amateur inventor, and judge demonstrated an incandescent bulb 7 years before Thomas Edison was born. Joseph Swan, a pharmacist also demonstrated a bulb before Edison, and wired up his own house, and the house of Lord Kelvin the year before Edison demonstrated his success. Thomas Edison was just a much better showman and businessman and therefore is much better known.
  • When the furniture maker Chippendale died in 1779 he was almost penniless. As a side note Chippendale and his fellow furniture makers of the period wiped out a species of Mahogany called Swietenia mahogani making the furniture of era impossible to match.
    As many as 2 million sailors died of scurvy between 1500 and 1850. Despite the fact that
  • Captain Cook demonstrated that sources of Vitamin C could prevent scurvy it took the navy another generation to make it routine on their ships.
  • George Washington Vanderbilt built the largest house ever built in the USA. It was commenced in 1888, comprised of 250 rooms, had a frontage of 780 feet and covered 5 acres.
  • Edison dreamed of building concrete houses where every external and internal structure was made of concrete and would never have to be painted. The idea was to make each house in one continuous pour. It was never made to work.

There are many other great stories and interesting facts in the book. I recommend that you read it just for the pure enjoyment of the read. Every few pages I would put down the book and relate one the stories to anyone that was around.