Whether it’s a shelter-in-place pandemic pad, a literally hand-decorated cave or even a castle in the English countryside, there’s no place like home.
A three-part series on CuriosityStream takes a closer look at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the castle beloved by “Downton Abbey” fans and spaces that Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain and Vikings called home. “The History of Home,” available now for viewing, is exploring the concept of home and what it has meant to people in countless cultures throughout history.
The series begins with “The Foundations of Home,” which examines the marble tiles and mud bricks of houses around the world. Among the sites visited are King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace; an American Craftsman abode in Pasadena, California; and a French project to create a medieval castle from scratch in the 21st century.
Monticello — specifically, its spacious kitchen — is among the sites featured in the second episode, “The First Story of Home.” The world’s largest Viking hall is included, as is Highclere Castle, the real-life home of Lord Carnarvon’s family and the television and film domicile of the Crawley family. California’s sumptuous Hearst Castle also is on the itinerary.
The third episode, “The Second Story of Home,” invites viewers upstairs to see bathrooms, boudoirs and a high-tech bedroom of the future.
The Monticello segment follows culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene,” as he cooks a fresh batch of stew that brings to mind the many African and Caribbean favors and traditions that the estate’s enslaved kitchen staff would have brought to the table to help forge a new American cuisine.
The third president’s residence is a suitable place to explore the meaning of home in 18th- and 19th-century America, and the ways in which class and race informed it. The idea of home as a comfortable place to relax, entertain, learn and grow, as described in surviving writings by Jefferson’s children and grandchildren, is one facet. The experiences of Monticello’s enslaved workers, who had far less downtime to spend in their own domiciles and could be sold and sent away from their families on short notice, would have been quite different.
“There’s a spectrum of living at Monticello,” said Niya Bates, director of African American history and the Getting Word African American Oral History Project at Monticello.
The enslaved residents “worked sunup to sundown, so they would have had very little time at home,” Bates said. “They, too, had personal lives, and they had families.” Then as now, repairs and weatherproofing projects would have required attention, and archaeological research at the estate has uncovered jaw harps, pottery shards, locks and other evidence of life after the workday was over at last.
The estate’s archaeological research, oral histories and archived documents combine to offer a fuller picture of home life in Jefferson’s time.
“Monticello is one of the best documented plantations in America,” Bates said, adding that Jefferson documented family groups, daily tasks and even birthdays among the enslaved population. “It’s very exciting. It’s a story that keeps evolving.”
But even at a president’s home, the living was not easy.
“By no stretch of the imagination was it comfortable,” Bates said. “To go get water and bring it to the mountaintop was difficult.
“When I want food, I can go to the grocery store and buy it. They had to grow their own food — and grow food for Jefferson.”
That task wasn’t nearly as straightforward as it sounds, as any gardener knows.
“One of the points we make in the tours is that Jefferson’s vegetable garden is largely experimental,” Bates said. “That often means that there are failures.” One of Jefferson’s daughters even documented times when the family needed to buy poultry and produce from enslaved residents after experimental plantings failed to provide enough food, she said.
People today often think of home as a place to take it easy after the workday is done, but there wasn’t much time for anyone to relax.
“Everyone needed to be productive on that mountaintop,” Bates said. And although agrarian living required interdependence to be successful, she said, “these relationships were very fraught, because he owned them.”
Bates said that “The History of Home” will give viewers a glimpse into a part of the Monticello estate that isn’t on current tours.
“Site 6 is not open to the public, so this is an opportunity to see how enslaved people and overseers lived,” she said. “Site 6 is in the woods and pretty heavily forested, so this is a chance to see how the mountaintop has changed over time.”
“This work is even more important now,” Bates said. “It informs who we are. It informs who we think we are.”
“The History of Home” is the second installment in a CuriosityStream project that began with the series “The History of Food.” It’s produced by Roller Coaster Road Productions, and Alex Sherratt and Sarah V. Burns serve as executive producers and showrunners.
To Sherratt, who spent a year on the road working on the series, “home for me is a moving target.” What he learned making the series is that home “should be a refuge, but sometimes is a luxury.”
Along with heights are descents. Sherratt marveled at the pigmented handprints deposited on cave walls 40,000 years ago, and what they might have meant to the people who left them.
“Ancient humans were seeking shelter,” he said. “It shows how complicated ‘home’ has always been. It has always been more than a place to get out of the wind.”
“The History of Home” also catches glimpses of engineering and design innovations that may show up in homes of the future. Keep an eye out for a bed and some storage space that seem to disappear into a ceiling to give residents more open space to enjoy during the day.
“It’s a fun thing as you see the bed descend from the roof,” Sherratt said.
“It’s not dry, boring history. We want fun, and we want family. It should be lived in.”