This topic seemed fitting for Memorial Day weekend.

A few months ago on vacation on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, I went into a used bookstore which the proprietor proudly told me was “the westernmost bookstore in the United States.” Searching the shelves, I came upon a delightful four-volume series, “A History of Everyday Things in England,” written by Marjorie and C. H. B. Quennell, and first published in 1918. Everyday Things was written for boys and girls who “should be trained to do useful work and learn to use their hands.”

The series begins in 1066 and moves century by century, describing the construction and design of everything from castles and ships to costumes and furniture. In a section on fairs and markets, I learned about the origin of the word “cheap.”

The Quennells write:

An Old English word for buying is “cheaping;” the merchant was the cheapman or chapman, and one street where stalls were set up in London is still known as Cheapside and another as Eastcheap. This is also Chipping Hill near Witham in Essex, Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds…

The photos are taken at Chipping Camden, the historic wool market town in the Cotswolds.

The book was conceived of by C.H.B. Quennell, an architect for whom his “war-work” during World War I was “both a professional reverse and a spiritual calamity,” according to his son. He had been brought up to worship the ideals of John Ruskin and William Morris and he believed the war was destroying that world. Along with his wife, Quennell decided to write Everyday Things in the evenings after work in the family’s living room. He was an expert draughtsman and the book is enhanced by his technical illustrations.

The Quennells created a different kind of history, one that they felt was ignored in history books. They wanted to share the values they saw exemplified by this history in hopes they would not be lost. You can hear the echoes of William Morris in this paragraph — that the things we make should be both useful and beautiful.

In the medieval period the arts and crafts were much more representative of the whole community than they are now. The craftsman learnt not only the practical details of his trade, the way to use his tools, and to select materials, but was taught to design his work; and all his fellows did the same, working together on much the same lines– all interested in doing good work, and in trying to find better methods and designs. This accumulated knowledge was handed down from generations to generation, and formed what we call tradition, and thanks to it, the work produced was extraordinarily truthful. The man of the fourteenth century was not content to copy the work done in the thirteenth but, with all his fellows, was trying to improve upon it.

The goal of the book series was not just to describe the past but to influence the future. The hope was that the “coming generation … may combine the wonderful appreciation for the uses and beauty of material that the old craftsman possessed, with the opportunities for production which the modern machine gives, and so launch a new era of beautiful everyday things.”

“Everyday Things” is an effort to develop a first-hand understanding of the man-made world. Just today, I came across a new reference to “Connections” by James Burke, the wonderfully creative BBC documentary series from the 1970s. Like the Quennells, Burke jumps from century to century to tell a story and his mission is to trace the development of technology and its impact on our everyday lives.

It’s about the things that surround you in the modern world and, just because they’re there, shape the way you think and behave; and why they exist in the form they do; and who — or what — was responsible for them existing at all.”