The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience

By Merritt Ierley

Clarkson Potter. 287 pp. $30

There are two things to be said about the domestic comforts enjoyed by the vast majority of Americans. The first is that they are astonishing almost beyond belief. The second is that they are utterly taken for granted. We don't send hosannas to the heavens for our sleekly efficient water closets or our instantly available electric power; instead we grouse about 1.6-gallon toilets or inflated heating bills or the occasional power outage with which we are afflicted.

"Comfort is real--it is felt, seen, sensed, appreciated, enjoyed," Merritt Ierley writes in "The Comforts of Home." "But it is also relative. Standards change. The devices and systems that make a home comfortable today were once beyond imagining. . . . Technology tends to cover its tracks. As a level of convenience is reached, the old ways are quickly forgotten. In the age of fully automatic appliances, a hand-wringer washing machine of the mid-twentieth century is as hard to find as a black-and-white television in the age of color. The coal-burning furnace, not so long ago the mainstay of home heating, is now virtually extinct. Rarely today are kerosene lamps used except for camping or as an occasional backup during a power failure. Yet all were once symbols of a 'modern' age."

So "The Comforts of Home" should serve, among other things, as a useful antidote to the complacency that technology has instilled in us. We are far closer than we realize to a time when the conveniences of 1999 were unknown and in some cases unimaginable. I am a mere lad of 60 years, yet I remember all too vividly going into the basement to stoke the coal furnace, storing perishable food in a large box cooled not by electric power but by blocks of ice, and watching my mother doing laundry by hand, in a tub with a washboard.

What's hard for us to recognize today is that in the early 1940s, where those among others of my memories are set, all of this seemed not merely normal but "modern." The coal furnace may have been a nuisance to maintain and filthy in the bargain, but it was supersonic by comparison with the Franklin stove that heated many American houses in the early 19th century or the primitive central-heating systems that gradually replaced it; the icebox required eternal vigilance, but it was vastly more sanitary and convenient than leaving perishables in a cool stream; the tub and washboard demanded hard manual labor, but at least the hot water came out of a tap instead of being heated on top of the wood-burning stove.

Yesterday's comfort is today's inconvenience; the passage from luxury to necessity can be remarkably swift and invariably is forgotten once it has taken place. But as Ierley shows in highly interesting detail, that passage has been laborious and uncertain, in many instances steered by people whose names and accomplishments are now almost entirely unknown: Count Rumford, "a giant among household innovators," who was the inventor in the late 18th century of early, critical changes in the kitchen and the fireplace; or Aime Argand, who at about the same time invented a lamp that Ierley calls "a marvelous achievement"; or Daniel Pettibone, a pioneer in central heating.

For the purposes of his study Ierley is more concerned with "essential systems--heating, plumbing, water supply, lighting, the bathroom--as opposed to appliances, for this core technology has had the greatest impact on the modern house." Thus he writes a brief but succinct and informative account of how water, which two centuries ago was available in streams and lakes (in the country) and street pumps (in the city), came to be delivered by municipal systems, without which there could be no efficient and sanitary functioning of the toilets we now use without a moment's thought. Thus too we have in brief "the development of the electric motor--that indispensable element of the modern household."

By the end of the 1920s, Ierley writes, the American household as we now know it was essentially in place, though many refinements remained to be made. The array of "new servants, electrical and others . . . hardly reached into every household yet, but the transformation had begun. These various devices and systems, from a furnace in the cellar to a portable heater for the bathroom, had not only been brought to a significant state of development, they made technology itself available to a far greater part of the population than ever before. And this accessibility, as much as technological refinement, was the 'revolution' in the American household."

As that and other quotations make plain, Ierley is a clear writer and a careful researcher. His lucid text is accompanied by numerous period illustrations, plans and drawings. All in all, "The Comforts of Home" is thoroughly informative, and after you read it you'll look at the comforts of your own life in a new light.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is