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At Home

A Short History of Private Life

By Bill Bryson
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At Home by Bill Bryson

At Home (2010) offers an in-depth look at the history of the home. These blinks walk you through stories that each “take place” in a different room in a house, explaining the history of spaces such as a bathroom or kitchen. Interestingly, you’ll explore how each space evolved into the rooms we live in today.

Key idea 1 of 7

Soldiers once needed to shoot cans open to get at the food inside; in general, food safety was lax.

Nearly every modern Western kitchen has a cupboard stacked high with a colorful array of cans, filled with foods from olives to peaches to peas.

Yet people didn’t always have such easy access to healthy, non-perishable foods. How to preserve food to last through a winter, say, was once a big challenge for families.

In the late eighteenth century, a Frenchman named Francois Appert proposed storing food in glass jars.

Appert’s idea was a huge breakthrough at the time simply because the alternatives were poor. Unfortunately, however, the glass jars didn’t seal well, meaning that air and bacteria could contaminate the food.

In the early nineteenth century, an Englishman named Bryan Donkin came up with the sealed metal can. He made his cans from wrought iron, however, which was exceedingly heavy and difficult to open.

Just how difficult? Well, some cans came with instructions on how to break them open with a hammer and chisel. Soldiers issued canned food as rations would have to shoot the can or stab it with a bayonet to get at the food inside!

Later cans were produced from lighter materials but were still difficult to open; that is, until 1925 when the can opener was invented.

So while inventors were working on more efficient ways to preserve and consume food from a can, a hungry public was plagued by another problem: food adulteration. In the food industry in the seventeenth century, this was common practice; and as there was little official oversight, no consumer could be completely sure what exactly he or she was eating.

Sugar was commonly “cut” with gypsum, sand or even dust. Tea was often a mix of tea leaves, dust or dirt. Vinegar was “complemented” by sulphuric acid; chalk was a common additive in milk.

Today, luckily, governments enforce food standards, and for the most part, we know what we’re putting in our mouths!

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