MARTHA SEZ: ‘I found a recipe for suet pudding, with no mention of suet in the list of ingredients’
My great-grandmother’s book, “The Successful Housekeeper,” published in 1886, contains everything a homemaker needed to know, and more. Its instructions for hostessing a garden party, written in high-flown language, might give readers a lopsided, even downright false, view of 19th century middle-class daily life. The amusingly frivolous description of a garden party is balanced, however, with information taken from other chapters of the same book. The lives of women like my great grandmother, Nellie Richardson Clizbe, were not all tutti frutti in the moonlight.
During the 1890s, the United States was suffering a painful financial recession. I found a letter written by Nellie’s daughter, my grandmother Marion, to her uncle, in which she mentions the big communal potato patch maintained by the people in her Michigan town. Communities across the country were planting potatoes, not for fun, but to stave off starvation.
In 1894, when my grandmother was 10 years old, labor unions prevailed upon the United States Congress to set aside a day to honor the achievements of American workers. That was the first Labor Day. The same year, U.S. President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to break up a railroad strike. There were riots, railway cars were overturned and burned, and 34 workers were killed by soldiers.
During those days Nellie ran a boarding house. Her book has numerous pieces of yellowed paper stuck between its pages. Some are household hints or recipes clipped from the newspaper, with tantalizingly abbreviated scraps of news stories on the other side, such as directions for making oatmeal cookies, with the partial headlines, “Domestic Service Unpopular says Florence Kelley, Because … Girls So Often … sulted” and “Detroit Jews To Plan for Soldiers’ Relief” on the back.
Others are notes and recipes jotted down in pencil on whatever paper was available. Even after deciphering Nellie’s hurried handwriting, abbreviations and sometimes unorthodox spelling, I have to look up unfamiliar words and terms, like whiting for polishing silver (calcium Carbonate), slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and unslaked lime (calcium oxide). I also suspect that certain directions and ingredients are left out of recipes.
Nellie didn’t bother to write them down, apparently taking it for granted that anyone would know. She couldn’t have anticipated me.
Here is a recipe for applesauce cake: 1 cp applesauce, 1 cp sugar, 1 3/4 cp flour, 1 teaspoon soda in applesauce (the word salt, apparently erased), raisins, spices to taste, and there you have it.
I found a recipe for suet pudding, with no mention of suet in the list of ingredients.
Varieties of pickle and tomato sauce recipes abound, both in Nellie’s writing and in the book itself. Pickles and cake must have been especially popular at the time. I gather from the bread recipes that women had to culture their own yeast. There are instructions for buying, butchering, preparing, carving and preserving meats, including wild game, as well as seafood, including oysters, and poultry, including pigeons.
Advice on every aspect of daily life goes far beyond cooking; the housekeeper was required to know how to do just about everything. The chapter on furniture explains not only how to clean it, but even “how to make an ottoman.”
Another chapter tells how to destroy bed bugs, moths and other pests, with chemicals ranging from alum to copperas (iron sulfate), cobalt and quicksilver. “Arsenic, spread on bread and butter, and placed round rat and mouse holes, will soon put a stop to their ravages,” the author says, warning “Great care is necessary in using the above poisons, where there are any children, as they are apt to eat anything that comes in their way, and these poisons will prove as fatal to them as to the vermin (excepting the pepper).”
More sound advice: “Do not set apart one day on which to clean your silver or scour your tinware; there is danger of it not being done at all.”
Laundry is boiled, and sugar of lead (lead acetate) used to make fabrics colorfast. Black a stove, remove stains, dye fabrics, line stair carpets, make soap and salve, preserve eggs in a barrel for winter use, prepare cough mixture with paregoric, cure the opium habit, remove warts, prevent hydrophobia (rabies), treat victims of cholera and smallpox and resuscitate “the supposed drowned,” as well as “restore from stroke of lightning.”
Successful housekeeping entailed a lot of hard work. No wonder the chapters are interspersed with such fanciful subjects as garden parties, raising canaries, camping attire and folding napkins.
Have a good week.
(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the News for more than 20 years.)