Things We Learn from Old Books

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments







     An interesting book was recently donated to my museum.  The title on the spine of the book identifies it simply as “Recipes.”   However, the title page declares that it is, “The United States Practical Receipt Book: or Complete Book of Reference, for the Manufacturer, Tradesman, Agriculturalist or Housekeeper; Containing Many Thousand Valuable Receipts in all the Useful and Domestic Arts, by a Practical Chemist.” 

     That’s quite a title!  Since it was published in 1844 and it contains many medical remedies of the time, it is of interest to the museum.  Recipes such as these provide a look into the remedies that people used at the time, the foods they ate, and the ingredients which were available to them.  A few of the recipes could probably still be used today, but many leave you shaking your head in amazement, and some are downright funny.  I thought I’d share a few of them here, but with the standard disclaimer to please not try them at home!

     I got a laugh from reading a recipe on the very first page.

To prevent the Hair falling off.

Wash the head once a day with good old Jamaica rum.

     Folk remedies like this one were used quite often.  This one makes me wonder how much “good old Jamaica rum” was wasted by gentlemen attempting to keep their hair! 

     Here’s another interesting remedy.

To cure those who are too much addicted to drinking Wine.

Put in a sufficient quantity of wine, 3 or 4 large eels, which leave there till quite dead.  Give that wine to the person you want to reform, and he or she will be so much disgusted with wine, that though they formerly made use of it, they will now have an aversion to it.

     The publishers didn’t appear to be against the consumption of alcohol in general though, as there were many recipes for making beer and wine.

Honey Wine

Take honey, 20 pounds; cider, 12 gallons.  Ferment, then add rum, ½ gallon; brandy, ½ gallon; red or white tartar (dissolved), 6 ounces; bitter almonds and cloves, each ¼ ounce.

     Mercury was used in a variety of remedies.  The book contains several pages of mercurial ointments, liniments, plasters, and pastes.

Mild Mercurial Ointment

Take quicksilver, 1 pound; suet, 2 pounds; lard, 5 pounds.  Mix, by patient rubbing.  Used to kill insects on the body.

     This one makes me shudder!  I’m sure the “patient rubbing” of the ingredients was probably done with bare hands.  Not to mention that even if it does kill insects, it is definitely NOT something which should be used on the body!

      Mercury wasn’t the only questionable ingredient.  You didn’t want to get “ague”, which was a term for the fevers and chills usually associated with malaria.  While the dose here wouldn’t have been fatal, it wouldn’t have done the patient any good either.

Ague Drops.

Take arsenic, 1 grain, water, 1 ounce.  Mix.  Dose, one tea-spoonful night and morning.

     Opium was used in many remedies as well.  Take a look at this one for “piles” or hemorrhoids.  A scruple was an apothecary weight equal to about 1/24 of an ounce or 1.3 grams.

A certain Cure for the Piles.

Take 1 scruple of powdered opium, 2 scruples flour of sulphur, and 1 ounce of simple cerate.  Keep the affected parts well anointed.  Be prudent in your diet.

     And, many of the recipes were for making or preserving the everyday items which people used.  There are recipes for gilding items, making paper, ink, and candles, keeping metal from rusting, keeping milk and eggs from spoiling, decorating bottles, dying fabrics, and much more.  Recipes for personal items such as perfume, face powder, and hair pomade recipes are included as well. 

To make Corks for bottles.

Take wax, hog’s lard, and turpentine equal quantities, or thereabouts.  Melt all together and stop your bottles with it.

     Turpentine?  Let’s just hope none of those bottles contained anything people actually had to drink!

     Everyone has their own theories about raising children, and the publishers of this book were no exception.


To prevent the rickets, tenderness, and weakness, dip them in cold water every morning, at least until they are eight or nine months old. 

     There was advice for farmers in the book as well.  The book contains various animal husbandry hints and recipes for feeding and dosing livestock, as well as for choosing the best animals.

To ascertain whether a Horse has Good Sight.

Examine the size of the pupil of the eye in dull light, then gradually expose it to a brighter one, and observe whether it contracts or not; if it does, the horse can see, and according to the amount of the contraction will be the keenness of his sight.

     Many of the recipes were for foods.  Here’s one for a condiment which I’m not sure I’d want to try!

Walnut Catsup.

Walnut-shell juice, 3 gallons; salt, 7 pounds; ginger, 8 ounces; shallots, 8 ounces; garlic, 8 ounces; horse-radish, 8 ounces; essence of anchovies, 1 quart.  Mix.

     I’ll leave you with one recipe which you probably can try at home.  I have to admit though, that it was a bit surprising to find a recipe for waffles on the same page as recipes for making waterproof cloth and varnish!


Milk, 1 quart; eggs, 5; flour, 1 ¼ pound; butter, ½ pound; yeast, 1 spoonful.  When baked, sift sugar and powdered cassia on them.

     This recipe book is a nice little glimpse into life in the 19th century.  It makes me wonder how people 150 years from now will see us after reading our books. 


Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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