On Cooking Smells (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In the book If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley claims “We live today in an age of deadened senses. People in the past could be shocked or transformed by a smell, something that rarely even registers in our sanitised world.” She then goes on to describe how, in the past, that bad smells themselves were believed to be a cause of disease, and that pregnant and other physically vulnerable people should avoid them (in other words, this was part of a different mental model of hygiene than we have today).

Cooking smells were considered ‘bad’ smells.
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Making Beds (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In the various books I’ve read/skimmed about household organization, I read over and over again exhortations to make one’s bed every morning. Many of these exhortations were phrased something like this: “I never used to make my bed, but then I changed my ways. It makes a big difference. Try it out yourself”. For more detailed examples of exhortations to make one’s bed every morning, click here and here.

These exhortations to make one’s bed every morning assume that making a bed only takes a minute or two. Most of the justifications for making the bed boil down to a) it looks nicer and b) it puts you in a better mindset.

Compare that to people on a long-distance hike who have to carry their ‘sleep-system’ with them.

Long-distance hikers tend to be very good about making their bed sleep system every morning. However, it has little to do with aesthetics or mindset. It’s a much more practical reason: the sleep system needs to be packed to fit into a backpack before leaving.
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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.” Continue reading

Where did the notes go?

As I went through the KonMari thing earlier this year, I peeled back layer after layer of accumulated material possessions. It was like doing an archaeological study on myself. I could ‘date’ many of the layers of my stuff, going back to when I was a toddler (which is when I started living in this house).

The most abrupt transition was between the layer from right before I went to Asia, and the layer from when I returned to Asia. That is partially because that is the longest period of time (almost four years) that I have been away from this house. The layers before and I after I lived in Mountain View were also distinct.

When my dad or I find old stuff in the basement that we remember but haven’t seen in years, we call it an ‘archaeological find’ (and he’s the one who started using the word ‘archaeological’ not me). Two examples of archaeological finds from my past are the 3D Taj Mahal puzzle (which was found in the basement) and these writings from when I was 7 years old (which was found in my bedroom).

Recently, we’ve were working on a household project in the basement which involved objects which might not have ever been moved since before I was born. For example, literally today (the day I starting writing the first draft, not the day this post is published) we finally got rid of some materials which were left over from the renovation – and had not been moved between the renovation and when we decided to move them a couple weeks ago. The renovation of the house happened in the early 1980s. Yeah, that stuff had been sitting there for more than 35 years. (The reason there was a time delay between when we initially moved the materials and when we finally discarded them was that we had to schedule for someone to come by our home and take them away).

I find it hard to imagine that we’ll find much in the house which has been in place since before the renovation (unless it’s fixed to a wall), but maybe something has eluded the renovators and us. But there are older layers in the sense that my parents have stuff which they’ve possessed for a lot more than 35 years. For example, during the very same project, I also found some of my mother’s really old documents, such as her graduation diploma … from her elementary school. Continue reading

Exploring the Homes of Early 21st Century Middle Class Los Angeles Households (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1


The researchers noticed a correlation between what was on the outside of the refrigerators with what was in the home in general. Generally, homes which had more stuff on the outside of the refrigerator had a higher density of items throughout the house, and homes which had more organized refrigerator displays were generally more organized.

When I was a child, on the refrigerator door we had various colorful magnets each representing some letter of the alphabet, some magnets we had picked up from businesses listing their phone numbers or something, and a few other random magnets, but not much else. Now, we have nothing on the refrigerator door, and I think it’s been years since there has been anything on the refrigerator door. Maybe there was a calendar at some point on the refrigerator door, but if there was, it was a calendar we all ignored and never updated. I do not recall ever seeing pictures posted to the refrigerator door.

Visiting other people’s homes, I have definitely seen pictures and photographs posted on the refrigerator door, so it’s not a specifically Los Angeles thing.

Though the disorganization of what we put on the refrigerator door may have correlated with general disorganization throughout our home, the relative lack of thing on the refrigerator door did NOT correlate with a low density of items throughout the home (or, maybe it did, I think we did have less stuff when I was a kid, at least until I went full KonMari). And the fact that we don’t have anything on the refrigerator door now most certainly does not correlate with an absence of items throughout the house (even my room, which probably has the lowest density of items of any room in the lived-in part of the house, has much more than a hundred clearly visible items – and that’s not including anything in the closet or inside my covered bookcase).

I think the lack of stuff on our refrigerator door when I was a child, and the total absence of anything on the refrigerator door today, is mainly a reflection of the fact that the kitchen has never been the center of home life for us. Continue reading

Exploring the Homes of Early 21st Century Middle Class Los Angeles Households (Part 1)

I recently read Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, based on a detailed anthropological/archaeological study of 32 households in Los Angeles done during the years 2001-2005. All of the households in the study are 1) in the Los Angeles metropolitan area 2) have two parents who work at least 30 hours per week for pay outside of the home (30 of the households have one mother and one father; 2 households have two fathers and zero mothers) 3) have two or three children 4) at least one child is between the age of 7 and 12 and 5) self-identify as ‘middle-class’. Though I don’t think they listed it as a criteria, it seems that every single one of these households owns a detached house which is also where they live. The writers of this book have also put together a short documentary which is available on YouTube.

I thought this was a very interesting book, which offered some excellent anthropological insights into this type of household.

I do take issue with the beginning “This book centers on the material worlds of American families just like yours (and ours).” Ummm, no, this is not a book about American families like mine. Heck, how do the writers even know that I am American (I am American, but I’m sure some non-Americans have also read this book). I have never lived in a household which matches their criteria – I have never lived in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, my mother was a stay-at-home parent for the entire duration of my childhood, and I have no siblings. That said, I did grow up in a self-identified middle class household in California, and though I am too old to have been included in the cohort of children they studied, I’m not that much older than this child cohort. However, I think the fact that this book studies households which are different than mine makes it more interesting (to me, at least).

As regular readers of this blog know, this year I have taking an interest in skimming/reading books about household management, as well dabbling in some podcasts/YouTube channels. When going through these materials, I occasionally encounter things which seem a bit odd, which don’t quite add up for me. Reading this book has helped clarify some of these things for me. I suppose many of the Americans who make books/podcasts/etc. about household management are thinking of an audience more like these Los Angeles middle-class households in detached housing than San Francisco middle class households in attached housing (I don’t think it is a coincidence that the book I read which seemed most tailored for a household like mine, New Minimalism, is also the only household management book I’ve read which was written by people who have lived in San Francisco). Now that I have read Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, I think other things I read/listen to about household management will make more sense. Continue reading