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.”
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.
In 1882 the nawab of Bahawalpur ordered a bed from a Parisian manufacturer that included four life-size bronze gurines of naked women with natural hair and movable eyes and arms, holding fans and horsetails. Wires were arranged so downward pressure on the mattress set the gures in motion, fanning and winking at him, while a selection from Gounod’s opera Faust played from a built-in music box.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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!”