Conclusion to the If Walls Could Talk Series

So I wrote more posts than I expected about the book If Walls Could Talk. Why do I find the topic so compelling?

Honestly, I find the topics of the book compelling for many of the same reasons the writer, Lucy Worsley, does.

Most history education does not focus on how people lived their lives in their homes, so most of us lack a historical context for much that we find and do in our homes. Thus, we sometimes underestimate or overestimate how unusual our home habits are. Take, for example, the ‘trend’ of people eating alone, or at least in very small groups. Most of what I read/hear about eating alone in contemporary media, whether it’s a lamentation that people are eating alone so often, or a defence of eating alone, saying it’s not such a bad thing, assumes that this is a new behavior. By contrast, Worsley says:

The beginning of the end of the communal meal can be seen much earlier than the seventeenth-century handover of the cooking from men to women in the grandest houses. It can be placed right back in the fourteenth century. (Or at least that’s when the rhetoric began. It’s amazing that people are still complaining about this to this very day: when they criticise families for eating in front of the television, they’re echoing sentiments which have been heard for six hundred years.)

I imagine that if it were common knowledge that these arguments about eating alone / in privacy were so old, the way people discuss it today would probably be different (and more interesting).

And near the very end of the book, Lucy Worsley says “Throughout all the periods of history, people have thought their own age wildly novel, deeply violent and to be sinking into the utmost depravity; likely, in short, to herald the end of the world.” I can feel this sometimes when I read Victorian novels, especially when they refer to the ‘nineteenth century’ as being an ultra-modern era where the appearance of anything ‘old-fashioned’ would be shocking while society was more depraved than ever before. Continue reading

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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Historical Cycles of Collecting & Minimizing (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

One of the many things I’ve learned from the book If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley is that, at least in the English-speaking world, there have already been a few cycles of a fad for collecting various material stuff followed by a fad for clearing out the ‘clutter’ to make the home simple and beautiful.

According to Worsley, in medieval England, anyone who could afford to have a lot of material goods had a very mobile lifestyle, and thus needed stuff that was easy to carry around. The king had to constantly travel from place to place within his kingdom, and powerful nobles had multiple manors and needed to travel between them in order to manage their domain. That meant that their stuff was both easy to assemble/dissemble and pack, and there was a practical limit to just how much stuff they had. “This was medieval life for the grand,” the book says “the temporary occupation of an endless succession of draughty castles, each furnished quickly but luxuriously for the occasion. It’s almost like camping: each night the whole set-up could be recreated somewhere new.”

There was another reason, however, that the powerful people in medieval times (and their servants) moved from place to place every few weeks. Worsley says “The difficulty of cleaning up after a huge household was one of the things that kept medieval noblemen on the move, trekking from residence to residence every few weeks. [Describing an incident when Queen Mary’s household was stuck at the same palace for a long time] …The squalor grew; the garderobes [equivalents of toilets] overflowed into the moat. The conditions grew so foul that tension between the English courtiers and the Spanish supporters of Mary’s husband Philip reached boiling point.” Continue reading

The Alienation and Then Disappearance of Domestic Servants (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In the book If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley says:

Perhaps the biggest difference of all between [before the twentieth century] and now is the absence of this particular variety of intimacy in the home. People in the past took it completely for gratned that they’d have non-family members living cheek by jowl beneath their roof.

In Tudor and Stuart time, between a quarter and a half of the entire population were employed in domestic service at some point in their lives, and the bond between master and servant was one of the most important social relationships. Being a servant wasn’t something of which to be ashamed: you gained protection and honour by association with your own particular lord… People were proud to serve the man who in return met their physical needs.

Clearly this attitude was long gone by the beginning of the twentieth century, but in 1900 domestic service remained the single largest source of female employment … In the most significant upheaval in a thousand years of domestic history, by 1951 a mere 1 per cent of households had a full-time residential domestic servant.

It is clear that Lucy Worsley really does consider the disappearance of domestic servants to be ‘the most significant upheaval in a thousand years of domestic history’. In almost every part of the book, she discusses how essential servants were to the life of middle-to-upper class households – which, in turn, were also lower class households, because they were just as much a home to the lower-class servants as they were to the upper-class masters. Continue reading

Notions of Hygiene Come from Culture (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

People generally get their notions of hygiene from their culture, and tend to overestimate how much their ideas about hygiene agree with science.

This is something I first came to understand when I lived in Taiwan. It turns out that what a Taiwanese person thinks is hygienic may not seem hygienic to an American, and vice versa.

One example of a habit which is normal in Taiwan but which many people from other societies (including the United States) find gross is putting used toilet paper in the trash rather than flushing them down the toilet. As I said in this post:

I have read various tracts by non-Taiwanese about how the Taiwanese habit of putting toilet paper in the bin is so ‘unsanitary’ and is ‘bad manners’ but instead of presenting scientific evidence of how Taiwanese practices help spread disease or cause more environmental damage than putting toilet paper in toilet bowls, their argument seems to be that it goes against their own non-Taiwanese cultural norms, and thus the Taiwanese are wrong.

I still have not encountered any scientific evidence that putting toilet paper in a bin instead of the toilet itself causes more disease transmission. Perhaps it does – but the point is, I haven’t seen the people claiming that this habit is ‘unsanitary’ refer to any scientific evidence, which means that their opinion is based on culture, not science.

An example of a habit which is unremarkable in the United States but is considered unsanitary in Taiwan is: eating raw vegetables. Since I didn’t have a kitchen in Taiwan (just a sink and a rice cooker that didn’t work very well), I ate out for most of my meals. Once in a while, I was invited to a Taiwanese home for a meal. I noticed that Taiwanese eateries and homes rarely offered anything with raw vegetables. I’ve also had multiple conversations with Taiwanese people like this:

Taiwanese person: I went to Canada.
Me: Did anything about Canadian culture surprise you?
Taiwanese person: (amazed) Canadians eat vegetables without cooking them.

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Closets: the Shift to Seeking Solitude (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In chapter 5 of If Walls Could Talk, “Praying, Reading and Keeping Secrets”, Lucy Worsley says:

The closet was used for solitary activities – for praying, reading, meditating – or for storing precious art, musical instruments and books.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, as literacy spread, we come across a novelty: people willingly spending time by themselves. This new trend for solitude, linked to the rise of reading, called for new, small and private rooms.

…Closets, these new rooms for solitude, also developed out of a tradition of prayer… Indeed, the forerunner to the closet was the private oratory, like the one just off Edward III’s bedchamber at the Tower of London.

Apparently, literacy was what prompted so many people to seek solitude. (And I guess Christianity had something to do with it too). The spread of literacy also motivated improvements in indoor lighting – if people are not reading (because they can’t) they don’t need good lighting in the evening.

I find this major shift – from people not seeking solitude to seeking solitude – very interesting. If one never wants to focus on read or study, and in the absence of electronic devices, prayer and meditation may be the only activities one would especially want solitude in a quiet enclosed space for, and some people do not particularly want to pray alone or meditate.

But with reading – and composing one’s own thoughts to write down on paper – being alone in a quiet enclosed space becomes much more desirable.

According to Worsley, the ‘closet’ was only popular in England for a few centuries before falling out of use.

Secondly, the Pilgrim Fathers took closets over to America, and to this day personal possessions in the US are stored in ‘closets’. The shoe-filled walk-in closet in her tiny New York apartment represents Carrie’s hopes and dreams in Sex and the City.

Back in the British bedroom, though, the closet died out.

Wait, what? People in the U.K. don’t have closets??!! I had no idea. Do they all store their clothes in wardrobes? (In San Francisco, many people *cough* prefer having an extra bedroom over having a dining room, so rooms which were originally built to be dining rooms have a tendency to morph into bedrooms, and lacking closets, they often have wardrobes. Thus, in my experience, wardrobe = mod for converting non-bedroom into bedroom).

Until the rise of electronic devices, reading, writing, and study (and maybe prayer) were the major activities for people who wanted to mentally shut out their physical environment so they could immerse themselves in a particular mental environment. But now, in addition to reading/writing/study/prayer, we have: radios, recorded music players, television, electronic games, and more examples which I am probably overlooking. Not to mention that there is now more written content to read that ever before: besides books, newspapers, magazines, and letters, there is so much material on the internet, including blogs like this one. Though listening to the radio/recorded music, watching television, and electronic gaming can be communal activities, they are also often done in solitude. I suspect people today, especially but not only in first world societies, are choosing to spend more time in solitary activities than ever before (for example, I am writing this blog post in solitude).

What does it mean if people have shifted towards putting more time into solitary activity than before? I’m not sure. It’s something to think about (probably in solitude, since I don’t know whether I’ll ever have a conversation about this).

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.
Continue reading

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