If you’ve ever been curious about the etymology of your dining utensils or the origin story of the teapot, former Arkansas resident Amy Azzarito has written a book to scratch this specific intellectual itch. Azzarito, a design historian and former librarian at the New York Public Library, is the author of “The Elements of a Home: Curious Histories behind Everyday Household Objects, from Pillows to Forks.” Azzarito sat down with the Times to talk about growing up in Northwest Arkansas, her research for the book, and finding meaning in both our household tools and treasures. As more of us retreat to our homes to weather an increasingly uncertain future, Azzarito’s book is a welcome distraction, and one that asks us to turn our curiosity inward.
I understand you’re a former Arkansas resident. Where in Arkansas are you from?
My family moved to Northwest Arkansas when I was 10 years old and in fourth grade, and we were in Siloam Springs. I was there from fourth grade until I graduated from high school from Siloam Springs High School. Then I went to John Brown University for a couple years, and then I transferred and ultimately graduated and moved to Chicago and started living in cities, which continued throughout my adulthood. But yeah, I was in Arkansas from fourth grade until I was about 20, I think.
What was your experience like growing up in Siloam Springs?
I played basketball and volleyball and ran track, and did school plays and all of that sort of thing. … I had a great childhood. I had the kind of childhood where my mom would send us out of the house and lock the sliding door and you had to use your imagination and don’t come home until dinner. You can’t do that in very many places, but you could do that in Siloam Springs. There were horses nearby that I would go visit, and I found honeysuckle, so it was a good place to grow up.
I was obsessed with honeysuckle as a child, I was convinced that it was a place where fairies lived.
I know! Me too! I thought it was very magical. I was very into it. And I don’t know that most people even know how to appreciate honeysuckle or suck on the sweet part.
I would take it and rub it on my neck to pretend I was wearing perfume!
That’s so cute! Yeah, fireflies and honeysuckle. You don’t really have that everywhere.
I read on your Instagram that you’ve been working on this book for six years in total. How does it feel for this project to be finally coming to fruition?
It’s a pretty good feeling. I’m very excited to have the book out. I will say, I wasn’t writing for the whole entire six years, but from inception and selling the idea to researching and then revising, it was definitely a long process. And there was a lot of research. Every object in the book was almost like researching a mini book because in order for me to pick the best story about the plate or the napkin, I needed to know most of the story of those objects so that I could really be like, ‘Oh no, this is the moment that’s most interesting.’ So that’s what I tried to do for all of the objects: just do a lot of reading, a lot of research, and distill that knowledge — ‘here’s the most interesting piece.’ Then I crafted the bibliography to be a place where if you’re really into the history of dining and eating instruments, here’s the places you should go and read more.
I understand you spent several years as a librarian for the New York Public Library. Do you think that part of your life crossed over into the research and writing of this book for you?
Definitely, yeah! I got a master’s in library science in New York from [the Pratt Institute], then worked at the New York Public Library for about eight years. So, a long time. I did a lot of different things there: worked in the archives, and also worked on the reference desk, and taught classes and research. And I did hone my knowledge and understanding of how you find more information about something you’re interested in, which is increasingly an important skill because it feels like we have so much information at our fingertips, but… we’re lulled into thinking everything is on the Internet and online.
I really enjoyed the book’s table of contents, and just seeing that it was written simply as “Spoon, page 164” or “Napkin, page 121” or, “Picnic basket, page 131.” It’s so user friendly!
That was my hope, that people would look at the table of contents and you’d sort of be like, ‘Wait, what’s the story of the sofa?’ Because we do get lulled into thinking that the way it is now is the way it’s always been, and that everything that exists now has always existed. And we know, okay, there wasn’t always electricity, and there wasn’t always running water, but even to just start thinking about [how] pillows were not always soft, and the fork was deemed immoral and unhygienic. It’s kind of a mind trick to think about the history of these things, and it does make you reevaluate or appreciate the things that we have. Or it did for me, at least.
While doing your research for the book, what’s a favorite discovery that you made about one of the objects?
[I was at] the [New York] Public Library and I was doing research, and I was looking at a book called Daily Life in Versailles in the 17th and 18th century, and it was published in 1968. I was looking at this old, dilapidated copy of this book, and it was just this amazing accounting of daily living in Versailles when it was home to thousands of people. As I was doing research, the way I did some of it is I knew what objects I was working with. … I was just reading the book and seeing, is there something that I could match to one of these objects that I’m looking for? In this book, they tell this crazy story of how Louis XIV had these elaborate, giant tassels hanging from his bed frame. One day, the tassels were cut off, and there’s this tassel thief. And later that evening as he’s eating his state dinner — which means there were a lot of people watching — all of a sudden, someone lobs this package across and it lands on the table right in front of him. And he says, ‘I guess these are my tassels!’ I mean, it was such a random story [that] I was like, ‘That is definitely going in the book.’ It doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s such a weird story, but to me, it also told a lot about the chaotic nature of living at Versailles. Like, what? No one saw who cut [the tassels]? Well, yeah, because it would have been just horribly crowded at all times. So that was one of the moments I remember in researching something specific, or stumbling across something random.
How did doing the research for this book change the way you interact with the objects in your house: your things, furniture, tools, household items?
I think it made me more aware of how well-chosen objects can be important components to our memories, or to rich life moments, like dining. For example, I have a nine-month old daughter, and so… as part of writing this book and of having her and thinking about her childhood memories, I pay a little bit more attention to what will be the stuff of her childhood. For example, around Christmas, I purchased some different vintage animal knife rests — these were created to protect white tablecloths between courses — but I got all these different animals, so we’ve used them more as place cards. We ask: who would be a panther who’s coming to dinner? Who should have the duck, who should have the swan? So just thinking about things like that. … I do think about those objects and their significance around some of the rituals of living, which ends up being dining and things like that.
I love the illustrations in the book, and I think its overall design is very fun. For the book’s design, how did you make aesthetic choices about it, and what was important to you when you were going through that process?
I knew I wanted it to be illustrated, so that was really important. Many of the things illustrated have some real counterpart in real life. I do mention a lot of places and things, so if you wanted to google and see actual examples of some of the things, you most definitely could do that. I wanted it to feel more current and present in terms of illustrations. I didn’t want it to feel like you were looking through a museum catalogue. … For “topiary,” for example, which are trees shaped to look like geometric shapes or animals: you might not know that that word means that thing, so it’s important to have an illustration. It’s part of making it easier to read and not so heavy handed.
How did you decide on the book’s rich, green color?
The green was kind of a nod to a more science-y kind of feeling, [like] an encyclopedia, and we chose the illustrator because she does these more diagram-like illustrations. So I wanted something that felt a little more scientific, kind of like a nod to an old school textbook. That’s what we were going for.
You said earlier that you hope people walk away from reading this book with more appreciation for the things they have and value them differently. Can you expand more on the impact you hope this book has?
I mean, I don’t want to be too grandiose, either. I hope it’s a relaxing break from the news, and from self help books and trying to improve yourself. And it’s not a novel that’s going to be so engrossing that you can’t go to sleep. It’s really a relaxing kind of book that you can dip into and learn a little bit about something that you touch every single day. And yeah, it might shape the way you think about these things, the way that researching flatware caused me to make a switch to vintage silver plate [utensils]. Or when I think about napkins and the history of napkins, it makes me want to use cloth napkins. … Maybe you’ll think a little bit differently and be more invested in creating a sense of specialness, for lack of a better word, around some of the objects in your home, and objects that you create. And yeah, maybe when you read it and hear about people not bathing or showering, or having to shower via using someone to pour water on them over another wall, yeah, maybe you’ll appreciate your shower a little more.
But again, I don’t want to be too grandiose with it. Sometimes I feel like I’m always reading self-help books, and I’m always trying to get better at something, and sometimes I feel like I just need a break from that kind of [thing]: I don’t want to organize, I don’t want to be more productive, I just want a little break. … I don’t want people to think that this book is in any way trying to make them more grateful. Yeah, you might come away thinking, ‘Huh! It’s awesome that we use forks, and this is why,’ or you might mention it at dinner. The book is super bite-sized, so you might read one section if, like me, you have maybe five minutes to sit down and put your feet up, and you want a break and you don’t really want to scroll through Instagram again. That’s the other thing, too: I feel like this book is a break from [self-improvement] and from Instagram, it’s a break from trying to be better or different.