If you are reading this article at home, take a look around you and see if you can tell what makes this place home. Chances are, there are a dozen objects—furniture, decorations, architectural features—that would be conspicuous in their absence, yet you probably take them for granted.
Consider your chair: is it high or low, upholstered or spare, in the corner with a twin or on its own in the middle of a room? It might be a sofa, a piece of furniture that represented a sea change in the social and political function of sit-upons.
Before about 1750, chairs were rare in the typical Northwestern European household, but by the end of that century, chairs appeared with staggering frequency. The chair you are sitting on not only looks a lot different than it did 500 years ago, but it also has different cultural meanings.
Judith Flanders explores this cultural evolution in her new book, The Making of Home, by analysing simple everyday objects like your chair to tease out the hidden and surprisingly complex history of our household artefacts.
Flanders challenges what we take for granted in our understanding of what makes a house a home, and reminds us that our homes today are the product of five centuries (at least) of cultural interplay between classes, religions, and nations from the 16th to the early 20th centuries.
Flanders demonstrates how rooms, furniture, and decor in the historic home transformed in meaning and function from something nearly unrecognizable 500 years ago, to the artifacts that we take for granted today.
One of the strengths of this book—and part of its appeal to readers interested in archaeology and anthropology—is its long view, examining changes in cultural trends over the course of five centuries spread out over much of Northwestern Europe and the United States.
This broad scope—chronological and geographical—is more typical of archaeology, where researchers seek to understand how the relationship between people and their material culture changed in subtle ways over time by identifying the historical connections between two seemingly dissimilar things.
Flanders accomplishes this by analysing how rooms, furniture, and décor in the historic home transformed in meaning and function from something nearly unrecognisable 500 years ago, to the artefacts that we take for granted today.
Flanders calls these objects “invisible furniture,” because they are overlooked in their ubiquity. She explores everything from curtains to beds as well as older, more arcane objects, like the spittoon, and entire rooms, like the hall, a space that experienced crazy changes in meaning and function over five centuries, from a formal space to a thoroughfare.
By covering a broad area, which she calls the "Home Countries" of Northwestern Europe, Flanders explores not just the history of household artefacts, but also linguistics and cultural history. Her grasp of language and its evolution over this period provides another layer to how the importance of certain household objects is reflected by their place and influence in different languages.
Just one example of this stems from her exploration of the English word hearth and its equivalents in other European languages. While the Latin word for the same object or concept looks and sounds much different (focus), she shows how this household object held a culturally symbolic and essential place in homes throughout history.
Another strength of the book comes from its examination of how different socio-economic classes adopted and rejected certain styles and aesthetics. Many of the trends featured in the book began with the upper classes and slowly trickled down to the lower classes, either when they became more affordable, or when they began to fall out of favour with the elite.
One of the more interesting class relations was the adoption of building and decoration techniques that celebrated an older time, such as the development of Tudor and Colonial styles, which favoured a more rustic appearance more typically associated with rural living. These styles were adopted by the upper classes in England and the United States, but never really caught on with the lower classes during a time when celebrating the past was chic.
A similar pattern occurred with chairs. In rich homes during the last half of the 18th century, families not only had more chairs, but they also bought them in matching sets. As the technology became cheaper and the symbolic weight of having dozens of matching chairs wore off, the middle and lower classes similarly filled their homes with more chairs as well during the 19th century.
The Making of Home has very few weaknesses, but the lack of meaningful exploration of how these phenomena played out between different groups within the larger societies was disappointing.
For example, considering the scale of African enslavement by the British, Dutch, and others, there is little discussion of how the different concepts of household developed as relationships between Europeans and Africans evolved.
The large scope of the book likely creates the need for such omissions, but the reader should remember that the broad changes and trends discussed by Flanders had their individual and unique variations based on specific cultural and geographic situations.
Part of archaeological and anthropological inquiry is setting aside, or at least acknowledging, the effect of our own particular bias in the interpretation of different cultures, both past and present. By unpacking the 500-year old household, Flanders challenges the reader to re-evaluate the simple things that bring comfort in our own homes.
The Making of Home will make for compelling reading if you enjoyed Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things, Witold R Rybczynski’s Home: A Short History of an Idea, or even Bill Bryson’s recent book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
If you read the book at home, pause a moment and consider why are you are reading in that particular place. The joy in The Making of Home is in taking a second glance at your surroundings and questioning what makes our "home" cozy, gezellig (Dutch), gemutlich (German), or hygge (Danish and Norwegian).