In 1860, the founding father of American board games, Milton Bradley, came up with his first invention: the Checkered Game of Life. Although board games in which players moved through various life stages were played in Southeast Asia more than 1,000 years ago, Bradley’s game was distinctively American.

Avoiding vice and virtue, players pursued honesty, bravery and success while trying to avoid Suicide. One hundred years later, Bradley’s game of Life was transformed into “a lesson in consumer conformity, a two-dimensional Levittown, complete with paychecks and retirement homes and medical bills.” In “The Mansion of Happiness,” Harvard historian Jill Lepore uses these life-themed board games as her opening gambit in a history of ideas that traces the ways our conceptualizations of life and death have been accompanied by specific changes in science, technology, politics and industry.

With the advent of modernity and urbanization, the cyclical rhythms of the agricultural world increasingly fell away, to be replaced by the idea of life as a relentless drive toward progress, beginning with infancy. “The Mansion of Happiness” traces how we came to perceive life as a series of discrete stages, some of which, such as adolescence, did not exist as a concept before the Industrial Revolution. (Although adolescence is an inescapable biological fact, Lepore notes that it was in a newly urbanized America that this stage of life came to acquire the characteristics we associate with it today, such as rebellion and the potential for sexual activity outside marriage.)

Most notable is the part played by science and technology in managing life. In an early chapter entitled “Baby Food,” for example, Lepore examines American breast-feeding historically, leading up to the current moment where breast-feeding is medically recommended, yet women have less time than ever to do it, particularly when government-mandated (yet unpaid) medical leave is only 12 weeks long.

“There were three ways to bridge the [human milk] gap,” Lepore writes, “longer maternity leaves, on-site infant child care, and pumps. Much effort was spent on the cheap way out: option 3.” The larger point, subtly addressed throughout the book, is that the breast pump, like a number of other modern innovations, comes to be accepted as natural even while literally disconnecting us from the natural rhythms of life. Pumping rooms allow mothers to maintain their productivity, to the point that there are even “boob cubes in the very halls of government. Strangest of all: not many people seemed to find this freakishly dystopian, merely troubling, or even objectionable.”

‘The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death’ by Jill Lepore (Knopf)

In the early 20th century, science and technology promised to make our lives more efficient. Proponents of scientific management, such as industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the prolific parents of the book and movie “Cheaper by the Dozen,” argued that, whether at home or in the workplace, we could all employ scientific methods to get more done in less time. This has had lasting effects. “Efficiency was meant to make for a shorter workday,” Lepore argues, “but in the final two decades of the twentieth century, the average American added 164 hours of work over the course of a year. . . . Eating dinner standing up while making a phone call to the office, supervising a third grader’s homework, and nursing a baby — or pumping your breast milk — is not the hope of democracy.”

Americans are very much at the center of this narrative. In Lepore’s rendering, we are prone to fads, paranoia and the latest expert wisdom, although the authority of these so-called “experts” is often questionable. Less than 100 years ago, she reminds us, the term “eugenics” carried a positive valence, as scientists enamored of Darwinism envisioned the engineering of a perfect population. Although eugenics has been discredited, other “scientific” theories remain with us today. Lepore writes that “early-twentieth-century Progressives, who could make a science of licking envelopes if they set their minds to it — which is why so many ideas bout life and death hinge on this period — made a science of adolescence.” Scientists declared the period between childhood and adulthood to be a time of great turmoil and potential danger, and Americans quickly bought the scientific wisdom and began acting accordingly, even though adolescence had never been described this way before. Yet Lepore shows that frequently these pronouncements often said more about the researchers’ personalities than about any objective facts concerning the life stage itself.

Old age, once perceived as a time of great wisdom, has become synonymous with medical interventions. But the stage that follows, some believe, might someday be avoidable with the magic bullet of science. “The more successfully medicine has staved off death,” Lepore argues, “the less well anyone, including and maybe especially doctors and scientists, has accepted dying.” The final chapter finds Lepore visiting a cryonics laboratory in Michigan, where science fiction meets reality, ironically in the state where refrigeration and Freon were developed as byproducts of the automotive industry. She interviews the Cryonics Institute’s 90-year-old founder, Robert C.W. Ettinger, who had already “frozen his mother and his two wives, along with ninety-two other people, who were awaiting resurrection inside giant freezers in a building just a few blocks from his house in Clinton Township.”

Lepore concludes with a positive reminder that, through books themselves, ideas and those who generate them receive a different sort of immortality. Her examples are eclectic and at times almost disparate, yet she manages to spin a larger narrative that both fascinates and informs, showing that our taken-for-granted ideas about every stage of life are culturally specific, very much a product of our times.

Rachel Newcomb is an associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College and the author of “Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Life in Urban Morocco.”


A History of Life and Death

By Jill Lepore

Knopf. 282 pp. $27.95