Sunday, September 04, 2011

Spending the Day "At Home"

Bill Bryson, At HomeSince a lot of people are home for a few days because of the holidays, I thought I'd use the opportunity to put in a plug for Bill Bryson's book, At Home. The subtitle is "A Short History of Private Life," but it's really more a history of houses, their rooms, functions, and uses. It's full of fascinating information, such as how a professional gardener came to build the great Victorian Crystal Palace, why country homes in England are called "Halls" (because in Anglo-Saxon times even large houses were single rooms, and the whole things was called a hall), and why it's difficult to build safe staircases (because posture and movement are quite different for people going up and those going down). Not everyone will share this taste, but I think it's exciting to find out about the history of something when it never occurred to you before that it had actually had a history.

One point that Bryson makes is about the importance of the Victorian Era — say the time between Jackson and TR in American terms. At the beginning of this period, it was still true — as it had been in Roman times and even earlier — that the fastest way to move either goods or information was on a galloping horse. Medicine, sanitation, and architecture had also made little real progress since the fall of Rome (and at least in terms of sanitation things had gone backwards). But at the end of this period, people were traveling by train, communicating by telegraph and even phone, using anesthetics and antiseptics for surgery, using new materials such as iron, steel and glass for construction, replacing candles with electric lights, and using flush toilets and major urban sewage systems. Arguably, no single generation of humanity has ever seen such important transformations.

It's also remarkable to think of the scale of construction in the Victorian era: transcontinental railways, sewage systems, canals, bridges that still stand today, hundreds of major urban parks (with Central Park as the most famous example). We would be very hard-pressed to duplicate these feats today, as shown difficulties of building high-speed rail in the U.S. It is also quite noteworthy that so many of the great Victorian builders were essentially amateurs who came from very humble beginnings and somehow found themselves designing great houses and changing the English landscape. The modern world seems much more straitjacketed by comparison.

I suspect that we also underestimate the amount of legal change that took place to this period. Just as the "Victorian" became a synonym for "stuffy and old-fashioned" in the Twentieth Century, the legal rules that emerged from this period became the traditional common law against which reformers railed. But the Victorian period also saw the creation of whole new bodies of law (corporations, antitrust), major procedural reforms (from writs to code pleading), the origins of legal realism (with Holmes), the abolition of slavery, the invention of the modern American law school, and much more.

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