Near and far

Today's Miami Herald has my review of Bill Bryson's new book, At Home. It's an extremely entertaining read and informative, too. It's not a history as scholars would see it, but a review of various areas of private life in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain and America. The book is organized as a tour of Bryson's home in Norfolk, England (thus, the title), and each room serves as a reason to muse about the history of the room and the functions it serves. Though Bryson does venture pretty far afield, it never seems boring or irrelevant.

There were tons of fun facts I couldn't fit into the review. Here, for your cocktail party fodder needs, are a few (but you should still read the book -- this doesn't begin to capture the depth and variety of good stuff within):

* George III ordered a palace at Kew -- that was half built -- made entirely of cast iron except for doors and floorboards "a design that would have given it all the charm and comfort of a cooking pot," Bryson writes. It was pulled down by the king's successor. But I would have liked to have seen it.

* "The Quechuan language in Peru still has a thousand words for different types or conditions of potatoes."

* The Europeans introduced many diseases that came close to wiping out Native American populations -- but they received one in return: syphilis.

* "For a century or so, no table of distinction was without its epergne, but why it was called an epergne no one remotely knows. The word doesn't exist in French. It just seems to have popped into being from nowhere."

* The name Boston Tea Party wasn't applied to the pre-Revolutionary rebellion until 1834.

* Franklin Delano Roosevelt's grandfather made the family fortune in the opium trade.

* Thomas Edison dreamed of filling the world with homes made of concrete.

* At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition most visitors were "far more impressed by an electric pen invented by Thomas Edison" than Alexander Graham Bell's new invention: the telephone.

* In 1726 gynecological medicine was so ridiculous that Mary Toft, an illiterate rabbit breeder from Surrey, "managed to convince medical authorities, including two physicians to the royal household, that she was giving birth to a series of rabbits."

* In the late 19th century people were so afraid of being buried alive that an Association for Prevention of Premature Burial was formed in Britain in 1899, and a corresponding group in America the next year.

* Buttons were so popular when introduced that they were applied all over clothes, even where they don't keep anything closed -- which is why suit jackets, to this day, have a row of buttons down near the cuff. "They have always been purely decorative and have never had a purpose, yet three hundred and fifty years on we continue to attach them as if they are the most earnest necessity."