Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity looking after The Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens.
Her latest book is If Walls Could Talk, an Intimate History of the Home.
From her Q & A at The New Yorker's book blog:
Early in the book, you say that the “theory that an evil ‘miasma’ carried illness through the ether was terribly important in the history of house-planning.” Can you explain a bit about that theory here, and how it shaped all aspects of homelife?Read the complete Q & A.
Prior to the discovery of germs, people thought that diseases were carried invisibly through the air. I think you hear a distant echo of this even today when you hear someone say “don’t sit in the draught, you’ll catch a cold”: well no, you won’t, that’s not how colds are caused, but there’s still a sense that the air can be dangerous. (Even in the nineteen-fifties, my mother wasn’t allowed out of the house by her mother if her hair was wet.) If you believed that the air could make you sick, you would take great care to position your house where there was “good air,” to avoid disease. Where the belief in miasma really caused trouble was in Victorian London, because cholera was spreading through the poor drainage situation. Drains themselves got terrible press because people believed that (a) they weren’t stopping people from getting sick because disease travelled through the air, not infected water supplies, and (b) the bad smells that came out of them were dangerous. In the house of Linley Samborne, the famous cartoonist, in Kensington, London, his wife used to keep the plug in her newly installed washbasin because she was afraid of the “diseases” that might come up from the drains below.