Over the past few years I’ve pointed out historical hints for illness, cleaning house, and other realities of daily life. These tips are often funny and strange, and while I enjoy reading them, it’s tough to actually follow their advice. For example, an early 19th-century writer suggested a delicious mixture of onions, butter, pepper and salt, appetizingly named “water-gruel,” to get rid of a stubborn cold. (I went for hot tea and Tylenol Cold.) Another writer recommended getting rid of moths by soaking the infested clothes and furniture with naphtha, a neurotoxin and potential carcinogen. (I chose the 7th Generation products and washed all my clothes by hand.) In the fall, the children of a friend were diagnosed with head lice, and I immediately recommended washing their hair in New England brandy, following advice from 1833. (She most likely did not take this advice.)
Instead of leaving readers with these fun facts, though, the writer takes it a step further. Why did mothers let their children cry? She speaks with a professor of human ecology who helps her understand that because of different cultural realities in the 19th century, mothers had different expectations. Often women had so much work on their hands, from cooking over an open fire to washing clothes by hand to watching over many other children, that it was impossible to focus all attention on one child. Better that baby learn early to look after itself than for mom to let the rest of the family go hungry or unclothed.
This gets at the heart of what I love about domestic history: you have to think about the context of cookbooks, parenting books, and other sources in order to fully understand them. Sometimes advice that seems weird was actually the most practical and scientifically advanced thought at the time. That even goes for the tips I mentioned at the beginning of this post: no one knew that naphtha was a neurotoxin and carcinogen; they just knew that it got rid of moths. So why not use it? As the writer L.P. Hartley so famously wrote, “The past is a different country: they do things differently there.” Indeed, they cook their food differently, they wear their clothes differently, they raise their children differently. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.*
*Well, except for eugenics. That was hard for many actually living in the 1920s to stomach.
Works cited: Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance by Cecilia Beaux.