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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Pantagruelian feasts, common at Gallo-Roman villas, followed the Gallic custom of eating around a table rather than the Roman method of doing so while lying down supported by one elbow. After one banquet, it was recorded that all “remained seated on their benches. They had drunk so much wine and had so gorged themselves that the slaves and the guests lay drunk in every corner of the house, wherever they happened to stumble.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”