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The curious histories of household objects

The cover of "The Elements of a Home"

The cover of "The Elements of a Home" Credit: Chronicle Books

Did you know that Marie-Antoinette loved the game of billiards, and played with her husband, King Louis XVI, the night before she was sent to prison? Or that a lionhead on a doorknob used to mean a Christian family lived there?

Those and other interesting facts are compiled and shared in a new book, “The Elements of a Home: Curious Histories behind Everyday Household Objects, from Pillow to Forks” by Amy Azzarito (Chronicle Books, published 2020, 224 pages, $19.95), which looks at the history of 63 ordinary household items, from furniture to utensils (forks were once considered unsanitary and immoral), and picnic baskets to Champagne coupes, told in a folksy and breezy narrative.

Azzarito’s detailed researched book – she consulted more than 500 sources – is accompanied by delightful pen and ink drawings by illustrator Alice Pattullo and encased in a lovely green hardcover.

The book covers items such as napkins (ancient Greeks used balls of dough to get the oils off their hands, and then fed the dough to the animals), different types of chairs and sofas, and even the evolution of the mattress (Medieval beds were big -- 10 feet by 10 feet).

Each item is written in small, easily readable blurbs and is complete in its discussion.

For instance, the common punchbowl has quite a history. Punch came from India to Europe in the late 17th century, says the passage. It was usually drunk communally, and served hot; hence the birth of the punchbowl. Azzarito tells tidbits of European parties with huge punchbowls, explains how the party piece became the symbol on the Stanley Cup hockey trophy, and includes a recipe, “American Orange Punch,” served in 1829 at President Andrew Jackson’s Inauguration.

Flokati rugs, a more luxurious cousin of shag rugs, are “fluffiness on steroids,” she says, with an average pile 3 inches long with some as high as 5 inches, according to the book, and loved by Jaqueline Onassis (the book explains why).

Author Amy Azzarito is a design historian and an expert on decorative arts, as well as holding a library of science degree, according to the biography in the book. She has written for Architectural Digest, Design Milk, and Brit & Co.

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