Homestyle: The curious past of our everyday home objects
Given the amount of time spent inside lately, an intriguing read can be a welcome departure from the daily headlines. One perfect companion during these trying times: “The Elements of a Home: Curious Histories Behind Everyday Household Objects, From Pillows to Forks” (Chronicle Books; $19.95), a new release by Amy Azzarito. Homestyle caught up with the California-based author via email to learn more about some of the 60 featured items that define domestic life, such as their origin and evolution.
For her book, with illustrations by Alice Pattullo and easy-to-read chapters arranged in alphabetical order, Azzarito, a writer, design historian and expert on decorative arts, wanted to include the everyday elements that serve as an extension of our daily lives. For inspiration, she would look around her home or flip through magazines and note the ubiquitous objects like a sofa or a desk.
During her research, Azzarito documented any interesting stories she discovered along the way. For instance, the history of the dollhouse comes from her knowledge of the miniature house that a wealthy Dutch widow created in the early 18th century that was an exact replica of her real house. “I found it fascinating that dollhouses started as objects for adults, not children, and so I knew I wanted to include the story of how that object evolved into being a toy,” she says.
Back to the basics
When asked if she has any favorite domestic elements, those would be the ones that relate to dining, particularly the fork. “I love the transformation of this object from ‘an instrument of the devil’ to something that we use so frequently now that we hardly give it a second thought,” says Azzarito.
As it turns out, the items associated with eating are often easier to trace. “Because meals and the rituals of dining are such important parts of culture, it is heavily recorded — which makes research easier,” she says. “People write about what meals looked like, collect menus, pass down silver and serving pieces…there are lots of clues about how dining looked in the past.”
Some everyday elements have a more captivating background than others, whether it relates to their origin, their evolution or the fact that they’re still around. “I had a fun time delving into the history of the lock and key,” says Azzarito. “I was fascinated by the idea that even in the age of electronic access, we still carry around grooved pieces of metal. But before doing research, I hadn’t realized how large the earliest keys were — and that they were carried slung over one’s shoulder.”
Her informative book illustrates the tales like these behind many of the items we often take for granted, while putting a personal spin on our domestic possessions. “One of the reasons that I love design history, is that it makes history come alive,” she says. “You might know who Henry VIII is, but you understand him and the time in which he lived a little more when you know that he was so scared of assassins that he made his attendants stab his bed multiple times to ensure there wasn’t anyone hiding there.”
Some objects, such as jewelry boxes, were harder to explore than others when it came to the estimated 500 books Azzarito consulted for this project. “I ended up relying heavily on the research done at the Victoria and Albert Museum on specific items in their collection and using that as a jumping off point,” she says. For other items like playing cards, there was a wealth of information available. In that case, the challenge was to condense the finer points in a way that made sense.
Delving into the fascinating backgrounds of the contents that fill our homes led the author to utilize some of her own belongings in a new way. “It’s made me think a little more deeply about how to include objects in family traditions. So, because holiday meals and family dinners have a certain significance, I thought carefully about what I want my table to look like,” she says. For special occasions, her vintage silver plate flatware joins animal-shaped knife rests that serve as place card holders.
Bits and pieces
Some chapters include fun quotes that relate to the featured object. Her favorites are from fictional characters like Jo in “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott who says, “I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen” and Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Included in the chapter on the history of clocks, the quote goes: “A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”
Not only can this unique read provide the perfect escape while sheltering-in-place, it can also make you appreciate the everyday elements that surround you each day, from napkins that got their start as lumps of dough in ancient Greece to mattresses that were once shallow boxes filled with straw. “I hope that from the title, people understand that the book is a mini anecdotal encyclopedia on all the objects that are found in a home. It’s not about or related to the news. It’s not self-help: it’s not trying to make you a better, more productive person,” Azzarito says.
For now, these tidbits can make great conversations with those in your immediate household during the extended stay-at-home period, and at some point hopefully in the near future, they can be shared at dinner parties and other gatherings.
Lastly, says the author: “It is illustrated so it’s not aspirational. You won’t read it and feel like you need to upgrade anything in your house. The sections are short so you can easily dip in and out of them. It’s just a little mental break. I hope that people find it fun and interesting to know that everything we touch was brought into being by someone, somewhere and that there are stories behind these things.”
Jeanine Matlow writes the Smart Solutions column in Homestyle. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.