Monday, May 16, 2011

Reading Bill Bryson's At Home: Chapters 8-9, The Dining Room and the Cellar


Maybe I’m losing my scholarly edge. It is the end of the semester, after all. Or perhaps I’ve simply (temporarily?) abandoned trying to scrutinize Bryson’s work all that closely. Like it or not, At Home is a conversational, amusing, fireside book. Where else can you read about scurvy, the spice trade, mealtime changes, canal-building, brickwork, log cabins, and cement in two chapters and still emerge satisfied and engaged? Bryson may simplify things and, unintentionally no doubt, misrepresent facts. Flemish bond brickwork, for instance, generally does not take any fewer bricks than English bond. And he is the king of hyperbole; he might phrase it that “perhaps no other person in history has been as spectacularly hyperbolic and unabashedly exaggerative as Bill Bryson.” He also enjoys reminding the reader how often nobody seems to know the answer to some lingering question about word origins or historical trends (one suspects that considerable amounts of scholarly ink has been spilled elsewhere over just such questions). But in the end, I’m rather content to hop on for the ride for now, and let Bryson chat about whatever he wants to, even if he sacrifices a few lambs of details along the way.


If anything, Bryson’s work gives us plenty of opportunity to take a step back and consider a small bit of information he includes in passing in a more in-depth way. In chapter 8 on the dining room, we learn that nineteenth-century Britons suffered from a variety of ailments related to food. We also learn that some foods such as coffee were believed to help cure diseases such as gout. Gout! A disease that has grown dear to my heart over the past semester (a topic on which I have spilled “considerable amounts of scholarly ink”).

If you read the New York Times, you might guess based on recent headlines that only wealthy males (particularly royalty) developed gout. If you read eighteenth-century American newspapers, you might have also developed that view. Early Americans reported on many royals’ gouty limbs. This connection is logical, given gout’s association with consuming too many fatty foods and too much alcohol (anything rich in something called a purine, really) while living a sedentary lifestyle. Yet laborers and middling classes (females among them) developed the disease also. Gout is “on the rise” in the west today, and someone like Mr. Marsham and perhaps his gardener (if he had one) may well have suffered from the debilitating disease too.

Gout is a painful non-infectious, non-lethal disease. Gouty sufferers have been comparing the pain gout produces to that of a tooth ache for centuries; some have suggested that they would prefer to die than to suffer through a “fit of the gout." For early Americans, gout’s public life invoked a variety of meanings. My research this past semester did not lead me into the nineteenth century, but scholars suggest that in the nineteenth century, gouty males began to represent effeteness. Historically, few therapies provided relief. Gouty suffers tried everything from soaking limbs in water to tying and untying various colored strings around one’s toes to keep one’s mind off the pain.1 The gouty limb often produced raised deformities that expelled bodily fluid. To absorb the fluid and conceal the bumps, gout sufferers covered the inflamed regions in soft flannel or fur. To relieve the swelling in a domestic setting, gouty sufferers elevated their limbs. Any raised surface would surely do, but gout was so pervasive that furniture makers manufactured and marketed “gouty stools” in conjunction with other refined furniture (such as easy chairs and close stools) meant to veil base human functions:

“Easy Chair” and “Gouty Stool,” Plate 15, in A. Heppelwhite and Co., 3rd ed., The cabinet-maker and upholsterer's guide; or, Repository of designs for every article of household furniture in the newest and most approved taste (London: I. and J. Taylor, 1794), Winterthur Library: Printed Books and Periodicals Collection.

Gout sufferers donned a variety of costume and accoutrements that signaled their goutiness in public and private settings. Yet the gouty stool represents, perhaps, the most conspicuous gout identifier used in the private realm. Always angled downward or constructed to be adjusted to the preferred height, gout stools were unmistakable. They remained easy to spot through the nineteenth century.

When my mother happily purchased this Victorian curiosity for me last summer at an antique mall near my parents’ home on the premise that I wanted to study the intersection of “changes in the body and material culture,” who knew that I would devote countless hours this semester to investigating the early American culture behind the stool and the disease in question here today?

So, what’s the connection between the eighteenth-century gouty stool and the nineteenth-century gouty stool? Perhaps that suffering through the much maligned and often ridiculed gout did not prevent sufferers from nursing it in a style befitting middling and upper class life, even if the conspicuous furniture form would have called attention to the disease. If he had gout, would Mr. Marsham have been able to resist a stylish gouty stool covered with multi-colored paisley-spotted carpet upholstery for use in the privacy of his own home?

Like many other aspects of Mr. Marsham’s life and his home, we may never know. But Bryson will continue to spur us to imagine the more material reality of that private life.


1. The string cure appeared in a popular medical treatise by Dr. Gideon Harvey called The Art of Curing Disease by Expectation (1689). William Kitchiner, M.D., footnoted the alternative in his nineteenth-century treatise Directions for Invigorating and Prolonging life; or, the Invalid’s Oracle (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1847), 12.

Further Reading

For more on gout in history, particularly from a continental perspective, see Roy Porter and G.S. Rousseau, Gout: A Patrician Malady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

For an essay on why Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the best-known American gout sufferer, created a “Long Arm” device to facilitate gouty limbs’ reaching for items on high shelves, see David Waldstreicher, “The Long Arm of Benjamin Franklin,” in Katherine Ott, David Sterlin, and Stephen Mihm, eds., Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 300-326.

The New York Times published an article on gout on May 9, 2011. Click here to read Jane E. Brody’s “‘Disease of Kings’ Trickles Down to the Rest.”

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