Working from Home – the Old Normal

With working at home becoming more and more popular as a result of Covid-19, we’re now wondering whether WFH will become the New Normal – and whether the question “Good day at the office, dear?” will now be consigned to the footnotes of history.

Contrary to what you might think, WFH is, in fact, the Old Normal. Until very recently – as late as the late-eighteenth century, in fact – most people worked from home. There was no such thing as going out to the office, factory or other external site. Any kind of industry – piecework, manual or professional – was carried out at home, blurring the boundaries between personal and business life.

Take merchant banker Gianfrancesco Amidani who lived in sixteenth-century Lombardy and set up his ‘bank’ in a room in his house. Just 12ft by 9ft, Amidani shared the room with his cashier Cornelio, preparing contracts, receiving clients and presumably totting up his vast profits.

But this was also true of less grandiose guys than Gianfrancesco. Cobblers, tailors, bakers, draftsmen and clerks, as well as lawyers, weavers, artists and bookkeepers, set up shop at home – frequently, on the first-floor landing. From here, they could access the ground floor to accept delivery of merchandise, while customers could come in without using the front door.

Neither did scientists, cartographers and astronomers venture out to laboratories to earn a crust. Sienese doctor Bartolo di Tora carried out his practice at home and trained student medics in a private room there. Inside he had a rotating, two-sided lectern, a bronze mortar for grinding medicines and vials for examining urine samples.

There was even a manual for Renaissance office-workers advising them where to site their home-office. Benedetto Cotrugli, its Napolitan author, recommended locating it in a remote part of the house but close to the bedroom so the occupant could grab a bit of shut-eye when required. It should be out of bounds to everyone – especially the wife’s prying eyes.

Numerous manuscript images and accounts survive showing how splendidly these small rooms were kitted out; even with fireplaces and baths! Carpenters were hired to carve desks and bookshelves to accommodate all the paraphernalia of business: strings of letters and bills, pens and stationery, books and ledgers. Valuable documents and money were locked in cabinets to which only the occupant possessed a key.

And so things continued until the eighteenth century when a cataclysmic event changed the way the British lived and worked: the Industrial Revolution and the migration from country to town in search of a better life. A mass exodus of men was completed by the mid-1800s exiling piecemeal workers to the new factories and mills, with professional men setting up offices in specialized external locations. The Victorians reinforced this separation between home and work. They transformed the former into a haven of tranquility, unsullied by the contaminated, external world of industry and technology. Things would remain like this for nearly 200 years when another seismic event – a global pandemic – would threaten its survival.

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