Bill Bryson's new book At Home has the subtitle "A Short History of Private Life," but it could be more accurately called "Really Interesting Stuff Nobody Knows."
Stuff like a Stone Age village discovered in Scotland – older than the Great Pyramids – that had built-in dressers, storage shelves, plumbing, and even breezeways between houses.
Or the tale of how salt and pepper became the condiments found on nearly every table. ("Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon?" Bryson muses.)
The book touches on everything from dendrochronology to architectural history, with sprawling lemmas that appear to have nothing to do with homes or private life, until they segue tidily into the point at hand. In short, At Home will give you interesting things to talk about at parties for the next hundred years, or at least until Bryson pens another one.
Here are a few of its revelations:
The Mystery Condiment
As late as the 1850s, cruet stands for condiments came with a bottle each for oil and vinegar, a shaker for salt and pepper, and a third shaker for nobody knows what. Although it's far from ancient history, there isn't a shred of evidence to suggest what was commonly stored in the third container. It might have been powdered mustard.
What's a Tuffet?
Did you think it was an ottoman of some sort? Most people think so, but the fact is the only place in history that the word appears is in the nursery rhyme "Little Miss Muffet." Taken in context, it could be a footstool, or it could be a nonsense word invented for the sole purpose of rhyming with "Muffet." The world may never know.
Ever wondered why vitamins go from A through E, then right to K, as if vitamins F through J were banned for bad behavior? The 'K' is actually an abbreviated form of the original name, Koagulations vitamin, given to it by the Danish scientist who discovered it. Even stranger is vitamin C, which ever member of the animal kingdom can make on its own, except for guinea pigs and humans, who must get their necessary daily allowances from their diet.
It's a misconception that doors in old houses are small because people were shorter. Doors, like windows, were expensive, so the people scrimped by making them as small as possible.
Salt and Pepper
While we tend to favor salt today, consuming it even in foods that don't taste salty (an ounce of corn flakes, Bryson points out, has more salt than an ounce of salted peanuts), Romans loved their pepper – they even sprinkled it on their sweets.
I had assumed the "drawing" in this room's name had something to do with abundant sunlight that made it conducive for Victorian ladies to practice sketching. It is, in fact, an abbreviation of "withdrawing room," a place to get away from everyone else in the house. It sounds a bit less sociable once you know that.