I have been meaning to tell you about this book for ages. I bought it during the first lockdown – how long ago does that seem – and it has been sitting on my shelf waiting for the right moment. Which, it turns out, is today.
Elements of a Home, by Amy Azzarito, is described as a treasure trove of curiosities and a must-have for anyone who loves history, design or decor. And I couldn’t put it better than that so I have taken that from the back cover. The subtitle is: “Curious histories behind everyday household objects from pillows to forks”.
Within its rather lovely green cover and pale green pages, you will find the stories behind more than 60 everyday household objects and furnishings. So napkins began as lumps of dough in Ancient Greece and forks were regarded as immoral and unhygienic.
This is because when Maria Argyropoulina married the Doge of Venice in 1004 she brought with her a case of golden forks to use at the wedding feast. The Venetians, who ate with their hands, were shocked and when she died of the Plague two years later proclaimed it God’s Revenge for not “deigning to touch her food with her fingers.”
And then was the end of the fork in Europe for around 400 years – only spoons and knives were in common use.
If stories like that are your thing (they were very definitely mine) then you will love this book. I was also thrilled to note that in the Duvet chapter, it quotes an interview with the late Sir Terence Conran on his discovery of the duvet and subsequent decision to sell it in his new Habitat store: “I probably had a girl with me,” he told The Independent in 2010 (and that was me he told! I interviewed him for a series I was writing called The Secret History). “I thought it was part of the mood of the time – liberated and sexy easy living.”
There are so many delicious stories to choose from; Cary Grant was responsible for the hotel tradition of leaving a chocolate on your pillow (he was trying to impress a lady and asked staff to leave a trail of chocolates – an idea they thought was so charming they adopted it).
To finish with the napkins; the Spartans of Ancient Greece would have small pieces of dough at the table that they kneaded and rolled their fingers in as they ate to clean their fingers. The lumps were then thrown to the dogs at the end of the meal. The Romans then started using pieces of material (called mappas) spread over their seats which eventually became individual pieces of cloth by the time of the Renaissance. Paper napkins, on the other hand, were first used by the Chinese, when they invented paper in the second century BC but didn’t really take off until the 1950s when the growth of fast food, tv dinners and busy housewives meant that no-one had time to wash and iron napkins.
There are so many great stories in this book of household trivia. The link I have given you above is to Bookshop.org a platform that means you can either buy from a specific local bookshop or your order contributes to a general pool that is shared among independent stores with 75 per cent of the profit margin being given away.