When you're in the business of tallying the dangers of our industrial way of life (pesticides, toxic cleaners, overuse of antibiotics, auto pollution, habitat destruction, etc.) it is easy to grow nostalgic about the pre-industrial era. This nostalgia sometimes inspires us to make our own pickles, read Beatrix Potter, buy butter churns from estate sales, and name our daughters Alice, Emma, or Evangeline.
At garage sales (or in alleys) I can never resist the charm of yet another old-fashioned wicker basket (great for shopping!) or an impractically heavy rustic wooden stepladder. I have fallen in love with vinegar, the all-purpose solution good for cleaning wood floors, rubbing the cat puke out of a rug, and clearing a slow drain. Every once in awhile, in a fit of virtue, I even look up a recipe for vinegar, thinking to save myself the $2 a month and save the world from an extra plastic jug, although I have yet to make it. (I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.)
It should be no wonder, then, that my heart did a little jump when I came across Roberts' Guide for Butlers & Other Household Staff. This handy little tome by a man named Robert Roberts was first published in 1827. God only knows how long it stayed in print before the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie made butlers—and this book—obsolete. Regardless, it was reissued in 1993 by Applewood Books, and given at some point by my father to my mother, who is similarly afflicted with nostalgia, although it's safe to say that she yearns for civility and moral purity more than for vinegar.
Robert Roberts's book is small but dense. The table of contents features a range of entries:
• On dress suitable for their work
• Regulations for the pantry
• Regulations for the dinner table
• Cleaning polished steel grates
• To revive the colour of cloth
• To turn good wine into vinegar in three hours (!)
• To restore that same wine to its first taste
• To preserve milk for sea that will keep for six months.
What a bonanza! I turned right to the recipes, which make up the greatest portion of the book. I found the recipe for turning wine into vinegar:
and vice versa:
Fascinating. I love beets, but who knew they could be so useful? And what a crazy trick with the cabbage root. I could easily follow this recipe although I don't generally keep wine around the house since I am allergic to it. And it's true that red wine vinegar might not be the best choice for cleaning cat puke from a white rug.
I pressed on, certain there must be a lot to learn from these great men who kept their households running cleanly and efficiently without relying on detergents with phosphates or other nasty cleaners that should really be kept under lock and key.
This one was nice:
Take half a pound of crude honey, the yolk of a new laid egg, and then the bulk of a nut of aromatic salt, then mix well together, then put some on the spots; having left it there awhile, then wash it off with clean water, and the spot will immediately disappear. . . .
Perfect! I'd have to make do with a somewhat older egg (at least until I get my own chickens) and perhaps improvise on the aromatic salt (like for the bathtub?), but I could see that I was getting somewhere. I admit I was having a hard time recognizing some of the ingredients, such as isinglass, bullock's gall, and Florentine orris.
I just loved the recipe for preserving milk for sea, which operates on the same principles as canning tomatoes: sterilize your bottles, pour the fresh product directly into the bottle (in this case, milk straight from the teat), and cork the bottles, creating a vacuum seal with a boiling water bath. Then pack in straw or sawdust, wait six months, open, and enjoy. Knowing how it's nearly impossible to get fresh, unpasteurized milk in the city, I figured I could tote a pallet of Mason jars with me the next time I go to Wisconsin and come back with enough milk to last me to Christmas! Perhaps give it away as presents?
And I really got a kick out of the cure for drunkenness that involved putting three live eels into the drinker's favorite bottle and letting them die there, only to be discovered by the unassuming drunkard, who would naturally be so disgusted and reviled that he would never touch the stuff again. (Who needs AA?)
It all went south, however, when I looked up Another Beautiful Polish for Black Grates:
Take the whites of six eggs, beat them up to a froth, then add half a pound of black lead, mix well together, then add spirits of turpentine until it is to the consistency of boot blacking; apply it with a brush as you would black a boot. Polish with a hard brush, and it will become a brilliant polish.
It turns out that lead was a popular ingredient, useful for any number of grate applications as well as hair dye. Yes, you heard that right. I began to question Roberts' dedication to the principles of sustainability; further searching revealed a prevalence of other familiar dangerous chemicals: mercury, ammonia, turpentine, and vitriol (sulfuric acid).
So while industrialization has made us dumber in some ways, it's only fair to acknowledge that we have also gotten at least a little smarter. After all, we now recognize the importance of bathing, the power of germs, the role of rats in transmitting the bubonic plague, and that it really was not a good idea for the Elizabethan ladies to paint their faces with white lead. And although it took us awhile, we have even figured out to stop painting our houses with the stuff.
Fine. I will humbly accept this caution against blind nostalgia, but I ain't giving up my butter churn.