Monday, February 22, 2010

The Great 20th Century Cookbook

I love to read about how people used to keep their homes and cook, and the easiest way to do this is to purchase old cooking and housekeeping books. My latest acquisition, The Great 20th Century Cookbook from 1902, is a little frightening however.

Although we think of modern lives as being filled with chemicals, they clearly were a large part of life in 1902 as well. I can't imagine keeping cobalt, powdered lead, and other chemicals in my home, but the housekeeping section of my book seems to assume that housewives have these things lying around. When we work with cobalt or lead in the lab, we wear thick rubber gloves, safety goggles, and face masks.

Another common misperception, and I am sure I have pointed this out before, is the relative lack of meat in the turn-of-the-century diet. The menus provided in the book seem to include moderate amounts of meat once a day. This is confirmed by other old cookbooks I have collected. One from the forties tells housewives that they should try to increase their meat intake to once per day. The portions are small in both books--this new one thinks a single calve's liver can feed a family. In my house, that would be more than enough because no one would want more than a bite!

The lack of cleanliness is the other thing that is striking. In my 1902 book, dusting is believed to be bad for the health. Instead of kicking up dust inside, housewives were supposed to drag out the furniture and dust in the yard. The book recommends doing this once or twice per year. Similarly, this housewife was told that heavy carpets don't have to be taken out and beaten every year. Every other year is fine... remember that this is before vacuum cleaners.

From reading the book, it seems that cooking and laundry were enough to keep a woman hopping. The process for doing laundry begins with starting a wood fire in your yard early in the morning and ends with ironing and starching well into the night. With people wearing maybe one or two outfits on a regular basis, this is a lot of work for a small amount of actual clean laundry. It makes hanging out my laundry seem so easy that I am a little embarrassed for all the times I have resorted to using a dryer.

Here are few other interesting tidbits of information that most of us now would consider questionable:
1. Night air causes illness.
2. People with fevers should be given only a small ration of water or they will become sicker.
3. Wine is very bad for you and should be administered only on a doctor's order. Cocaine and opiates are better and more modern choices, even for children, and can be used liberally for a variety of ailments.
4. Hydrophobia, now called rabies, can be cured with a root called elecampane soaked in fresh milk. (Rabies is incurable once symptoms set in.)
5. For poison oak, apply lead powder directly to the rash.

Some of the folk remedies are harmless enough that I plan to try them, although powdered lead will not be making its debut in my medicine cabinet anytime soon. The point is that we tend to romanticize old times as being cleaner, safer, and less complicated, when just the opposite seems to be true. Today I am going to count my blessings as my clothing washer takes a full day's worth of work off my hands.


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