To visit another person’s house is always to be reminded of two contradictory truths. On the one hand, domestic arrangements vary endlessly, between families and across cultures. Your kitchen is a gleaming high-tech palace of equipment; mine, a bare nook with a microwave. In Japan, people like to bed down close to the floor; in America, they prefer to climb atop mountainously tall mattresses. Growing up in Holland, land of the brisk shower, I found that most of my peers regarded the idea of a leisurely bath with suspicion and distaste: Why would anyone want to wallow in their own dirty water? In England, meanwhile, home of the carpeted bathroom, mixer taps and bidets are, even today, widely viewed as undesirable foreign oddities. The design of our homes exemplifies the social and cultural differences between us.
On the other hand, there are obvious similarities, across time and place, in how humans display their domestic goods. That proud driver revving her new Tesla down the road is engaging in much the same kind of status-affirming peacockery as Samuel Pepys, in December 1668, showing off his new coach and horses on the streets of London. Consciously and unconsciously, how we furnish our lives is a statement about who we are: most of our possessions are as symbolic as they are functional.
The universal impulse to customize everyday space can be seen even in cave dwellings, prison cells, and office cubicles. It’s always been especially visible among wealthier social groups and in societies with a developed market for consumer goods: the more choice and the more disposable income, the greater the potential for differentiation. And throughout history no object of personal use has attracted more emotional and financial investment than the home itself. Yet most of us live in dwellings designed by other people. All of which raises a perennial question: How far do we shape our domestic environment, and how far does it shape us?
When the Elizabethan clergyman William Harrison sat down in 1576 to write his brief Description of England, he included a chapter on houses. Until very recently, he mused, most of his compatriots had lived in “homely cottages” and “coarse cabins.” But within living memory, things had changed dramatically. The old men of his village in Essex had told him of “three things…marvellously altered in England” within their own lifetimes. The first was “the multitude of chimneys lately erected”: in their youth, most houses had made do with a single open hearth that vented through a hole in the roof. The second transformation was in sleeping arrangements:
For, said they, our fathers, yea and we ourselves also, have lain full oft upon straw pallets, on rough mats covered only with a sheet, under coverlets made of dagswain or hopharlots…
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