Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reading Bill Bryson's At Home: Chapters 10-11, The Passage and The Study


In chapter 11, Bryson explains that Mr. Marsham likely used his study to write sermons, receive parishioners, etc. (237-238). Today, Bryson and his family relegate old furniture to the space and, he claims, rarely enter the room except to check the mouse traps. Bryson uses this as a segway into talking about the history of rodents and other pests in western culture. Bryson elects to illustrate an object associated with rodent and pest control: the mousetrap (239). Yet the mousetrap he illustrates—the classic “nipper” mousetrap invented by James Henry Atkinson in 1897—would not have been used around the time of the home’s mid nineteenth-century construction. By focusing on this contraption, Bryson may lead some readers to believe that there were no mouse traps until the nipper came along. As you can imagine, this is not the case. Instead, prior to the time when the nipper was available, Marsham may have used a model resembling a bulky wood-working tool:

Mousetrap, Pine, England, 1800-1850, The Victoria and Albert Museum London, W.10-1934. According to the V&A, "The top block was raised and food put in, to tempt the mouse into the trap. When the mouse went in and pressed down a balance in the centre of the bottom board, the heavy block fell down and killed it."

Humans captured unsuspecting mice using variations on the V&A trap. Click here to view one collector’s “Antique Mouse and Rat Trap Gallery.” (There is a hobby for every soul.)

Bryson does not speculate on how Marsham used his study beyond the brief mention on pages 237-238, but we can speculate on what his mouse trap may have resembled.


What struck me about these two chapters – amidst Bryson’s discussions of ironwork, ostentatious mansions, and bed mites – was a passing reference to Ohio. Ohio?, I thought, Well, that’s where I am! I spent several years here as an undergraduate and am now back to teach an archaeological field school, but I am no native. Ohio does have things going for it, though. One of which, apparently, is a block of concrete houses in Newark, Ohio, built by Thomas Edison, whose escapades in this building medium Bryson mentions. You can see a small image of these homes in the second entry here.

Concrete is, for clarity’s sake, the building material created when powdered cement is mixed with sand or gravel and water. Newark’s little architectural treasures stand only a few miles from some of the most remarkable prehistoric earthworks in North America. As Bryson tells us, workers created houses after Edison’s plans by pouring the concrete into giant molds that even included bathroom fixtures. In Pennsylvania, historian Henry Mercer also employed concrete to create his home, “Fonthill,” and a museum for his collection of early American tools and other objects. Mercer’s workers carefully created these edifices in sections, framing each part of walls and columns with wood paneling that left impressions of grain lines still visible in parts of the buildings. To create coved cathedral ceilings, they formed sand and sod into a mound, covered it in concrete, and then removed the earth section once the concrete had dried. Both Edison and Mercer believed in concrete, but it never really caught on with the rest of the world.

In the meantime, their creations remain about as solid as the day they were poured.

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