Several years ago I picked up an interesting little book titled Keeping Hearth & Home in Old Texas by Carol Padgett (Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, Ala.). It’s a compilation of hints for the 19th century housekeeper gleaned from period books and magazines. Starting with Chapter One, “For the Lady Well Groomed and Well Dressed,” the book is a compendium of reasons why you ought to be glad you’re living in the here and now rather than the there and then.
Bathing, once a week, in cold water for “the invigoration and healthy glow, which will follow,” is recommend. Daily brushing of the teeth is important too, although “all pastes and toothwashes should be discarded.” The Household Guide or Domestic Cyclopedia (1898), source for these hints, suggests using chalk, myrrh, or Castile soap instead.
Suitable exercises for females are limited to running — “to strengthen abdominal muscles, run, lifting your feet high, like a spirited horse” and skipping — “there are practically no dangers in skipping.”
Tired of the endless advertisements for shampoo? Switch to eggs. “Break the whites of two eggs into a basin of soft water and work them into a froth in the roots of the hair. Rinse thoroughly with clean warm water.”
As to graying hair, The Small Belongings of Dress (1894) advises, “We can only counsel moderation in all those pleasures that tend to an exciting, unhealthy mode of living, but here is a recipe that the writer says she believes (there’s an equivocation for you) will prevent graying: Melt 4 ounces of pure hog’s lard (unsalted) and 4 drams spermaceti together, and when cool add 4 drams of oxide of bismuth.” Exactly how one uses this mélange is not explained.
There are chapters devoted to dating — “For the Young Lady Courted and Escorted,” “The Wife” and several on children, their care and rearing. And what would a book of household hints be without a chapter on home health remedies, although after one entry under “Miscellaneous Recipes for Ailing Adults,” all else would seem unnecessary.
“To Remedy Almost Anything: Break an egg. Separate the yolk and white. Whip each into a stiff froth. Add 1 tablespoon of arrowroot and a little water a to the yolk. Rub till smooth and free from lumps. Pour slowly into a 1/2-pint of boiling water, stirring all the time. Let it simmer till jelly-like. Sweeten to the taste and add 1 tablespoon of French brandy. Stir in the frothed white and take hot in winter. In summer, set first on ice, then stir in the beaten white. Milk may be used instead of water.” Is a recipe for a home remedy or a soufflé?
“Almost anything” didn’t include heartaches—the physical rather than the emotional kind. “To Cure the Heart of an Ache: Take a piece of lean mutton, about the size of a large walnut, put it in the fire and burn it for some time, till it becomes almost reduced to a cinder, then put it into a clean rag and squeeze until some moisture is expressed, which must be dropped in the ear as hot as the patient can bear.”
This treatment falls into the same category as the man who was pounding his thumb with a hammer, moaning all the while. “Why are you pounding your thumb?” asked his friend.
“So I won’t notice the toothache,” was the reply.
Anyone can see that a dose of hot mutton extrusion to the ear will make all other problems seem trivial in comparison, and clearly Dr. Chase’s Third, Last and Complete Receipt (sic) Book and Household Physician (1903), the source of these medical tidbits, ought to be on every home’s bookshelf.
One problem for Texas homemakers, one still in evidence today, is bugs. The section on “Remedies for Household Pests” (No, we’re not talking a gossipy Aunt Minerva or Uncle Boop, who likes to get into the cooking sherry.) offers these ideas.
“Cayenne pepper will keep the storeroom and pantry free from ants and cockroaches. For bugs and ants, one may also dissolve 2 pounds of alum in 3 quarts of boiling water. Apply boiling hot with a brush. Add alum to whitewash for storerooms, pantries and closets. Kerosene oil is a sure remedy for red ants. Place small blocks under a sugar barrel, so as not to let the oil touch the barrel.”
Cooking and the preparation of meals is addressed in several chapters. One section set forth the “Daily Cooking Tasks for the Texas Homemaker.”
“At Sunrise: Kill the turtle in summer for turtle soup, and hang it up to bleed. Sift flour for plum pudding; in winter set it in a warm place; in summer set it in a cool place to rise.
“Before Breakfast: Always shape and put bread in the molds. Always try to make cake before breakfast or as early in the morning as possible.” While the poor turtle dies a dawn, the book recommends waiting until evening to dispatch the chicken for the next day’s broiling.
Cooks of the day were big on amber. “The Best Cook’s Measure For Doneness Is Amber,” reads a heading. There follows a list of foods, from chicken to turkey to bread to jelly to tomato preserve to peaches that ought to end up amber. Come to think of it, this is just an earlier version of the modern mantra, GBD—Golden Brown & Delicious.
There are recipes for all manner of foods from breakfast to late suppers. Some are quickly recognizable, others read as if they would be a mite bland. Take the instructions for “Chili Con Carne with Frijoles: Heat lard in a covered pot. Chop cold roast or soup meat and add salt and 1 tablespoon of flour. Cook a while and then add on cup of hot water and 1 tablespoon chili powder. Boil until meat is tender and serve with frijoles.” With chili like that, it’s no wonder Wolfe Brand came along.