Author Interviews
10:01 am
Tue March 13, 2012

'If Walls Could Talk': A History Of The Home

Lucy Worsley works as the chief curator in several palatial buildings in London, including Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London. In contrast, she lives in what she calls a "normal, boring modern flat."

The differences between her home and her workplace inspired Worsley to research the history of the home, which she details in her new book If Walls Could Talk. The book answers questions like: Why did the flushing toilet take two centuries to catch on? Why were kitchens cut off from the rest of a home? And did strangers really share beds as recently as a century ago? (Yes, they did.)

"You would have been quite happy to share your bedroom not only with your husband or wife, but with your colleagues from work — even with people that you didn't know at all," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And if you look back centuries, people have no particular requirement to sleep by themselves. And that's because there weren't enough rooms in their houses."

In medieval homes, servants were likely to bunk down together on the floor of a giant hall — where it was likely smelly, sweaty and not very quiet.

"But the alternative was worse," says Worsley. "To be sleeping outside, I suppose. If there aren't enough bedrooms, you have to share, and you're glad to do so — because of the warmth and security it brings."

Because bedrooms lacked privacy, young amorous couples often flocked to fields, says Worsley.

"You know, the merry month of May — this is the time when young people can get out of the confines of a cottage with very few rooms and enjoy themselves in the woods and fields," she says. "A level of supervision was very desirable."

To keep their children from going to the fields, some parents in the 17th century would allow a daughter to sleep in the same bed as the young man courting her — but both the woman and man were tied down with heavy rope in a practice known as "bundling."

"The idea was that they spend the entire night chatting and getting to know each other to decide if they wanted to get married," says Worsley. "I see bundling as a really important step in the journey toward marriage becoming a marriage of personal choice, rather than something you're just forced into by your parents for economic reasons, because you don't have to marry the man or woman after the night of bundling."

During a night of bundling, parents likely stayed elsewhere, because many homes contained only one room.

"The bedroom was the room for everything: cooking, leisure, sleeping, the washing and working as well," she says. "And the funny thing is, history has gone full circle, because my modern, boring flat where I live is essentially one room. And it's multipurpose. But between [older homes] and that, there's been an entire journey that homes that have taken, which has developed different rooms and reached a high point, I think, in really grand Victorian houses. But since then, there's been a trend back toward medieval simplicity and multipurpose rooms."


Interview Highlights

On the United Kingdom's lack of closets

"It's not a room type that we recognize anymore. We have freestanding pieces of furniture called wardrobes that might be used for storing clothes. But those little square, dark, walk-in rooms don't exist in the U.K. That's a little piece of history that you've got that we haven't."

On privacy in bedrooms

"It really flourishes in the Victorian age when the security and seclusion of your bedroom and bed linen becomes paramount. If you read Victorian manuals, they're crazy — the amount of attention they devote to the perfect making of the bed, the cleanliness of the bed, the hygiene of the bed."

On privacy in baths

"[Before the 19th century] people washed parts of their bodies wherever it happened to suit them. As part of the research for this book, for a week I went on a Tudor personal hygiene regimen. The rules were: no bath, no shower, no toothpaste, no deodorant. How did they do it? And I knew that they did just use a basin of water. They would wash all the parts of the body one after another. And they would do it wherever it happened to be nice and appropriate."

On Queen Elizabeth I's toilet

"She had a flushing toilet fitted in one of her palaces. She was aware of this technology, but she didn't use it because she didn't want to go to the loo — she wanted the loo to come to her. She wanted her servants to bring her a chamber pot whenever she wanted to."

On using old 17th-century methods to brush her teeth

"Most of them were quite unsuccessful. Burnt toast crumbs — completely rubbish. I was using a twig. What worked quite well was a mixture of rosemary and salt mixed together, rubbed on with a cloth, actually, followed by a gargle of vinegar. Best of all was a 17th-century ... recipe of cuttlefish. You know those white carcasses of fish? That ground up makes really excellent tooth powder."

On flushing toilets and Thomas Crapper

"The word 'crap' is actually another word that's very, very old. It was taken over from 17th century England by the pilgrim fathers, and Americans were talking about things being crap in the 17th and 18th centuries. What Sir Thomas Crapper — complete coincidence — does is not invent the flushing toilet, as many, many people believe, but was a great promoter for it. He ran a business marketing other people's products, and that's why his name was on them. When the American soldiers came over in the first world war, they all thought it was hilarious that it said 'crapper' on them."

On the royal family

"I think they're a very good thing indeed. As a piece of living history, it's brilliant to think that they're facing the same challenges that we can see coming up in so many of the royal characters that we see in our work as curators. So they're interesting from that point of view. They're terribly important to people's notions of Britain and Britishness, and they're a really big part of the tourist industry as well. All of those processions, the regalia, the crown jewels — they're essential to our conception of who we are over here. We know that people all over the world share this fascination and come to see them."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I never really thought about the history of the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen or the living room until I read Lucy Worsley's new book, "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home." She hosted a BBC series of the same name.

Worsley describes how bedrooms in the past were crowded, semi-public places and only became reserved for sleep and sex in the 19th century. The bathroom didn't even exist as a separate room until late in the Victorian age.

Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that looks after several British palaces, including the Tower of London. Lucy Worsley, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to look at the history of the rooms of the home?

LUCY WORSLEY: Well, I got started because I work as a museum curator in several very grand royal buildings, palaces, in fact. My office is as Hampton Court. I've just come, today, from Kensington Palace. We look after the Tower of London. And in these really grand buildings, we spend a lot of time, as curators, exploring their development and the stories behind each room.

But by contrast, I live in a very normal, boring, modern flat, and it seemed like a really great challenge to see if I could find the history of my own home, because most people don't live in palaces, obviously. And I got started, and yes, there was lots of really interesting history to discover, even in a building that, in my case, it was only built in 1998.

GROSS: So let's start with the bedroom, which you say, of course, now is a private place for sleeping and for sex, but you say bedrooms of the past were crowded, semi-public places. How far back do we have to go for bedrooms to be that?

WORSLEY: Well, if you think about this notion that a bedroom is a private place, it really is very modern: 100 years ago, you would have been quite happy to share your bed, your bedroom - not only with your husband and wife or your brother and sister - but with your colleagues from work, for example. Think about that. Even with people that you didn't know at all.

And if you look back centuries, people have no particular requirement to sleep by themselves. And that's because there weren't enough rooms in their houses. If you think about a medieval household, for example, you know, you take a really grand, important, upscale one, then you would find all of the servants bedding down together in the great hall on the floor. At night, it becomes a dormitory.

And yes, it's noisy and smoky and smelly, but at least here there is company and security, and the alternative is worse.

GROSS: Which is what?

WORSLEY: Oh, to be sleeping outside, I suppose.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WORSLEY: If there aren't enough bedrooms for everybody, you've got to share, and you're glad to do so because of the warmth and the security and the comfort that it brings.

GROSS: And you point out this is why fields were such romantic places because you can get some privacy there.

WORSLEY: Well, there was this quite interesting sleeping arrangement known as bundling, which was common in the 18th century in rural areas of Britain. You also find it in New England. And the idea is that a young man and a young woman are going to spend the night together, but they're going to be tied down with ropes, or maybe there's going to be a big board put up the middle of the bed.

And this is her parents' bed that they've been allowed to use, and the idea is they're going to spend all night chatting, just getting to know each other to find out whether they're going to get married.

And it sounds really weird, but actually it's a really sensible way of going about things, because the alterative, for the girl's mum and dad, was well, she'd be off in the fields, in the lanes, you know, the merry month of May. This is the time when young people can get out of the confines of a cottage with very few rooms and enjoy themselves in the woods and fields.

So to do under a level of supervision was far desirable to letting the young people completely off the leash.

GROSS: I'm trying to imagine being tied down to the bed...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...with your boyfriend on the other side and a board between you. It sounds lovely. How common a practice was bundling?

WORSLEY: How common a - well, you just hear hints about it, but it's one of those things which is from lower down in society. So the written records just aren't as good, and you have to be like a, sort of, forensic examiner going through little glimpses and snippets of information, oral traditions, to find out about things like this.

But I think that bundling is - I see it as a really important step, actually, along the journey toward marriage becoming a matter of personal choice rather than something you're just forced into by your parents for economic reasons. Because you don't have to marry the man or woman after the night of bundling.

GROSS: You also say, about the bedroom, that for a lot of people, the bedroom was the room. I mean, you basically had a room to live in, and it was the everything room.

WORSLEY: Yes. If you think of, you know, the basic medieval cottage, it's just one single space, it's used for everything: cooking; any leisure, which would be very limited; sleeping; the washing that did take place and probably working, as well.

And do you know a funny thing? In a way, history has gone full circle because my modern, boring flat where I live that I've mentioned already, is essentially just one room, and it's multipurpose. But between that, there's been a whole journey that houses have taken, which is to develop different rooms. Rooms have proliferated. They reached a high point, I think, in really grand Victorian houses. But now, since then, there's been a trend back toward medieval simplicity and multipurpose rooms.

GROSS: You know, one thing I kept wondering, reading your book "If Walls Could Talk" is how much of the history of the home, as you describe it, applies to America. And of course, in medieval times in the U.S., the population was Native American, and their home arrangements were different than England.

But once, you know, Europeans started settling the United States, do you think that their notion of home paralleled what you're describing in England?

WORSLEY: I think it owes a lot to the European tradition, doesn't it? You can see - and in fact, some parts of European history survive in America where they don't in the U.K. For example, the Tudors invented a special new room in the house called the closet, and the closet is a lovely little room. It's richly decorated. It's private. It's off the bed chamber, and it was originally used for the storing of precious arts and treasures, and it was used for praying.

It's linked to the rise of literacy. People kept their books in closets. And the pilgrim fathers took closets over to America, and still in your houses, that's a room where precious things are stored, but they died out in England. We don't have closets anymore.

GROSS: You don't have closets?

WORSLEY: No, we don't. It's not a room type that we recognize anymore. We have freestanding pieces of furniture called wardrobes that might be used for storing clothes as a piece of furniture in the room. But those little square, dark, walk-in rooms don't exist in the U.K.

GROSS: I didn't realize that. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WORSLEY: That's a little piece of history that you've got that we haven't.

GROSS: Right. So you say only in the 19th century did the bedroom become a secluded place for sleep and for sex and for birth and for death, because that's where usually women gave birth, and it's where most people died. So what changed in the 19th century for the bedroom to become a more private place?

WORSLEY: Well, I think we see the beginnings of this in actually middle-class 18th-century townhouses. This is where for the first time we see parts of the plan being given over to corridors to landings for circulation space, allowing each household member to have their own front door of their own private bedroom, if you like.

At the very top of society, in royal bedrooms, there's still going to be lots of people present, all of those servants, and right down at the bottom of society, people are still going to be sharing because they don't have the resources to provide each family member with a bedroom.

But it begins to be - it comes with the beginning of the middle classes, I suppose. Those are the people who start wanting to be by themselves in bed, and this really flourishes in the Victorian age, when the purity, the seclusion of your bedroom and your bed linen becomes paramount.

If you read Victorian household manuals, they're crazy the amount of attention they devote to the perfect making of the bed, the cleanliness of the bed, the hygiene of the bed, the effort that goes into it, keeping it pure partly because of fears of disease and partly because it's respectable: It's a proper Victorian thing to do.

GROSS: I know you've re-created a lot of things so that you could try it out yourself and experience what earlier homes were like. Did you try re-creating a Victorian bedroom?

WORSLEY: Oh goodness, yeah, I did.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WORSLEY: As part of my research for this book, I got to try out a lot of things in a really hands-on way, and I do believe - I would call this - I wouldn't call this dressing up and trying things out. I would call it experiential archaeology, trying out things out for yourself to see what you can learn.

One of the things that I would never have found out by reading books or documents in the library is what I think is the solution to the mystery of why when you look at pictures of people in bed in the past, it always looks like they're sleeping sitting up. Have you ever noticed this, wondered about this? It certainly struck me.

And it was only when I actually spent the night in a replica Tudor bed at a museum they have down in Sussex that's got lots of old, re-created houses in it. I spent my night sleeping on one of these rope-strung beds, and then I realized suddenly it's like a hammock, and you can't lie down flat in it. It inevitably sags, and you inevitably adopt the position of a banana, and it's - you're forced to be in a sort of semi-sitting position.

GROSS: Interesting. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lucy Worsley. She's the author of "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home." She also hosted a BBC series of the same name, and she is a curator of several royal palaces in England, including the Tower of London. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: We're talking about the history of the home as we know it, how the bathroom became the bathroom and the bedroom the bedroom and the kitchen the kitchen. My guest is Lucy Worsley. She's the author of the new book "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home." She hosted a BBC series of the same name, and she's also the curator of several royal palaces in England, including the Tower of London.

So let's get to the bathroom. As you point out, it was, it is the place in our home that actually has a lock on it, outside of the front door.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But it used to not be a very private place. In fact, it didn't used to be a separate place. What was - how did people perform the functions performed in the bathroom before there was a bathroom?

WORSLEY: Well, you really only start to get the fixed-purpose bathroom in the late 19th century with the arrival of proper plumbing and drainage and taps and all that sort of thing becoming standard. Until that time, people washed parts of their bodies wherever it happened to suit them.

And one of the pieces of research that I did for this book was to go for a week on a Tudor personal hygiene regimen. So the rules were: no bath, no shower, no toothpaste, no shampoo, no deodorant. How did they do it? And, well, I knew that they did just use a basin of water. They would wash all the parts of the body, one after another. And they would do it wherever happened to be nice and appropriate.

If I'd had a servant, it would have been lovely to do it in my bedroom. The servant would have brought me in a nice bowl of warm water, and I could have done it in complete seclusion and privacy. In effect, I ended up washing myself in my kitchen because sadly I didn't have a servant to bring me the water. And so that was a kind of a less labor-intensive way of doing it.

But I could really see the advantages to be able to do it anywhere, never had to have to wait for anybody else. You don't have to queue to go to the loo. And Queen Elizabeth I, for example, she had a flushing toilet fitted in one of her royal palaces.

She was aware of this technology, but she didn't use it because she didn't want to have to go to the loo. She wanted the loo to come to her. She wanted her servants to bring her a chamber pot whenever she wanted to. And she - nobody would know where she was going and what she was doing in that case.

GROSS: So you were able to clean yourself. What did you do about brushing your teeth, which you couldn't do...?

WORSLEY: Well, I tried out various of the different Tudor recipes that I'd come across for toothpaste. Most of them were unsuccessful: burnt toast crumbs, completely rubbish. I was using a twig. You know, if sometimes you break a twig, it has a sort of stringy end? I'd heard about using them as brushes.

What works quite well was a mixture of rosemary and salt mixed together, rubs on with a cloth, actually, followed by a gargle of vinegar. That was really effective. But best of all was a 17th-century recipe, which was for cuttlefish. You know those white sort of carcasses that canaries peck and eat, dried-out, white carcasses of fish? That ground up makes really excellent tooth powder.

So I had some of this white powder delivered to my house in an anonymous-looking envelope, and our doorman wondered what was going on. I had to explain to him that it was 17th-century toothpaste.

GROSS: Right, and not anthrax?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WORSLEY: No - yeah, yeah, exactly, not drugs or anthrax or anything dodgy at all.

GROSS: OK, so you tried this regimen for a week and mingled with company, went about your business?

WORSLEY: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I could see people sort of avoiding me towards the end of the week. But also, I found it really interesting because I was telling, you know, all my friends, my colleagues what I was up to, and quite a lot of people surprised me by saying well, you know, when I was a girl in the 1950s, we didn't have hot water at home, we didn't have a bath at home, we only had a bath once a week, when we went to the swimming pool.

And it made me realize that it's only in the last few decades that this sort of idea that we all have that you should have a shower every day has grown up. And that makes me think ahead to the future, really. It's not a given that we all need hot water. We don't have to wash the whole of our bodies in hot water every day. We've done without it in the past. We could do without it again, when the water runs out, when it becomes a scarcer resource, as we hear is going to happen.

GROSS: Is - bathing used to be a fairly public experience for a lot of people.

WORSLEY: Yes, well, we talked about privacy in terms of being in bed, not such a problem. Privacy for washing your body - not such a problem, either. In medieval London, for example, people get the wrong idea about medieval life. They think that it was all horrible and dirty and smelly and disgusting, and yes it was for many people.

But for rich people, medieval life was extremely clean and luxurious and lovely. Rich Londoners, for example, could go to these big communal bathhouses that were particularly on the south bank of the river, in Suffolk, and there you could take a shower or a sauna or a steam bath, and there were men and women together, actually. There are even pictures of people sitting in rows of bathtubs eating a meal, having a sort of day-out experience that you might get at a modern health spa.

But it has to be said that this men and women together thing did cause them to get rather dubious reputation. People start citing them in their divorce cases, and eventually Henry VIII closes them down. They've sort of shaded into brothels and houses of ill repute, and the Tudors start to think perhaps there's something to do with the horrible new disease of syphilis. Perhaps that is what's spreading this new killer plague that's getting around London.

GROSS: Well, I'm not sure that dirty bathwater would spread syphilis, but were there concerns about dirty tubs and dirty bathwater?

WORSLEY: Yes, people - the Tudors had this - it's really quite ironic and surprising, but it seems that rich Tudor people probably took a bath, complete immersion in a tub, less often than their medieval predecessors. And this was because of the contemporary medical understanding.

The Tudors believed that their bodies were made up of the four humors or different types of liquid, and that illness was caused if the four humors get out of balance. That's why you get medical treatments involving the removal of blood from the body, for example, bleeding it. If you're sick, take away some blood. Maybe that will put the body back into balance.

But if you believe this, you also fear that if you plunge your body completely underwater, water, dirty water will penetrate your body through the pores, kind of dilute it, throw it out of balance, cause you to be sick. So that's why the Tudors are much less clean on washing themselves in the bathtub.

But that's not also - that's also not to say they were just completely dirty and filthy. They had the idea that personal hygiene lay in the wearing of clean underwear, a fresh linen shirt, every day, to soak up the sweat of the body. That's how they thought that they were keeping themselves clean.

GROSS: The flushing toilet was invented in the late 16th century, but it took a long time for it to catch on. What was the first flushing toilet like, do you know?

WORSLEY: Well, the first flushing toilet - well at least there were drawings for it that exist in a book that was published by a man called Sir John Harrington, who was always sucking up to Elizabeth I. He's the person who's said to have installed the first flushing toilet for her in the palace at Richmond.

But none of these flushing toilets actually survive. So we thought we'd re-create one according to John Harrington's instructions, and there is a tank at the bottom, and the water is let out all in a big gush, and our reconstructed model was surprisingly effective. It did flush down a handful of cherry tomatoes, which is what we were using.

But the problem with it is that you need drainage, really, for it to work. What do you do with the water afterwards? It needs somewhere to go.

GROSS: So when did the flushing toilet catch on?

WORSLEY: Well, you begin to hear more and more examples being mentioned in the 18th century, and there are lots of different technical things that need sorting out, like the valve and the flush and the drainage. But it's really in the 19th century, when London gets its proper drainage system for the first time, that then it becomes a feasible proposition for everybody to have one at home.

And that is connected to the massive deaths through cholera, which eventually people work out is a water-borne disease, and it's because the dirty water's getting mixed up with the clean water, and eventually that's why, in London at least, Sir Joseph Bazalgette builds his enormous network of sewers that we've still got. They're still in use today.

GROSS: A man by the name of Thomas Crapper had a role in the modernization of the toilet. What was his role? I mean, he has that name that makes you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Makes you think about coincidence. But the name is totally coincidental, right?

WORSLEY: I fear that it is, even though it seems so tempting to believe that Sir Thomas Crapper gave his name to crap. But the word crap actually is another word that's very, very old. It was taken over from 17th-century England by the pilgrim fathers, and Americans were talking about things being crap even in the 17th and the 18th centuries.

What Sir Thomas Crapper, complete coincidence, does is not invent the flushing toilet, as many, many people believe, but he was a great promoter for it. He ran a business marketing other people's plumbing parts, and so that's why his name appeared on so many people's systems in so many people's homes. And when the American soldiers came over in the first world war, they saw these toilets, and they thought it was hilarious that they all said crapper on them, but it's a bit of a coincidence, I'm afraid.

GROSS: Lucy Worsley will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home." She's also the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces in England. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lucy Worsley, author of the new book "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home." It tells the story of how the bedroom evolved into a private place, the bathroom was created as a separate room to take care of toileting and cleansing, and the living room was an invention that coincided with leisure time. Worsley is chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces in England, including the Tower of London.

Let's talk a little bit about the kitchen, which is now associated with family and nourishment, and it's like the heart of many homes. But you say it used to be kind of separated from the home. Why and how?

WORSLEY: Well, I think the kitchen's been on a really interesting little journey, from the center of the house and then outside, and then back in again. It seems to have gone full circle. If you think about a medieval peasant's cottage, right at the very center of it would have been the hearth stone. The fire was built, and over it you would hang your round-bottomed iron pot, and this created the mainstay of the medieval diet: pottage made in a pot. You throw in anything you've got: grain, vegetables, meat, if you're lucky. You keep it on the go for day after day after day. And so that was the very center of that way of living.

As people get more genteel, better off, they have more leisure time, they have aspirations, they don't want that sight and sound and smell of cooking. So they push it out - ideally, in the 18th century, a really grand mansion house - to another building quite separate from the house altogether.

In the 19th century, what happens is that there's a shortage of space in cities. It's no longer feasible to have a separate outhouse kitchen. So it gets pushed down into the basement. And then in the 20th century, with the whole collapse of infrastructure of domestic servants, once you can't have your own cook anymore - and this really starts to bite in the 1930s and the 1940s. After that, then it's like householders go back into their own kitchens for the first time since the medieval period, and it becomes the heart of the home once again. Like you say, I think it's probably the room that many people will consider most important in their house or their flat, the room where they hang out with their family. It's a social space, if you like.

GROSS: This sounds very much like it's a class thing, like if you're upper-class and you have servants, then the kitchen is separated from the home. But if, you know, if you're just a family early, you know, in the era that you're talking about, you're not going to have a separate kitchen and a separate place, are you?

WORSLEY: No. No. No. If you were lower down in society, I guess you would just go on doing your own cooking. It would still be the center of your home. But, you know, a lot of people didn't have their own homes in the past because they were living in these much, much larger units - the great household. If you think of "Downton Abbey," for example, you can see that there's a lot of young people living there in that sort of communal situation. (unintelligible)

GROSS: Because they're working a servants?

WORSLEY: Yeah. Exactly, because the economy just prioritizes domestic service. Their wages are cheap enough for people just to employ them, and this is a great sort of inhibitor to the invention of labor-saving devices and gadgets and the machines right up into the 20th century. It's just cheaper to get someone to do the job for you.

GROSS: Was the kitchen set off also in wealthier homes because of rotting food and rodents?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WORSLEY: Well, I guess once you've got a certain level of economic success and you have a little bit of spare cash and you have a little bit of spare time, then you start to aspire to being polite. And the great age of politeness is the Georgian period. It's the 18th century. And then you definitely get the idea that the best people are not sullied by noise or smell or rats - heaven forbid - or anything horrible like that at all. That's all to be kept out of sight, out of mind.

So if you were a hugely well-off Georgian duchess, for example, you would never go anywhere near your kitchen. You probably didn't even know where it was. And at some ground houses - for example, Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire - the kitchen's actually along a long curving corridor that's 40 meters long. It's a ridiculous distance away from the dining room.

GROSS: I don't know about you, but I have, like, one of those little efficiency kitchens where like there's enough room...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WORSLEY: Yes. Just enough room.

GROSS: ...to get in.

WORSLEY: Now, this is something that dates from the 1930s. They were a German invention, actually, the fitted kitchen. They appeared in the social housing project in Frankfurt. And, actually, that stemmed from the German requirement to improve Germany's industrial effort, and they felt that if women were spending less time cooking, if cooking was more efficient, then they could be spending more time in factories. So that was the thinking behind the fitted kitchen, the early fitted kitchen: Everything should be within reach.

GROSS: So are you anxious now to move out of your small, basically one-room flat and find a bigger place that has its own bedroom and kitchen and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WORSLEY: It would be nice, but I do feel that I quite like to live simply and neatly and in a way that minimizes fuss, partly because I spent all day in places like Hampton Court, that has 1,300 rooms and leaky roofs and...

GROSS: Thirteen hundred?

WORSLEY: Yes - and tapestries, and goodness knows what. So I quite like to come home and be in a very clean, simple modern environment. Also, I think it's good for - I think it's good for society that people live in smaller spaces rather than bigger spaces and don't use up too many resources - to walk lightly upon the earth, I suppose is what I'm saying, quite - but hopefully not in a way that sounds priggish.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lucy Worsley, and she's the author of the new book "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home." She hosted a BBC series of the same name, and she is the chief curator of several royal palaces in England, including the Tower of London.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lucy Worsley. She's the author of a new book about how the rooms of the house became those rooms, how the bathroom became the bathroom and the kitchen the kitchen, the bedroom the bedroom. Her book is called "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home." She also hosted a BBC series of the same name, and she's the chief curator of several royal palaces in England, including the Tower of London.

Now, I'm interested in your job as chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces in England. And Historic Royal Palaces is the charity that runs the royal palaces that are not actually being used by the royals. So they've basically become museums. So which palaces does this include?

WORSLEY: Sure. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria actually gave many of her palaces that she didn't have any need for anymore to the nation. So we don't look after Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle - just to be clear - because the queen still lives there. We've just got the empty ones. But they are pretty good. They include the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace and the State Apartments at Kensington Palace and the Banqueting House in Whitehall. This is less well-known, but it's the last surviving bits of the great lost Palace of Whitehall.

And also - fifth and last - tiny little Kew Palace, which is in Kew Gardens. You'd hardly think it was a palace at all. It was a very private, little domestic house in which George III was kept during his episodes of so-called madness, when he needed to recover away from the eyes of the world. So that's a very sinister and melancholy little place.

GROSS: So do the castles that you help oversee, do they have rooms that didn't exist in other homes ever? You know, like...

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WORSLEY: Well, yes. I think that would be fair to say, because a royal palace is generally going to be the most lavish and complicated building of its age. And the king or queen has so many rooms that, on the face of it, he doesn't - he, she doesn't really need, but actually they're essential to the image, the charisma of the king.

So, for example, in a royal palace, you will get a whole suite of rooms. You'll go up a really impressive grand staircase just to intimidate you. Then you'll have to pass through the guard chamber, where the royal guards will be. Then you might move on to the presence chamber, the withdrawing chamber, the dining chamber.

Only then when you get to the king or queen's bedchamber at the end of this whole sort of great suite of rooms - and they act like a sieve. Each successive doorway is like a filter. And if you are not rich enough or important enough or well-dressed enough, the guards at the door won't let you in. So it's like a process of filtering out the people who aren't good enough to meet the king or queen and only letting those very special people right the way through into the royal presence.

GROSS: You know - yeah.

WORSLEY: And you get that impression coming through any royal palaces, and it's supposed to make you think, wow. Somebody really special lives here, and maybe I'm not worthy of going in to see them.

GROSS: The castles represent, like, quite an achievement in architecture. There are, you know, amazing historic windows into the past. But they're also relics of incredible inequity, where, you know, the king and the queen had this royal palace while...

WORSLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you know, so many other people had basically nothing. I know there's still a lot of inequity in this world, but the palace is really symbolic of that in some ways. Do you think about that a lot when you're working in the palaces?

WORSLEY: I do. I think about this all the time, and I find this a really almost unanswerable question. Because, oh, was it better in the past or not? In - clearly, in many ways, no. It was worse in the past, because there was hierarchy.

But if you think about the way in which medieval society was conceived, there was this incredibly detailed and rigid hierarchy that goes down from God to the king, to people like dukes to noblemen, then to gentry, to yeomen, to peasants, and it goes right down to the plants and then the stones at the very bottom. Everybody knows where they fit in.

But there is an argument that if you know where you fit in, your expectations are managed and you will never be disappointed. And another advantage to the hierarchy is that those at the top have responsibilities towards those at the bottom that just don't exist today now that there's much more than an idea of every man for himself, make of yourself what you will. The traditions of charity and community I do think were valuable in medieval life.

But at the same time, you've got to balance that against the lack of freedom, the way that everybody would have looked down on you if you tried to get out of your allotted station in life. I don't know. It's really interesting, trying to see what we can learn from the past. There are some good things about it, and also some really, really horrible and bad ones.

GROSS: Now the palaces are relics of another time, but there still is a royal family in England. Do you ever ask yourself why?

WORSLEY: Oh.

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WORSLEY: I don't, really, because I think that they're a very good thing, indeed. I'm interested in them as a historian, as a piece of living history, if you like. It's brilliant to think that they're facing the same challenges that you can see coming up in so many of the royal characters that we see study in our work as curators. So they're interesting from that point of view. They're terribly important to people's notions of Britain and British-ness, and they're a really big part of the tourist industry, as well.

All of those processions, the regalia, the crown jewels, they're just essential to our conception of who we are over here, I think. And we know there's a lot of people all over the world share this sort of fascination and come to see them.

GROSS: Do you get to meet the royal family, working as a curator of the palace?

WORSLEY: We do from time to time, because they do support the charity. In fact, in a week or so's time, the queen is coming to visit the new rooms at Kensington Palace, which are just about to be reopened. We have this huge re-presentation project going on, which reopens on 26th of March. So she's going to come along and hopefully see what we've done and hopefully like it. I should be back there at the moment. Everybody's hanging the paintings on the walls. It's the final phases.

GROSS: What's the protocol of your - for your behavior when you meet her?

WORSLEY: Well, it is correct - if you wish to follow correct etiquette - to give a little courtesy as you meet the queen. And then, you know, just...

GROSS: Does that, you know I've never had to do that. I've never had the honor of meeting the queen. Does it feel odd to do a courtesy in 2012?

WORSLEY: I guess the - I know...

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WORSLEY: It sure would do, but I've actually studied curtsies quite intensively.

GROSS: Oh, really?

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WORSLEY: I've taken lessons in how to do them as part of an exhibition that we once put on. So I guess it feels less odd for me than it would do for most people.

GROSS: There's...

WORSLEY: But I admit, I am a freak here. I am not representatives of the British people in saying this.

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GROSS: What kind of curtsy do you have to do? I didn't realize there were different kinds.

WORSLEY: Well, if you want to do it really - if you want to do the real bee's knees of curtsy, then you do the double-course curtsy. And that's to sink really down low. And the secret to it is to lock one knee behind the other. That gives you stability.

If you want to - you want to try this at home? Stand up, put one leg in front of the other. Put one knee behind the other, and then you can sink down and you can rise up again and you won't fall over. And this is what debutantes were taught by their dancing masters to do before making that first appearance at court for many, many centuries, when becoming a debutante was the coming of age. It sort of announced to the world that you were ready to get married, and your mother would bring you to the court and introduce you to the king or queen and you would take your place in polite society. None of this has happened since 1958. That's when the whole sort of debutante charade ended.

GROSS: Gee, I never realized that a curtsy could be so complicated.

WORSLEY: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And if you wanted to attend an 18th century drawing room, it was worse than that. You had to learn never to cross your arms, never to turn your back on the king or queen, how to manage your dress, because at court, you had to wear these hugely enormous, wide mantuas, they were called. You can imagine what I mean? They spread out sideways over whalebone hooped petticoats underneath. You can just fit through the broad doors of the palace, but in any normal house, you would have to turn sideways to get through.

And so that's why people at court took training lessons beforehand in the correct way to stand and to bow and to get in and out of the room. It was all just weirdly fossilized.

GROSS: So since you, you know, are curator of royal palaces and you've met the queen, I'm wondering if you've been shocked by the revelations of the Murdoch paper scandal, revelations that include that, you know, reporters allegedly tapped the phone of Prince Charles and tapped the phones of aides to the royal family.

WORSLEY: I guess it is shocking, but you've got to remember, throughout history, that if that technology had been available, golly, they would've been using it, if you think about some of the terribly cruel and intrusive caricatures that existed for the unpopular King George IV, for example. The press and the royals have quite a prickly history for an awfully long time.

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WORSLEY: I guess that it is fair to say, though, that it would not have been happening in the reign of Henry VIII, because he is still at the high point of the monarchy, when the monarch has Divine Right, absolute authority. And then as the centuries unfold, that authority in the king or queen gradually declines and we get the rise of Parliament, the growth of democracy, if you like.

The unique thing about Britain is that despite the blip we had in the civil war of the 17th century, actually, the royal family did still just about cling onto power - almost uniquely in the globe, really. So as the centuries go on, the press, the Parliament, democracy gets more powerful, the royal family get less powerful. But it's not something that's just happened overnight. This is the story of the last 400 years.

GROSS: Are you suggesting that in an earlier time, the king might have executed a member of the press who...

WORSLEY: Oh, definitely.

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WORSLEY: Oh, yes. If you were rude about Henry VIII, off with your head. It was literally - it was treasonable, for example, to predict the death of the king. Now, this put his royal doctors in a terribly difficult position. They knew on one level that one day the king was going to die because all human beings do, but the king, he was not just a man.

He was an eternal, god-like divine figure. And if he got sick, it was really difficult for them, because they couldn't admit that anything could ever happen to him.

GROSS: So we just have a couple of seconds left. One final question: Did you have princess fantasies when you were a girl?

WORSLEY: Not really. I wasn't really a girlish girl, I guess. I had lots of historical fantasies. And when we were making the program of "If Walls Could Talk," we went back to this museum I mentioned, an outdoor museum in Sussex that's called The Weald and Downland Museum. And I remember going there on my school trip and being fascinated by the open-air garderobe, the toilet that sort of sticks out from the building. Then you get a drop through, through the actual air, and that's how the toilet works.

And I remember being fascinated by this. And I guess that stayed with me for the following 30 years of my life. People think it's very unhealthy, but I do believe that little tiny, weird things like the history of toilets can stand for something bigger. They can reveal the history of medicine, the history of hygiene, the history of society, the history of domestic labor, as we've touched on a little bit in our conversation.

GROSS: Well, Lucy Worsley, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

WORSLEY: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Lucy Worsley is the chief curator of historic royal palaces in England and author of the new book "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org. Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers Rush Limbaugh's use of the word slut and why that word provokes such a strong reaction. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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