All-Purpose Rooms to Separate Rooms to All-Purpose Again (If Walls Could Talk Series)

I read If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley, which provided me with much food for thought, and is inspiring multiple blog posts. Such as this one.

In the beginning of the book, it explains how, in medieval England (and medieval Europe in general?) most rooms were used for all purposes, and even the few rooms with specialized purposes were used more broadly than they are today. Few medieval people had their own dedicated bedroom; most of them slept in the same room where they did things while awake. People who worked in a kitchen would probably pull out straw mattresses and sleep there at night too. Practically nobody slept in a private bedroom; even the nobility, who had partial privacy within their four-poster bed (if they could afford one) would have some of their servants sleeping in the same room as themselves. And even the ‘bedrooms’ of the nobility were used for many purposes in the daytime, and were not treated as strictly places to sleep.

Building and maintaining buildings are expensive. Keeping buildings warm when it is cold outside is challenging. And in societies which are prone to frequent outbreaks of violence, defending buildings is also a challenge. In medieval Europe, which lacked many of the resources we take for granted now in first world countries today, it made sense to get the most use out of those buildings which were built, maintained, kept warm, and defended. To let a room be left idle in daytime or night-time was wasteful.

People in medieval Europe had much less privacy in where they slept that most affluent people in the first world today, but more people = more warmth, and keeping warm is a higher priority than privacy (not to mention more protection from potential enemies).

Before chimneys started to appear in the 13th century, the only way to heat a room – besides body heat – was an open fire. Since each fire could only heat one room, and each fire required maintenance, that was a reason to minimize the number of rooms (and maximize the use of those rooms). Chimneys made it possible to heat multiple rooms with a single fire, yet were still inefficient. As heating technology improved over the centuries, it became more feasible to heat more rooms with a given amount of fuel.

(Worsley focuses on British history, but in warmer climates, such as southern China, heating is much less important. There tulou homes in Fujian province that were built in the 14th century and have over 200 rooms.)

Gradually, there was more separation of functions of rooms, though the change was gradual. The idea of a bedroom being an exclusive place only became widespread in the 18th century, though ‘bedrooms’ were still used frequently for social gatherings. Heck, according to Worsley, corridors only started to appear in British homes towards the end of the 17th century – before corridors, people had to move through bedrooms rooms which happened to have beds to get from one place in a house to another. And it was only in Victorian times that bedrooms became firmly established as private places. To quote Lucy Worsley “The activities of the bedroom were now [in the Victorian Era] limited to sex and sleeping alone, and the other social purposes of the room fell away.”

Worsley also notes that the separation of rooms became a major class marker. Only the upper and middle classes could afford so many rooms that they could dedicate them to specific functions. Thus, greater separation became a form of conspicuous consumption. Victorian families which could afford to have one bedroom for the husband and a separate bedroom for the wife did so, partially because of Victorian notions about keeping men and women separate, but also to show off their wealth.

I notice that the rise in the separation of rooms coincides with the Industrial Revolution, when much more material wealth became available, especially to the upper and middle classes.

Even among the affluent in the first world today, there are situations where, due to a shortage of resources, people still crowd together with people they are not socially close to and use rooms for all purposes for warmth and security. An example of this is this story of a hiker who shared a small mountain hut during a storm:

Under any other circumstance, being trapped in a cold, dark hut in the middle of nowhere with a group of strange men would have been uncomfortable and weird to say the least. On other backpacking trips, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid crossing paths with strangers. But that night I was enormously glad they were there. It never occurred to me to be uncomfortable. I was glad to be the person in the middle benefiting from body heat on both sides. It’s okay to spoon with strangers when it’s all in the name of surviving the night. Exhausted from the day, comforted by the warm human bodies around me, oddly soothed by the arrhythmic dripping and resonant snoring, I fell into a deep and much-needed sleep.

It’s kind of astounding how the boundaries between complete strangers break down in situations like that, how everyone is stripped to being part of the same human family. For the 12 hours or so we were in the hut, all any of us cared about was staying warm and surviving the night.

(Yes, this is the same Muir Hut which I this post – I had much better luck with the weather)

There are also people in present day California who have noticed that using their place of work as the place where they sleep is a way to avoid paying for rent. This is the story of someone who secretly slept in their office for 500 days. That story is at the extreme end, yet I know of at least one person who works at a store in my neighborhood who sleeps in her car (which she parks nearby) because it beats making a long commute to and from a place she could afford to rent. That’s not quite the same thing as sleeping at her workplace, but it is close. It would not surprise me if there are some business owners who tacitly permit employees to sleep in their workplaces so that they can avoid rent and live on what the business owner is paying them (because otherwise the business owner would not be able to find good workers), though I am sure they would want to keep that situation secret. I wonder if this will ever become a bigger trend as a way to address the high cost of housing in California, though without good regulation I could imagine this leading to undesirable outcomes.

And there is a local business which took the reverse route – instead of having its employees sleep in their office, they found a way to have all of the employees do their work at home, so the business did not need an office anymore (that was years ago, and the storefront has been vacant ever since they left). That saved the business the cost of rent, and allowed all of their employees to move to places cheaper than San Francisco while keeping their jobs.

There is the architectural trend of open floor plans, which is a throwback to the flexible, multi-purpose room, though such homes tend to still have highly separated bedrooms.

And then there is the room where I am typing this blog post right now. It happens to be the same room where I sleep, dress, drink tea, read, sew, etc. I don’t prepare or eat meals here, or wash myself or anything else, or socialize with my parents, but I do most solitary activities at home which don’t fall under the purview of the kitchen or the bathroom in here.

My dad’s room is even more multi-purpose than mine – he eats his meals in his room. I’ve talked to him about it, and he basically thinks of his room as being his own little studio apartment within the house. He says he prefers doing everything in one room, and he says that he liked that his home in Massachusetts (this was years before I was born) was essentially one large L-shaped room wrapped around a bathroom. He does not care for the separation of rooms by function (except maybe the bathroom).

My mother separates functions of rooms more than anyone else in the household. She reserves her bedroom for sleeping, dressing, reading, etc. but her computer is in the living room, and she spends many more of her waking hours in the living room than her room, and she also dominates the kitchen. I suppose one reason my dad and I do so many activities within our own rooms is that those are the only living spaces which are not dominated by my mother. (I’m not complaining, it’s her house and I have enough space in my own room to do what I want, I don’t need the living room).

Just as separation of functions of rooms arose partially as a marker of material wealth, I suspect that, as material resources become scarcer in the future, more people will be reducing the number of rooms they have, and using those rooms more intensely and for a wider range of activities.

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