Thomas Jefferson tried to avoid using servants at dinner parties by placing a dumbwaiter near each seat. According to one society chronicler, he feared “much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation by these mute but not inattentive listeners.”
When a theologian renting from ninth-century Islamic philosopher al-Kindi hosted two cousins for a monthlong visit, the landlord increased the rent proportionally. His reasoning: a dwelling has a “limited existence.” A tenant enjoys this without the burden of ownership, then leaves the space “a dung heap and in dilapidation, only repairable at grievous expense.”
May 1 was codifed in 1820 as the date housing contracts in New York City expired or were renewed. Davy Crockett witnessed moving day in 1834. “It seemed a kind of frolic, as if they were changing houses just for fun,” he wrote. “Every street was crowded with carts, drays, and people. So the world goes. It would take a good deal to get me out of my log house, but here, I understand, many persons ‘move’ every year.”
The West’s first flushable indoor toilet was designed in 1596 by John Harington, the “saucy godson” of Queen Elizabeth. He published his findings as The Metamorphosis of Ajax, the title a pun on a jakes, slang for a lavatory. Harington was banished from court for the pamphlet but allowed back in 1598, when he installed a water closet in the queen’s Richmond palace.
Archaeologists who excavated Pleistocene stone huts in Spanish caves found fossilized cave-lion claw bones. “Our interpretation is that the claws were attached to the skin,” said one researcher. “You know those horrible carpets that people have in their house, the bear carpets with the claws and head? This would be very similar.”
Since opening in 2009, the fifty-eight-story Millennium Tower, which offers multimillion-dollar condos in San Francisco’s Financial District and won several awards for structural engineering, has sunk sixteen inches and tilted six inches toward its neighbor. Developers blame a transit hub under construction next door; the transit authority denies responsibility. “San Francisco is not going to bail anyone out,” the city supervisor has said. “It’s not our problem.”
In his eponymous saga, Icelandic outlaw Grettir swims through icy waters to a friend’s farm. That night, while he sleeps on a bench inside the longhouse, his clothes fall off. He wakes the next morning to a servant woman laughing at him. “He’s out of proportion,” she says. “He’s big but small between the legs.” This episode, according to a scholar of saga-era Icelandic life, “illustrates the openness of the life in the hall.”
Roman architect Vitruvius hated the first-century-BC design trend of walls painted with fantastic images. “On the stucco are monsters,” he wrote of a house whose walls also showed plant stalks and candelabra painted to mimic structural supports. “Such things neither are, nor can be, nor have been,” he complained. “The new fashions compel bad judges to condemn good craftsmanship for dullness.”
Before Inuit tribes in southeastern Alaska would offer hospitality, anthropologist Franz Boas noted, a stranger would have to exchange blows to the head with a tribesman until one combatant was “vanquished.” In other areas, men would strip down and arm wrestle, sometimes to the death. The Inuit understanding: “The two men in meeting wish to know which of them is the better man.”
A group of Syrian refugees in a camp north of Athens advertised its tent on Airbnb in June 2016. It’s “the most unique neighborhood in Greece,” they wrote, touting the location’s “free parking” as well as its scorpions, dehydration, and “broken promises.” The San Francisco–based company removed the listing for violating the website’s terms of service.
In the fourteenth century the communality of monastic life was on the decline. A 1360s remodel of Westminster Abbey’s infirmary added individual chambers and parlors. Though they were intended only for the “transient sick,” healthy monks soon occupied the spaces permanently, claiming nooks by decorating them with cushions and curtains.
Derived from the French bouder (to pout or sulk), the word boudoir once meant “a place to pout in.” “I have a boudoir, but it has one fault,” the Earl of Chesterfield wrote to a female companion in 1748. “It is so cheerful and so pleasant that there will be no such thing as pouting in it when I am alone.” Its “fault,” he added, could be remedied “by introducing those clumsy, tiresome, and disagreeable people whom I am obliged to admit now and then.”