Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reading Bill Bryson's At Home: Chapters 14-15, The Stairs and the Bedroom


In chapter fifteen on The Bedroom, Bryson situated “many of life’s most profound and persistent unhappinesses” inside the bedroom (320). I doubt that misery always played out in the bedroom (particularly before too many people actually had such private spaces), but in this chapter, Bryson touched upon things I’d like to discuss briefly: sleeping tight and amputation.

Let’s start with the former. Before the box spring there were bed ropes. In house museums, we talk a lot about how tightening such ropes inspired the saying “sleep tight.”

Makes sense, right?

Bryson proudly perpetuated this popular wisdom on page 321, but it turns out he is wrong. Even I believed this ol’ house museum tale until I decided to check up on Bryson’s conclusion (since we have identified a few incorrect or questionable interpretations of private life in At Home).

Where are we to turn for someone to set us straight?

Colonial Williamsburg has published several articles online in which CW interpreters corrected house museum myths about early American life such as “people were shorter” and “most people were illiterate." On sleeping tight, we learn from the master interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg that in early America, sleep tight meant sleep well and was not related to tightening bed ropes.

Yet bed ropes were, in fact, tightened, and I did not know how the ropes were tightened until this past summer when I decided it was time to look it up. I found a great demonstration on YouTube, brought to you by interpreters at Log Cabin Village in Forth Worth, Texas.

These chapters raised several historic site interpretation issues that deserve more nuanced attention. Below, Tyler comments on one more.

But first: There is no easy segue way from bed ropes to amputation. Let me begin by suggesting that many early Americans made amputations-—a seemingly private event, as Bryson framed it-—a public affair by reporting on it in newspapers or in other ways such as commemorating it in stone. As I hinted in a previous At Home post, this past summer, I spent some time researching a gravestone in one of Newport’s graveyards. The gravestone commemorates the death of one woman’s two babies as well as her 1786 arm amputation. The singular aspect of the gravestone is that it includes a realistic likeness of the amputee’s arm alongside traditional stylized “soul effigies” and the like. If you would like to learn more about the public memory and meaning behind this private incident, come to Newport and hear my talk at the Newport Historical Society’s Annual Meeting on Thursday, September 22, 2011.


As usual, these chapters are filled with interesting tidbits about topics as diverse as the frequency of fall fatalities (some 12,000 every year in the U.S., 306), mourning attire (perhaps not as strictly regimented as Bryson suggests), cremation, and some rather gruesome sexual deterrents. But one of the things which caught my attention amidst this hodgepodge was Bryson’s discussion of wall-coverings, including both wallpaper and paint (314-319). Bryson notes the famous recent repainting of Thomas Jefferson’s dining room at Monticello from a muted Wedgewood blue to a brilliant chrome yellow, which, according to the most recent scientific studies, was its original hue. You, too, can elevate your own living space to Jeffersonian heights, without the more insidious toxic qualities of the original color, with a little help from Ralph Lauren. Something that’s easy to miss in the recent trend towards rediscovering the vibrant side of the painted past is the equally impressive range of subtle colors historic interiors featured. The “stone colours” of the eighteenth century were much more diverse, textural, and evocative than we might think. For an interesting discussion of these hues and others, check out this interview with historic paint consultant Patrick Baty.

Even his paint cards look appealing!

Further Reading

Colonial Williamsburg published a good number of its recent history magazine issues online. The research is sound and fascinating and can be useful in all sorts of interpretive situations. Click here to learn more.

The "serial newsletter" Enfilade is published in blog format by the Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art and Architecture. The newsletter is updated often and includes calls for papers, informational interviews such as the one to which Tyler linked above, book and exhibition reviews, and more. The blog is a great resource for anyone who studies eighteenth-century cultural and social history.

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