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At Home

June 2024
1min read

The American Family, 1750-1870

by Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; 304 pages; $49.50 .

Brick buildings in early America were inevitably painted bright yellow or red with every seam precisely outlined in white. Kitchen and bedroom floors were often decorated with beach sand swirled with a broom. Someone trying to read a book by candlelight might have to snuff out the wick forty times per hour to keep it from guttering and going out. When George Washington lay ill in New York, residents chained off the streets nearest his home and spread adjacent streets with straw so that he wouldn’t be disturbed by the racket of passing carriages. When Louis Philippe, soon to be king of France, traveled through the South in 1797, he found that “nowhere are there chamber pots; we asked for one at Mr. J. Campbell’s and were told that there were broken panes in the windows .”

These and a thousand other insights, great and small, make up At Home . Using two hundred paintings, prints, and drawings—half of them reproduced in color—and drawing on letters, household inventories, advertisements, novels, and poetry, Mrs. Garrett presents a wonderfully detailed and vivid portrait of how houses were decorated, kept clean, and lived in before the age of modern conveniences. In her research she discovered eloquent commentators to help tell her tale. Those white-bordered bricks, according to Lydia Maria Child, were “as numerous as Protestant sects, and as unlovely in their narrowness.” And in August the sun beat back from the bright red walls “like the shining face of a heated cook.”

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