If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

I have never understood the snobbish condescension so many people affect toward reality shows. There are some excellent ones out there, and for years I have been an avid fan of the type that features historical reconstruction. My enthusiasm began a decade ago with the riveting 1900 House, in which a late-Victorian London row house was fitted out with period furnishings and fixtures, and a modern family had to try living in it — and cooking, cleaning, and washing in it. This was followed by the even more wonderful Colonial House, in which contemporary Americans took up residence in an exact recreation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Frontier House, where intrepid volunteers lived and worked Laura Ingalls Wilder-style in log cabins. One lesson I learned from every one these shows was that the feminist revolution could never have occurred without the industrial revolution — and specifically not without the invention of the clothes-washing machine, the gas cooker, the refrigerator, and the vacuum cleaner.

Imagine my glee when I picked up Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: A Intimate History of the Home. The book serves as a companion volume to a four-part BBC television documentary (one I haven’t seen yet) but is an excellent read in its own right. Worsley, the pretty young presenter of the television show as well as the chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces in the UK, is an expert historian who writes in a marvelously chatty, colloquial style. She’s fascinated by quirky domestic details but always mindful of the big picture and the way seemingly minor technical developments can reflect — or herald — significant social changes. “A person’s home,” she very persuasively argues, “makes an excellent starting point for assessing their time, place and life.”

Observing domestic life over the long term, it becomes clear that changes in the way we design and use our homes mirror larger changes in attitudes and ways of life. Take standards of personal hygiene, for instance, which were in flux for centuries. Medieval Britons, contrary to popular opinion, were rather clean and enjoyed bathing in communal bathhouses. (“It all sounds delightful,” Worsley comments: “medieval illustrations even show bathers, seated in their tubs, eating meals served on boards across the bath.”) But by Tudor times these once-pleasant places had degenerated into little more than brothels; they were closed down by Henry VIII, and England was launched into its two so-called “dirty centuries.” From about 1550 to 1750 washing was considered unnecessary, even dangerous; hot water could open your pores and supposedly allow bad air, a dreaded “miasma,” to enter the body. Medical advances eventually disabused people of that notion, and in the Georgian era some began taking nervous plunges into cold water. But it was not until the nineteenth century that bathing became current again, due to the Methodist preacher John Wesley, who promoted the “cleanliness is next to godliness” creed. A “nexus of religion, cleanliness and a Protestant work ethic lay behind the great nineteenth-century movement in favor of sewers, public toilets and drains.”
The history of the flush toilet is a curious one, illustrating the principle that technological innovation is sometimes not adopted until social changes demand it. Defecation was not always the private business it is today. Medieval and Baroque kings, whose whole life was a display, moved their bowels in the company of their high-ranking retainers: “[T]he Groom of the Stool was the king’s most important servant and attended him on the ‘Stool,’ which is the close stool or toilet.” Commoners were not more fastidious. The duc de la Rochefoucauld, visiting England in 1784, expressed some distaste at the personal habits he observed there: “The sideboard is furnished with a number of chamber pots and it is a common practice to relieve oneself while the rest are drinking; one has no kind of concealment and the practice strikes me as most indecent.” For the lower classes, gigantic communal jakes that could seat as many as eighty at a time emptied into large cesspits. “I have had the privilege of handling the human excrement from one such pit,” Worlsey recalls, “excavated in Winchester and kept in the freezer in the town’s museum. Occasionally it is defrosted and lucky visitors are allowed to handle it, and even to pick out the cherry pips which have been proven by archaeologists to have passed right through a Saxon stomach.”

The flush toilet was invented not by Thomas Crapper, as popular legend has it, but some three centuries before his time, in the Elizabethan era. The occasional flushing toilet could be found throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, usually in a palace or great house: “Yet these were oddities, frequently commented upon with wonder by those who saw them, and they remained remarkable.” They didn’t catch on because they required a proper sewer system, and there was none. It was not until the Victorian age, when poor sewage disposal began to be associated with cholera outbreaks and Londoners underwent a most unpleasant experience known as “the Great Stink of 1858,” that the political will was summoned to create a great network of sewers in London; it was then that Mr. Crapper’s well-marketed product became a common household appliance. Worsley makes even the history of toilet paper interesting: she informs us that the slang word bumf, meaning “junk mail,” derives from “bum fodder” — the use to which such correspondence was often put. I myself am old enough to remember seeing newspapers cut up for this purpose in British bathrooms, not to mention the stiff, shiny (and scratchy) toilet paper that was in use there right into the 1970s.

Ideas of privacy have changed very much over the centuries, and these changing standards are reflected in domestic architecture. “Today your bedroom is the backstage area where you prepare for your performance in the theatre of the world,” Worsley writes. “For us it’s a private place.” But this has only recently become the case: “The idea that you might sleep by yourself, in your own bed, in your own separate room, is really rather modern.” The bedroom remained a social space, a place to receive favored visitors, play musical instruments, and even do business, right through the Georgian period. When householders of earlier eras wanted a little alone time they repaired to their “closet,” a tiny room (with a lock on the door!) where they might pray, read devotional books, or look at pornography. As bedrooms themselves became more private places, these little rooms became superfluous. The introduction of the corridor in the seventeenth century meant that for the first time one could enter one’s bedroom without passing through someone else’s.

“In medieval times,” Worsley points out, “the cooking fire was the essential, central point of a household. For the next few centuries, though, the kitchen was banished, shunted off to an outbuilding or down to a basement, relegated to servants and shunned by the family. Only recently has it come back to take its place at the heart of the home.” The centuries between the medieval period and our own saw the increasing specialization of rooms, culminating in the Victorian era with its smoking rooms, billiard rooms, morning rooms, and on and on. The banishment of the kitchen from the center of the home saw the rise of the “living room,” which Worsley has come to see as “a sort of stage set where homeowners acted out an idealized version of their lives for the benefit of guests.” The nineteenth century saw its apogee, after which it began a slow but steady decline with the World War I era and what Worsley deems “the biggest-ever change in the history of home life”: the disappearance of the servants. (This era of dramatic social upheaval, by the way, is brilliantly depicted in the television series Downton Abbey.) In 1900 domestic service was the single largest source of female employment in Britain; half a century later, only 1 percent of British households had a full-time, live-in servant.

“When the mistress of a household finally entered her own kitchen and was forced to cook,” Worsley observes drily, “kitchen conditions inevitably improved.” Not only the lady of the house but her family were spending more and more time in the kitchen, until by the 1970s that room had, in most middle-class homes, taken on a distinctly cozy aura — an idea that would have seemed very alien to our Victorian ancestors. The invention of the extractor fan allowed the quick removal of cooking odors, helping usher in the most significant of the recent changes to kitchens: the development of our modern open-plan kitchen/family room.

Home design has evolved continually for a thousand years according to people’s needs and values, and it will surely continue to do so. For a book so focused on technical details, If Walls Could Talk inspires a surprising amount of philosophical reflection on human nature and culture, the ways in which we change (sometimes radically, as with our habits regarding hygiene and privacy) and the ways in which we are forever the same. Worsley’s final, exceedingly thought-provoking chapter suggests some of the changes that might come about in the future. “In a world where oil supplies are running out, the future of the home will be guided by lessons from the low-technology, pre-industrial past…. The age of specialized rooms…is long since over, and adaptability is returning to prominence.” Our future, she posits, is likely to be as communal as our medieval past.