Great Reads: “At Home: A Short History of Private Life”
September 7, 2012

I have a great job. Working in the Tenement Museum’s bookshop provides me with immediate access to a whole host of fascinating books. Lately I have been on a historical non-fiction binge–most recently, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life  (Anchor Books, 2010). At first glance, At Home may seem an odd choice for inclusion in the Tenement Museum’s bookshop: the book isn’t solely about New York or America and it isn’t centered on immigrant history. So how does it relate to the Museum? The answer is simple: our tenement and the people who lived in it are inseparable from the story that Bryson is trying to relate.

Bill Bryson's "At Home"

At its core, At Home is a record of the development of the modern world told through the histories of commonplace items and places that make up the fabric of our everyday experiences. After reading Bryson’s book I can now tell you about the chemical and commercial evolution of wall paint and the impact this product had on people’s experience of the world when it became readily and cheaply available. I can think critically, and for the first time, about the slope and dimensions of 97 Orchard’s stairs and what this said about the architect. I can explain why salt and pepper is almost always present on the dinner table and what this has to do with the Dutch East India Company. I now have a deeper understanding of how today’s mundane objects were once revolutionary.

Kitchen c.1936

At Home reveals hidden histories of the domestic realm.

At Home reminds me of another fascinating non-fiction book: Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. Though Larson focuses more on Big Men and Big Ideas, what has stuck in my head are the anecdotal stories of mundane items and cultural idiosyncrasies that suffuse his prose. Devil in the White City also gave me a fun party fact: Pabst Blue Ribbon got its name by winning the blue ribbon for best tasting beer at the 1893 World’s Fair. In many ways, Bryson expands on Larson’s anecdotal approach. At Home is at its essence a book composed solely of short, interesting accounts curated at Bryson’s whim. Though Larson is bound by a more linear storyline and time period, Devil in the White City is a perfect companion piece to At Home in large part because of what both authors reveal about the stuff of modern America.

So, grab a Pabst and spend your Saturday afternoon contemplating two books that answer essential questions you didn’t even know you had. Enjoy.

— Posted by Leah Mollin-Kling