This copiously researched 500 year history of homes in Europe and America has an almost overwhelming amount of detail, but is so fascinating I kept interrupting the lives of people around me to share something I had just read. Stretching from the tiny, crowded, windowless shacks of our ancestors to the paradigm shifting development of modern suburbs, Judith Flanders has written an eye-opening account.
Included in its scope are 500 years of evolving attitudes about family, marriage, children, gender roles, manners, human waste disposal, how brightly lit a home needs to be, when privacy is required, and what having a clean home means. Flanders describes the difficult ways people got water into their houses before plumbing, how meals were cooked over an open fire (stew was the main menu item for a long time), and how the Industrial Revolution came about. The effects of religion, technology, and changing economic circumstances are explored, and one book-long theme involves home versus house, and the fact that some languages and cultures don’t make a distinction between the two words.
There were all sorts of oddities I didn’t expect. At different points in history beds used to be kept in the parlour for show, sand was put on the floor to soak up grease and wax, people shared beds with their servants, and what little furniture there was stayed pushed against the wall and only moved into the center as needed–the better not to trip over it in the interior dimness that was standard for hundreds of years.
Another thing that interested me is that preserved historic houses are mainly the best of the best, not representative of where most people lived, and they are also the most recent examples of their kind–no one would have saved earlier inferior dwellings as they were replaced. For instance, as awful as they are the slave quarters on view for tourists are actually upgrades, and vast improvements over what enslaved people had to endure for most of the history of slavery in the American South.