Friday, October 10, 2014

Home is Where the History is

By Jeff Burns

I’d be willing to bet that for most people history connections are made through the little things, the ordinary things of everyday life.  We connect family histories to objects passed down through generations.  Seeing objects in an antique store or museum display often triggers memories of similar objects in a family home long ago.  The same is true of my students.  Many have stories or relate the  objects they see in class to something in their own family, and they are full of questions about how people – the famous and non-famous alike – actually lived on a day to day basis.  There are several fascinating books that illuminate that history.

Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things is encyclopedic in scope, the origins of more than 500 everyday items, expressions, and customs--from Kleenex to steak sauce, Barbie Dolls to honeymoons.

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley is organized so that the reader goes from room to room learning about the evolution of objects from medieval times to the present.  The book is entertaining popular history, designed to accompany a British television series, not meant to be a scholarly work, and it shows.  There are lots of stories about the intimacies of the family home- the things that people are most likely to be interested in.

Famous author Bill Bryson wrote a similar book called At Home: A Short History of Private Life.  It’s also organized by rooms, but the difference between it and Worsley’s book is that he was inspired by his own family’s Victorian home and decided to write “a history of the world without leaving home.”  His rooms each start him off on journeys that cover 10,000 years of human civilization in his trademark insightful and humorous style.

Step back to Victorian England again with Daniel Pool’s book, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. As the title implies, this book is designed for literature lovers as well as history buffs. Fans of works by Dickens, Austen, and the Bronte sisters, just to name a few, often come across words and scenes that leave them confused.  Pool tells the story of those words and activities and truly describes the world that the authors were part of and wrote about.

Check out one or more of these books and answer those questions about everyday life that you didn’t even know you had.  

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