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Miscellany

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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.” 

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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. 

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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.” 

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“When the maids are beautiful and the concubines charming, this is not a blessing,” warns Confucian master Zhu Bolu in a seventeenth-century work of household advice. “For servants,” his next maxim advises, “don’t employ handsome boys.”

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Analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was asked in 1926 by his youngest sister to help plan her new house. He quickly became obsessed, taking a year to design the door handles, another for the radiators. Near the project’s completion, he demanded the ceiling be raised thirty millimeters to achieve his desired proportions. “It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods,” wrote another Wittgenstein sister, “than for a small mortal like me.” 

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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. 

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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.”

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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.” 

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An estimated one in ten Europeans is conceived in an Ikea bed. 

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“It requires great exertion,” wrote Lady Irwin in 1771 about the dangers of life in a grand country house, “to use exercise and stir about when the will is not so inclined and the sofas appear in every corner of the room.” 

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“I have been bullyragged all day by the builder, by his foreman, by the architect, by the tapestry devil who is to upholster the furniture, by the idiot who is putting down the carpets, by the scoundrel who is setting up the billiard table (and has left the balls in New York),” Mark Twain wrote to his mother-in-law in 1874 about work on his Hartford home. “And I a man who loathes details with all his heart!” 

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After the Jacobites were defeated in 1746, a sympathizer named Flora Macdonald disguised Bonnie Prince Charlie as an Irish maid, smuggled him to her home on the Isle of Skye, and helped him escape to France. She then “took the sheets in which he had lain,” James Boswell later reported, “charged her daughter that they should be kept unwashed,” and asked to be buried in them as a shroud. She was. 

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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.” 

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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.” 

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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.