Saturday, January 31, 2015


Oh, to have a time machine and be able to visit 19th Century Europe! I'd wander the streets, trying to keep a low profile, buying bread, cheese and wine when needed, maybe availing myself of horse-drawn cabs if I could afford it.

Since in the present we're surrounded by skyscrapers, we imagine 19th Century buildings as being being low to the ground, but the evidence of old etchings and photography is that a large number of city structures were actually pretty tall. 

Even before elevators people liked to build'em big. That's odd because tall buildings had to be climbed, step by laborious step.

Castle motiffs were common. There must be a reason for that. 

 Like castles some buildings had plain, sheer walls with few windows close to ground level. That's also odd. This was an era when rooms were dark and often lit by slow burning twigs because candles were so expensive. You'd think people would have welcomed any chance to bring sunlight in. 

Balconies were high, I used to think in order to discourage burglars. Now I'm not so sure. No doubt they were high because rooms had high ceilings in those days. But does that make sense? Heat rises, so high ceilings would have made rooms cooler in the Summer, but also colder in the Winter. It's as if people had a choice and deliberately chose comfort in the Summer over warmth in the Winter. That's odd, don't you think?

Also, lower ceilings would have enabled builders to put a greater density of people into a given space. Why such high ceilings, and therefore high buildings, when space in the city was probably at a premium?

 The only thing I can think of that explains all these biases is that people wanted to live in buildings that resembled castles and cathedrals, even if doing so was inconvenient. Huzinga said that medievals were exceptionally imaginative and sentimental people. Maybe 19th Century people were the same way. Maybe this was the common man's way of living like mythic Lords and Ladies.

Of course not all buildings were the way I described them. Pictures of the period were full of imaginative variations of Roman public buildings. Were many of these actually built? I doubt it, but what do I know?


Rodolfo said...

I imagine high ceilings had to do with the smoke from fireplaces, candles, twigs, whatever. A low ceiling would have had people choking.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Rodolfo: Interesting! I hadn't thought of that! It makes sense.

Rodolfo said...

...otherwise I can imagine a Charles Dickens' world with low ceilings and the protagonists in blackface.