In 1769, on a hilltop in colonial Virginia, a young man began building a house. It was his dream and his passion, and he delighted in its construction to the extent that he became much more interested in “putting up and pulling down” than he was in actually completing the house. In fact, he became so caught up in the design and redesign of the various parts of the structure, reworking and reimagining the materials and functionality, as well as learning the ins and outs of the various crafts, skills, and technologies required, that he would die before it was completed, fifty-four years after he had begun.
His building obsession was complicated by the colonies’ dependency on Mother England for supplies and furnishings. It took months from the ordering of various materials to the delivery of the materials to the building site. It wasn’t helped by England’s enjoyment of a captive market and relentless trade requirements. By the eve of the revolution, America had effectively become Britain’s export market. The colonies took 80 percent of British linen exports, 76 percent of exported nails, 60 percent of wrought iron, and nearly half of all the glass England sold abroad, not to mention the 30,000 pounds of silk, 11,000 pounds of salt, and over 130,000 beaver hats that were imported for everyday living. Many of the goods were made from raw materials that had originated in America in the first place and could easily have manufactured at home, if it had had the internal markets and the distribution capabilities.
Additionally, the young man had to fire his own bricks -- 650,000 of them -- but it was a difficult business and he routinely could use only half of what he produced because his home-made kilns heated unevenly. When the Continental Congress passed a nonimportation agreement, he began manufacturing his own nails.
Nonetheless, Thomas Jefferson persevered, incorporating into Monticello such innovations as its well-known dome, thirteen skylights, a dumbwaiter built into a chimney, indoor toilets, and a pair of doors that would both open when only one door was pushed, charming and mystifying experts for a century and a half. It wasn’t until remodeling efforts in the 1950s exposed a rod-and-pully mechanism hidden in the floor.
When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he had debts of more than $100,000 and Monticello still stood unfinished. His daughter put it on the market for $70,000 but, in the end, sold it for $7,000 to a man who tried to make the plantation into a silk farm. It didn’t work out and the house and property were sold in 1836 to Uriah Phillips Levy, the sole Jewish naval officer in the U. S. Navy. At the outbreak of the Civil War, it was seized by the Confederate government, but returned afterwards. In 1923, the Levy family sold the property to a newly formed Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and Monticello went through a long program of restoration and renovation until it was finished in 1954.
I would not have learned of Jefferson and Monticello if it hadn’t been for a far more modest country home located in the easternmost part of England. A former Church of England rectory in a village in Norfolk, it was designed and built in 1851 by one Edward Tull of Aylsham for a young clergyman named Thomas John Gordon Marsham. Thomas was twenty-nine years old and unmarried, and remained that way for life. His housekeeper, Elizabeth Worm, stayed with him for some fifty years until her death in 1899.
Some one hundred and fifty years after the date of its construction, an accomplished and world-renown writer named Bill Bryson and his wife bought the Old Rectory and made it their home. Being blessed with an outsized curiosity, Bill Bryson continued a pattern set in his other books and began to research, characterize, and write about the history of the rectory, in particular, and personal houses, in general.
For your reading pleasure, I recommend Bill Bryson’s At Home, A Short History of Private Life, published by Anchor Books in 2011. It’s fascinating and engrossing, and consists of an uncountable number of stories, anecdotes, biographies, observations, and narratives concerning the structures that people live in today and why they look the way they do. It took a vibrant evolution of people and society to come up with kitchens, sculleries, larders, drawing rooms, dining rooms, cellars, studies, stairways, bedrooms, dressing rooms, nurseries, porches, and attics, not to mention our modern entryways, mud rooms, walk-in closets, exercise areas, and sun rooms.
Bryson seeks out answers for such ponderous questions as: why salt and pepper shakers are commonplace on eating tables, but not other spices; what houses looked like before hallways were invented; why the most beautiful room in Monticello was the attic; why bone ashes were added to bread; how conventions around burials came to be; why well-to-do women in the late 1700s were often forced to sit on the floors of enclosed carriages; and why the cost of sugar caused people to artificially blacken their teeth.
It is a fun read and the extent of his knowledge is staggering. Bryson endeavors to show that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly, and he does it with humor, compassion, and genuine interest. It is a delight to see his unpretentious, wide-ranging curiosity in action.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.