Four Normal Parts of Your House That Originated for Hardcore Reasons
Most of the things in and around your house serve a definite and obvious purpose: a stove for cooking food, a tub for bathing, a room full of tiny furniture for feeling like a giant, etc. But when we were first deciding what modern houses and apartments should look like, we had different needs. Bloodier, dirtier, stinkier needs.
These days, the primary purpose of maintaining a lawn is to keep the homeowners association off your back. Sure, they’re nice to run around on, but they’re mostly just a waste of resources and land. That’s arguably an even bigger draw — to signal that you have resources and land to waste — but the first people to build lawns had very little in common with today’s grassmongers.
The first lawns surrounded castles in 16th-century England and France for reasons that had nothing to do with having a nice green patch of grass. Lords ordered vast swaths of forestland around their estates cleared of trees, not so they’d have enough space for Thanksgiving football games, but so they could see enemies approaching from all sides and from far enough away to give them time to figure out what the hell was going on. They were coming off a very surprise-siegey era of history, and they’d frankly had enough.
These lawns weren’t even covered with grass initially because, as every dad knows, grass is really hard to maintain. They were planted with much less needy plants like chamomile and thyme, but pretty much any shadeless patch of dirt is gonna succumb to a wild, raging Blob of grass. It was at this point that the aristocracy started hiring staff just to get the lawn under control. The lower aristocracy was like, “Hey, I also want servants entirely devoted to useless plants,” and now everyone has to have a lawn despite being under no danger of organized attack, any impending Purges notwithstanding.
If you have a habit of living in large cities and not being wealthy, you’re probably old friends with the ancient, coiled, silver monstrosity that drowns out all the ghosts with its eerie rattling and always runs so hot that you look forward to blizzards because opening the windows might have a shot at cooling the place down. That’s actually what it was designed for, not to torture you with irony, but to keep you from dying.
In fact, a whole lot of modern architecture was designed with early 1900s diseases (and early 1900s understanding of them) in mind. White walls are standard because they reflect sunlight, sun rooms became popular and were even referred to as “cure porches” in tuberculosis sanitariums, and people started sawing out windows like railroad stocks were going to come pouring out of them. It’s all because sunlight and fresh air were thought to be cure-alls for disease, which turned out to be kind of right. It’s the same reason outdoor dining has become so popular since 2020. Back then, people thought you could get sick from your own “bad air,” but hey, they were close.
The “fresh air movement” enjoyed such popular support that when the Spanish Flu broke out, New York City mandated that every home must have an outdoor-facing window. This posed a problem for people who were scared to death of their own bad air during the notoriously unbalmy New York winters, though. They were either going to die of airborne disease or airborne hypothermia, so engineers designed powerful steam radiators that could heat a home even with all the windows open.
Unfortunately, they did their job a little too well. Those suckers are so sturdy that, as pandemics came and went and we realized we couldn’t get them from ourselves, they stuck around. That silver coating was an attempt to calm them down a little, but it barely made a dent. Now you have to learn to knit so you can put little sleeves on your radiator if you don’t want second-degree burns every time you bump into it.
As with lawns, few people who have spiral staircases today have a pressing need to ward off armies. Mostly, they just look pretty and make you feel like a Disney princess being lured to her doom. But if you’ve ever tried to navigate a spiral staircase after closing down the bar, you can see why historians believe they were built to choke off invading forces.
They also believe that the clockwise design of most medieval spiral staircases was intended to prevent right-handed attackers from effectively using their swords, while the castle’s right-handed upstairs occupants were free to swing away. You’d think they’d just send up their left-handed guys first, but this was back when people thought left-handedness was the mark of the beast, so they had probably already burned them at the stake. It’s also hard to see what’s coming down a spiral staircase, which you know if you’ve tried to navigate one after closing down the bar and also have a cat.
Before medieval Twitter comes for us, we should note that this is a controversial theory. For one thing, not all spiral staircases turn in a clockwise direction. There’s also a real lack of contemporary documentation of medieval architects being like “This is why we built this,” but to be fair, people back then were pretty bad at documenting shit.
Cars are the blight of the modern era, probably going to be the death of us all, blah blah blah, but at least we’re not being pulled by horses everywhere anymore. Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh at Christmas time, but if everyone did it every day, it would get shitty in a hurry — literally.
In the late 19th century, the best system we had for dealing with the overwhelming amount of poop ejected from the horses that trotted the streets all day was to shovel it into vacant lots, where piles grew up to 60 feet high. It was still, though, impossible to keep up with it all. As a result, “it lined city streets like banks of snow. In the summertime, it stank to the heavens; when the rains came, a soupy stream of horse manure flooded the crosswalks and seeped into people’s basements.” Pity the poor soul who lived on the ground floor.
That’s why many city homes and apartments don’t have one. The stairs take you straight up to the second story, giving us such icons of architecture as the classic New York brownstone and Stoop Kid, all to keep us away from the river of poop waiting below.
Sure, it’s a pain to carry your groceries up those things, but hey, it could be a lot worse.