Kitchen "Kinks" and Evil Urges: A Domestic History, Part II
From the Victorian age through the 1930s, medicine and moralizing went hand in hand, as doctors often doubled as preachers.
By Mary Beth Crain
Some months ago, in my Domestic History, Part I, I talked about the PBS series, “The 1900 House,” and the modern British family who had a nervous breakdown trying to live as people did at the turn of the 20th century, a prim and upright time when cleanliness and godliness went hand in hand and the Good Wife of biblical legend was the model to which every housewife aspired, and, more appropriately, perspired. Joyce Bowler, the mother of the time-traveling family, managed to keep it together by constantly consulting a “home companion” book from the period, which gave advice on everything the lady of the 1900 house had to know in order to survive, both figuratively and literally.
Well, I have one of those indispensable volumes myself. It’s titled “Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cook Book,” and it dates from 1908. The binding is falling apart, the black leather and gold embossed cover is worn with age, but the contents are still as lively and, yes, even useful, as they were 100 years ago.
For instance, did you know that “Instead of shelling peas, throw them, pods and all, into a kettle of boiling water. When they are done the pods will rise to the surface, while the peas will stay at the bottom of the kettle”? Or that “before trying to break a cocoanut, put it in the oven to warm. A slight blow will crack it, and the shell will come off easily”?
Wow. This Mrs. Curtis sure had a handle on things. These are some of the little tips she offers in a quaint section of the book entitled “Some Kitchen Kinks”—“kinks” apparently being 1908 speak for “hints.” Just imagine that in almost 2008, they’re still revelatory. For instance, I can’t believe I’ve spent the last 50 years tearing up my bread trying to spread cold butter on it, when Mrs. Curtis knew the answer 100 years ago: “When spreading butter on sandwiches or toast, do not try to soften the butter, but heat a silver knife by placing it in boiling water. The difficulty is overcome at once.”
Want perfect poached eggs? “Add a little vinegar and salt to the water. This sets the eggs and keeps them in good shape.”
Here’s a great “kink”: “A pinch of soda, put in green vegetables while they are boiling, acts like magic. It makes them deliciously tender and keeps their fine color. A more generous pinch performs a miracle for cabbage, causing it to cook in about half the usual time and keeping it as fresh and green as when it came from the garden.” Who knew?
It was a surprise to me that lemon peel is natural silver polish, or that you can keep cheese from getting moldy by cutting it in long strips and storing it in a glass jar, or that a chicken cooks much better in a tin bucket with a tight-fitting cover than it does in a kettle. And have you ever wondered how to tell poisonous and edible mushrooms apart? “Sprinkle salt on the spongy part, or gills. If they turn yellow, they are poisonous; if black, they are wholesome.”
Now, “Household Discoveries” is not exactly light reading. In fact, it’s a whopping 801 pages of teensy tiny print. But those 801 pages undoubtedly saved the derrieres of millions of exhausted, overwhelmed women whose entire lives revolved around running the household 24-7.
A full 80 pages alone is devoted to the wash. It includes everything from stain removal—in the days before Shout!, you needed a different preparation for every kind of material—and cleaning feathers, furs and straw to making soap, procuring the wash water (rainwater, says Mrs. Curtis, is the best by far), finding the perfect washtubs, and how to make and use different soaps and fluids for different materials. Mrs. Curtis disdained commercial laundry “powders” as they had “an excess of alkali,” and was a firm believer in making your own.
There are chapters like “The Day’s Routine,” which begins with “Kindling and Care of Fires” and ends with “Preparations for the Night,” which includes how to heat the bed (Mrs. Curtis prefers hot bricks to warming pans), cures for insomnia (“perhaps there is no better rule when there is a tendency to nervousness than to let the mind fashion castles in the air…”) and prevention of sleeplessness (“walk for half an hour in the open air…or drink a tumblerful of water containing a teaspoonful of magnesia and a few drops of aqua ammonia or sal volatile.”). There was “Sewing and Mending Day,” and “Cleaning Day” was nothing less than daunting—it’s safe to say that the housewife of 1908 spent her entire life trying to keep one step ahead of dirt and never succeeding.
My favorite, however, is when Mrs. Curtis delivers a stern lecture on “The Teeth”—“Good teeth are necessary to health, speech and beauty”—and has many admonitions against and cures for the evils of bad breath, toothache and gum disease. She particularly lauds “modern dentistry.” After which, inexplicably, comes the chapter on…”Candies and Candy Making”! This sort of reminds me of that old ad, “Four out of five dentists recommend Crest,” or whatever. I always wondered about the Fifth Dentist, who, I suspected, sat in a huge office filled with big jars of Jelly Bellies and M & M’s, smoking expensive cigars and counting the wads of bills he got on the take with the candy industry.
Speaking of health—another important part of domestic life in the 19th and early 20th centuries concerned home medicine. It was essential for the housewife to be well versed in the art of amateur doctoring, as many emergencies cropped up in a pre-techno society that couldn’t wait for a doctor to A) be chased down and B) arrive hours later in a horse-drawn buggy. In an age of either no phone or primitive phone service, no freeways and no ERs, time was of the essence. So, home medical companions proliferated, with lots of information that today would be considered at best quackery, and at worst dangerous to both body and mind.
A highly interesting aspect of these books is their sermonizing tone. From the Victorian age well into the 1930s, medicine and moralizing were far from separate and distinct. There were so many religious and moral taboos associated with the human body that doctors often doubled as preachers. When you consider that the drawings of the human anatomy that accompany the text of these early home health companions always have a fig leaf tastefully covering the male crotch, you know you’re in God’s territory. And it follows that discussion of anything sexual is equally prudish, not to mention glaringly erroneous.
One of the most popular books of this type was Dr. R.V. Pierce’s “The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser.” Ralph Vaughan Pierce was one of the most phenomenally successful quacks in the history of medicine. His “Invalid’s Hotel” in Niagara Falls was an expensive sanatorium that boasted the latest in electrical marvels guaranteed to cure any ailment. He was particularly famous for his patent remedies. “Dr. Pierce’s Irontic Tablets make redder blood!” “Dr. Pierce’s Chill Tonic Pills are a remedy for Malaria that was given to Dr. Pierce to benefit humanity!” “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription is an herbal tonic for weak women, especially recommended in cases of Barrenness, Morning Sickness, Hysteria and Nervousness.” There were at least 20 more of these miracle potions that probably contained the same ingredients—sugar, a few herbs and lots of alcohol—and made users, if not healthy, at least happy and Dr. Pierce an exceedingly wealthy man.
When it came to medical advice, Dr. Pierce was equally suspect. I have a 99th edition of “The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser” from 1918, and it gives me the creeps to think that people took him seriously, especially in matters of sex. Take his section on “Self Abuse” :
“Moral purity is an essential requisite to the growth and perfection of the character. Untold miseries arise from the pollution of the body. Self-pollution, or onanism, is one of the most prolific sources of evil, since it leads both to the degradation of body and mind. This vicious habit is the source of numerous diseases which derange the functional activity of the organs involved and eventually impair the constitution. Statistics show that insanity is frequently caused by masturbation…Not infrequently does the marriage rite ‘cover a multitude of sins.’ The abuse of the conjugal relation produces the most serious results to both parties, and is a prolific source of some of the gravest forms of disease.”
It was perfectly permissible in that day and age to imbue medical “facts” with religious overtones. The use of words like “evil” and “sin” were common. It was considered the doctor’s duty to not only cure disease but also uphold the virtue of “moral purity.”
What was Dr. Pierce’s cure for the masturbator? Why, “Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets,” of course. Dr. Pierce’s theory was that a full bowel was a sexual irritant, and that keeping regular with his Pleasant Pellets was a sure guard against the Evil Urge. “If necessary, Dr. Pierce’s Anuric Tablets should be used also,” he suggested. “This is for the purpose making the urine bland and soothing.”
But far and away the most pernicious M.D. of the time was Dr. J.H. Kellogg, whose 1892 tome, “Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life,” undoubtedly did far more harm to humanity than the vice it railed against.
John Harvey Kellogg was both a witch hunter and a certified sadist. A self-styled expert at smoking out a masturbator, he lists some telltale signs:
“Bashfulness. It would be far from right to say that every person who is excessively modest or timid is a masturbator, but there is a certain timorousness which seems to arise from a sense of shame or fear of discovery that many victims of this vice exhibit…One very common mode of manifestation of this timidity is the inability to look a superior, or any person who is esteemed pure, in the eye. If spoken to, the masturbator looks to one side or lets his eyes fall upon the ground…
“Unnatural boldness. A certain class of victims seems to have not the slightest appreciation of propriety. When spoken to, the masturbator stares rudely at the person addressing him, often with a very unpleasant leer upon his countenance…”
“Easily frightened children are abundant among young masturbators…The victim’s mind is constantly filled with vague forebodings of evil. He often looks behind him and into all the closets and peeps under the bed…Such movements are the result of a diseased imagination and they may justly give rise to suspicion.
“Mock piety.” The victim is observed to become transformed, by degrees, from a romping, laughing child, full of hilarity and frolic, to a sober and very sedate little Christian, the friends think, and they are highly gratified with the piety of the child. Little do they suspect the real cause of the solemn face; not the slightest suspicion have they of the foul orgies practiced by the little sinner. He may soon add hypocrisy to his other crimes, and find in assumed devotion a ready pretense for seeking solitude. Parents will do well to investigate the origin of this kind of religion in their children.”
Unlike Dr. Pierce, whose cure for masturbation was a mere laxative, Dr. Kellogg advocated more extreme measures. These ranged from fire-and-brimstone warnings to actual torture.
“Cure of the Habit. In children…it can be broken up by admonishing them of its sinfulness and portraying in vivid colors its terrible results, if the child is old enough to comprehend such admonitions. In younger children, with whom moral considerations will have no particular weight, other devices may be used. Bandaging the parts has been practiced with success. Tying the hands is also successful in some cases…Covering the organs with a cage has been practiced with entire success…” A CAGE? Yes, there are actual drawings of this horrible device in the book, along with a male version of a chastity belt—a metal belt with a tube that fit over the penis.
“A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision…The operation should be performed by a surgeon without an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment…
“Another successful remedy is sewing the prepuce shut. It consists in the application of one or more silver sutures in such a way as to prevent erection.” And also, one would think, urination!
But let's not forget the girls. Dr. Kellogg had a benevolent solution for them as well.
“In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement and preventing the recurrence of the practice…”
One wonders how anyone survived the Victorian age, physically or mentally. But monstrous Dr. Kellogg did give humanity one happy break. Guess whom we have to thank for Frosted Flakes, Corn Pops and other breakfast delights? Yup—in 1906, J.H. and his brother, W.K. Kellogg, founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, later known as Kellogg’s Cereals. And that’s your trivia for today.
Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last essay for SoMA was Preacher Beecher and the Molding of the American Christian Mind.
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