My everyday routine as Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces takes me into some of England’s most impressive and historic buildings, but my own home is just an ordinary modern flat. Much to my surprise, though, the research I’ve done over the last few years has made me see that even a boring conventional flat has rather a fascinating story behind each of its rooms.
In my latest book, I’ve looked at the history of the four main rooms of a house: bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen. I’ve explored what people actually did in bed, in the bath, at the table, and at the stove. This has taken me from sauce-stirring to breast-feeding, teeth-cleaning to masturbation, getting dressed to getting married.
I’ve included lots of tiny, quirky and seemingly trivial details, but through them I think we can chart great, overarching, revolutionary changes in society. A person’s home makes an excellent starting point for assessing their time and place. ‘I’ve a great respect for things!’ says a character in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881). ‘One’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps - these things are all expressive’. That’s why, of course, we invest so much money in our homes: they help define who we really are.
Looking into the bedrooms of the past, I was intrigued to discover that they were rather crowded, semi-public places, and that only in the nineteenth century did they become reserved purely for sleep and sex. Victorian houses saw the climax of a trend for increasingly specialised rooms that’s since been reversed. In a medieval house, people were often to be found sleeping in the central living hall, and in a sense we’ve come full circle. In my own home with its single separate bedroom, guests are often to be found sleeping on the living room sofa.
Your bathroom is the room with the shortest history. Bathrooms didn’t even exist as a separate space until late into the nineteenth century, and I was intrigued to learn that ideas about personal hygiene, rather than technological innovation, determined the pace of development. The flushing toilet was invented in Elizabethan times but didn’t catch on. It remained much more convenient to have your maid bring a chamber-pot to your bedroom than it was for you to have to take the trouble to walk to a lavatory. Cheap domestic labour, largely female, meant the Victorians were still happy to have their servants lug water upstairs and down for decades after plumbed-in baths were available. (‘Men will do much for glory and vainglory’, wrote Florence Caddy in 1877, ‘but then I never heard of a man who took the trouble to empty his bath after using it’.)
The living room only developed once people had the leisure time and spare money to spend on making it comfortable, and I’ve learned to think of it as a sort of stage-set where homeowners acted out an idealised version of their lives for the benefit of guests. Here taste and style expressed not who you really were, but who you longed to be.
Finally, I’ve discovered that the story of the kitchen is also the story of food safety, transport, technology and gender relations. For centuries the kitchen was pushed outside or beneath the house, and was a dark, functional, unpleasant place where servants toiled and family were scarcely to be seen. The twentieth century, the collapse of domestic service, and the extractor fan saw the kitchen return to the heart of family life, and it’s now the hub of many homes.
I had a great source of extra help in researching my book through the experience I gained presenting a BBC TV series on the same topic. I had the chance to try out for myself many of the rituals of historic home life. I blackened a Victorian kitchen range, lugged the water to fill an unplumbed bathtub, ignited a gas streetlight, waded through nineteenth-century sewers, slept in a Tudor bed, drank Georgian medicine, coaxed a dog into turning a roasting-spit, and even used urine as a strain-remover. Each time we recreated some lost part of domesticity I learned something new about why and how houses developed.
The history of the home is also the history of our language. Why do we say ‘good night, sleep tight’? Some people say that it’s because the rope bed-strings of Tudor beds needed regular tightening to avoid sag. Ever wondered about the origin of the nursery rhyme ‘Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold, pease pudding in the pot, nine days old’? This refers to the iron pot which sat over a kitchen fire for centuries. Housewives would throw random food into the pot to make pottage, a kind of perpetual soup kept on the go from day to day, so a pottage of peas might indeed be a week old. The ‘chairman of the board’, I discovered, takes his name from furniture: the master of a medieval household sat at his dinner table (his ‘board’) in what was often the only chair in the house, while everyone else had to stand, or make so with stools. The idea that those in charge have the best seats is still so powerful that every today professors take their ‘chair’ and judges their ‘bench’.
Many humdrum home chores were so familiar to people in the past that they were hardly worth thinking about. ‘I was talking about ideals, nobility, principles,’ cries one of the characters in Marilyn French’s classic feminist novel, The Women’s Room (1978). ‘Why do you always have to bring us down to the level of the mundane, the ordinary, the stinking, f---ing refrigerator?’
But I would argue that every single object in your home has its own important story to tell. Your relationship with your refrigerator reveals a great deal about who you really are. Is it full or empty? Do you share it? Clean it yourself? Have someone to clean it for you? The answers to these questions define your place in the world. As Dr Johnson put it:
Sir, there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great knowledge of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.
If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home is out now, published by Faber.