The great indoors

25th February 2000 at 00:00
As TES Primary launches The Global Village - its new collection of 3D paper dwellings of the world - Gerald Haigh asks what makes a house a home?

At the centre of this month's TES Primary you will find the first part of a new series - The Global Village, a set of eight collectible model dwellings for you to make with your class and use as part of the teaching day.

Each "house" will be accom-panied by: lTeaching notes about the structure and who might have lived in it.

lLesson ideas.

lChild-friendly instructions for making the house.

lLinks to curriculum subjects and extension activities.

This month's house is the traditional tepee - a portable home which allowed the Plains Indians of North America to follow the wandering herds of buffalo that provided food, clothing and fuel for the tribespeople.

The tepee is now an artefact. But homes of all kinds still surround us - large, small, grandly decorated, spartan, mobile or built of wood, stone and brick.

As the saying goes, no matter where you live, there's no place like home. The toddler cries for home, the prisoner yearns for it, and even after a good holiday there is something deeply satisfying about getting in, putting the kettle on and leafing through the mail.

What makes a house interesting to us is the thought of it as home - a familiar place, where you can find the kettle without looking, and the cat basket is still likely to trip you up as you go to switch on the light.

"What visitors like," once said a stately home owner, "is to look out through the window and see a baby's pram on the lawn."

It all starts early. Very young children have a strong sense of familiar surroundings. If you talk to them about favourite places they will tell you about being in special corners of their house - tucked in beside a wardrobe, sitting under a table, or on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed - all of which speak of security and familiarity.

Making a house into a home, then, involves filling the empty shell with objects, which are either symbolic or practical or both. The porcupine quill backrests that Plains Indians used in their tepees were highly practical, but they were also decorated to the point of becoming prized possessions.

In more static homes, the main contents have always been furniture for sleeping, eating and sitting. To what extent this furniture was decorative as well as useful has changed over the years.

In Northern European homes, once the Roman Empire had faded, furniture reverted to being purely functional. There was not much of it, either. For over half of the last millennium, across all classes, if people were not in bed, or perched on a bench at table, they were assumed to be going about doing things.

Lounging around on comfy chairs and settees was simply not how life was lived, and a chair was really a sign of authority - a seat of power for the head of the house or of the community - rather than somewhere to rest.

This began to change in England in Stuart times - around 1600. The court of James I adopted a more self-consciously decadent approach to life, which entailed siting at ease on cushions. This was the time that upholstered furniture started to appear. Soon, the upholsterer was king - in fact in 1660 there was a King's Upholsterer- and over ensuing years interiors changed as wood, tile and stone surfaces gave way to the softness of floor and wall coverings and stuffed chairs and sofas.

The owners of great houses spent huge sums on their furniture and furnishings, and they expected it to be handed on through the generations. (Hence Alan Clarke's jibe about the modern wealthy arriviste, "Who has bought his own furniture," because, by implication, he has no aristocratic forebears.) As is often the case, though, what started off as expensive and rare was soon copied for general consumption, using cheaper materials and mass production.

So it was that the spartan interior of the 14th century workman's house, with a rough table and some stools or benches, evolved into the lower middle-class suburban home of the mid-20th century, which self-consciously used the soft surfaces and hangings that once were found only in aristocratic houses. As often as not the front room had a fully upholstered three-piece suite that took up much of the space.

Of course, softness of furnishing was achieved much earlier in other societies, by different means - the furry buffalo hides that lined the tepee, and the fleeces and hangings that still make a Bedouin tent a cosy place.

Other basics of homemaking show consistency across the centuries. The medieval home was as likely as its modern equivalent to have a cradle for the baby, and children's toys such as push carts, spinning tops (which people undoubtedly fell over while carrying buckets of water) and hobby horses.

And as the Sioux man displayed the scalps of his enemies, his 20th century counterpart has a display cabinet for darts and football trophies.

Women of all times and communities, too, up to very recently, had apparatus not only for cooking but for making thread, cloth and clothes. Even now, although gender roles have been eroded, the woman of the house is usually still, like her Anglo Saxon, or Plains Indian counterpart of old, the forager, out finding food and clothing to fit a limited budget.

Consistent, too, is the way that houses have been filled to overflowing by an extended family. Eight or 10 people might have slept in a tepee, or an African village house. A Tudor home or a Victorian terrace were also crowded places when everyone was at home.

The notion of the ordinary family house as an airy space where a couple and two children waft from room to room is very recent - and, we should not forget, is still out of reach of many in this country and across the world.

COLLECT THE GLOBAL VILLAGE

Remember, TES Primary will no longer come free with The TES. The April issue of the magazine will be on sale at newsagents on March 23.

To collect The Global Village series and make sure you get all eight parts, you will have to buy TES Primary separately from your newsagent for pound;2. Alternatively, you can subscribe to TES Primary for an annual fee of pound;15 by calling 01858 438 805.


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