Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reading Bill Bryson's At Home, Chapters 16-17: The Bathroom and the Dressing Room


Nicole and I are a little tardy in our review of Bill Bryson’s At Home chapters on the bathroom and dressing room, probably the result of a combination of end-of-the-year business and a slight loss of momentum as we near the end of the book. These two chapters are as diverse as the past sections; in his discussion of bathrooms, Bryson introduces the reader to the histories of bathing, toilets, and water-borne diseases like cholera. In “The Dressing Room,” Bryson begins his discussion with Ötzi, the “Iceman” who died some five thousand years ago and was recovered in the Alps in 1991. Ötzi was one of the most unique prehistoric humans ever recovered because he died suddenly (from an arrow embedded in his back, as most recent studies conclude) and was left on the mountainside with all his clothing and equipment. Aside from the many unsolvable mysteries of Ötzi, his discovery provided an absolutely unparalleled glimpse into the material culture of ancient man, including clothing. Bryson uses Ötzi’s prehistoric revelations and mysteries as an introduction to the broader history of human dress, makeup, wigs, and other adornments. And, of course, no history of clothing would be complete without some nod to George “Beau” Brummell, the arbiter of fashion in the Regency era (Brummell was not “asexual” as Bryson states; in a recent biography, Ian Kelly makes the convincing case that Brummell died from an advanced case of syphilis). Cotton and underwear feature heavily in Bryson’s chapter as well, and I won’t spend time detailing factual missteps and over-generalizations.

 On a recent visit to our local public library (yes, they do still exist, and for good reason), I picked up a copy of At Home on CD, as read by Bryson himself. I was curious to hear the author read his own work because the book is often so conversational and meandering that it reminds one of a sort of Victorian after-dinner parlor talk. I was not disappointed, and Bryson’s prose is equally effective (if somewhat drowsy) in the spoken word. This is where his real genius lies, I believe. In synthesizing enormous troves of scholarly (and less-than-scholarly) literature, inaccuracies are inevitable. And maybe that’s part of the appeal. At Home should be looked upon less as an incontrovertible history and more as a casual digestion of subjects. I wouldn’t trust some of Bryson’s details any more than I would the innumerable trivial points, misconceptions, and urban legends that arise in a cocktail conversation, but they sure make for good listening.


Today, we opt for "non-surgical cosmetic procedures for the face" or the application of creams and potions when it comes to turning back the clock or hiding unsightly acne.  But as Bryson explains in "The Bathroom," our early modern ancestors turned to less invasive solutions for these beauty crises.  Many applied beauty "patches" or pastes to hide (and sometimes call attention to) facial blemishes such as pimples, small pox scars, and syphilis scars (pg 386). It is believed that these beauty patches were made from fabric such as black silk into a variety of whimsical designs ranging from stars to horses.  Beau Brummell, for example, may very well have sported a prancing pony.  Patch boxes--which came in a variety of shapes and sizes--like the one pictured below stored these little whimsies.

Featuring a woman's face bespeckled with black marks, this patch box embodies the complex way eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century individuals conceived of beauty patches.  On this patch box, are the spots natural, or are they patched? If they are patches, what is the nature of what they are concealing?  Pierre-Joseph Boudier de Villemer's early nineteenth-century beauty guide suggested that using patches reflected a woman's desire to "change Nature by endeavouring too anxiously to improve it."1 One mid-eighteenth-century commentator published his perspective on patches in a New York newspaper. Here, "Antiquo" suggested that patches concealed evidence of bad deeds but that patches were acceptable if they concealed more innocent blemishes like acne. Antiquo even saw patches as metaphors for "polite oaths" in speech. For example, phrases or patches such as "upon my soul" concealed or dressed-up more sinister sayings.2

We cannot be certain how the original user of this patch box thought about their own visage, but we can imagine the possibilities. From wigs to patches, Bryson's book sifts through hundreds of seemingly frivolous cultural phenomena that carry subterranean meanings when readers dig a little deeper.


1. Pierre-Joseph Boudier de Villemer, The Friend of Women: Translated from the French, trans. Alexander Morrice (Philadelphia: John Conrad and co, 1803), 81-82.

2. Antiquo, [opinion], New-York Gazette (New York), November 5, 1750.

Further Reading

For more on wigs, see Lynn Festa, "Personal Effects:  Wigs and Possessive Individualism,” Eighteenth-Century Life 29, 2  (2005):  47-90.

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