Time Tested Tips for Spring Cleaning

By Emily Miranker, Projects Manager

Ah, March. That time of year when our fancy lightly turns to thoughts of … spring cleaning!

Whether your style is to pare down to your most joyful possessions à la Marie Kondo, follow the flow charts of decluttering tips that abound online, or grab the latest Martha Stewart Living off the magazine rack: spring cleaning is upon us.

Once upon a time, when spring finally came around after the dark, cold of winter, families would literally pull  everything out of their house and scour the place from top to bottom. After a long winter of heat and light from candles, coal, and oil, the dust, soot, ash, and general grunge must have been oppressive.[1] Cleaning everything off heralded both a figurative and an actual “breath of fresh air,” since it was presumably safe and comfortable to once again open windows and the door without freezing.

Our collections are a trove of tips for daily (and healthful) living, and as I prepare to whip my own home back into shape I pulled out A Collection of Choise Receipts, a beautiful compendium of recipes and how-tos from the culinary and domestic to the medical from 17th century London. I needed to consult it to solve the dilemma of the patina of dinge on my wall art that snuck in through the cracks of the window A/C unit.

Happily, Choise Receipts has just the thing:

cleaning of pictures_watermaked

“Take the Picture out of the frame, lay it flat on the ground, sprincle [sic] it with water, then sift Wood ashes and strew it upon the Picture, then pour more water upon it, then with your hand rub it very well then wash it off.”

Scrubbing ash onto the picture may sound counterintuitive, but wait. Mixing water and wood ashes like this would yield a crude form of lye (mostly potassium carbonate). Lye combined with water and fat (animal or plant) is what makes soap; the key to cleanliness since soap breaks up the chemical bonds of dirt.[2] In fact, this recipe makes a good deal of sense for spring cleaning, since at the end of winter all that burning of wood to keep warm would have yielded plenty of wood ash to be repurposed into lye or soap.

Turning our attention from the walls to the doors, here’s a handy solution to troublesome locks and fixtures:

Cleaning brass locks_watermarked

“For the cleaning of brass locks. Rub them with v[i]n[e]gar and rotten stone.”

Mix vinegar –got that– and rottenstone –what now?! Since when do stones rot? Rottenstone (sometimes called tripoli) turns out to be a finely ground, porous rock. The stone is typically a mixture of limestone and silica.[3] Weathered and softened by the leeching away of its calcium carbonate makes the rock friable – crumbly. This crumbly tendency gives rise to its name, rotten—decomposing, breaking down—stone. It is used as a polishing abrasive for metal and woodworking. Think of it as pumice for for your locks and fixtures. Vinegar is called for in this solution probably because its acidity combats the tarnishing that occurs with time and exposure to air.

Are these old-timey recipes for cleaning really effective, really worthwhile? Here’s Choise’s author’s response to that:

Approved of_watermarked

“This receipt is approved of.”

[1] McNamee, G. “Spring Cleaning: Its History and Importance.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog,16 April 2008. Accessed 1/22/17.
[2] Living Naturally. “How to Use Wood Ashes in the Home and Garden.” The Old Farmer’s Almanac, 30 November 2017. Accessed 1/22/17.
[3] Wikipedia Contributors. “Rotten Stone.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, 30 November 2017. Accessed 1/20/2017.

Food Fight Club Final: Snail Water v. Vegetable Curry

It’s the Food Fight Club final! Snail Water won round 1 and Vegetable Curry won round 2. Now it’s time for these two tough competitors to duke it out once and for all.

Background image: Kirkland, The modern baker, confectioner, and caterer, c1907.

Background image: Kirkland, The modern baker, confectioner, and caterer, c1907.

This final bout pits a recipe from a manuscript recipe collection against one found in a printed cookbook.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

The recipe for Snail Water comes from A Collection of Choise Receipts, one of 36 manuscript receipt books in our collection. These collections of recipes, dating from the late 17th through the 19th century, tell stories about the ways food was prepared in a range of households. In many cases, they incorporate source material from contemporary cookbooks in print, showing us the kinds of recipes households valued and relied on. These manuscripts often include personal information about the families who kept them. One noteworthy case in our collections is a recipe for “How to make coffy of dry swet aple snits (slices),” found in a recipe book kept by a German-American family in Pennsylvania-Dutch country between 1835 and 1850. Manuscript cookbooks can also show us the kinds of cooking technologies used by families. Repeated references to coals and the Dutch oven indicate that Pennsylvania-Dutch cookbook’s author was cooking at the open hearth.

Vegetable Curry recipe in Blatch, 101 Practical Non-Flesh Recipes, 1917.

Vegetable Curry recipe in Blatch, 101 Practical Non-Flesh Recipes, 1917. Click to enlarge.

Publishers of printed cookbooks responded to demand from readers. These books—and the number of editions that were published—can tell us a great deal about cooking trends. Our 1917 copy of 101 Practical Non-Flesh Recipes, for example, is the book’s second edition, the first published just a year before. Cookbooks could be aspirational, practical, or a combination of both. A 19th-century cookbook published in Milwaukee in German in multiple editions tell us that there was a demand for cookbooks written in the mother tongue for newly-arrived German immigrants. The mixture of German and American recipes in these books indicate a need for familiar recipes from the Old World, as well as instruction on how to prepare foods that were more typical of the New. A number of printed cookbooks in our collection have emended recipes or manuscript recipes laid-in to their pages, offering clues to how readers modified published recipes for personal use.

Which recipe should be crowned the 2016 Food Fight Club Champion? Vote for your favorite—be it the most appealing, least appealing, or one that just tickles your fancy more—before 5 pm EST on Monday, March 28.

Take a Peck of Garden Snails

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist

This Saturday, May 24, is Escargot Day. We are going to pass on the escargot and instead recognize the occasion by sharing a few medicinal receipts featuring our favorite gastropod. Fortunately for snails, we do not recommend trying the recipes.

Today, snails are most frequently consumed in upscale restaurants, but snails have historically been part of the medicine cabinet, so to speak. People most often used snails in preparations to treat consumption, but the shelled creatures were also thought to cure earaches, deformations, asthma, bronchitis, coughs, rickets, cold sores, swellings, and warts.1

In 2013, the Center completed a project cataloging our manuscript receipt books; we came across preparations for “snail water” many times as we worked through the books. The three receipts below come from one of these manuscripts, A Collection of Choise Receipts, a late 17th-century English manuscript with exquisite penmanship, perhaps written by a professional scribe. As you can see, “sharpness in [the] blood” and appetite loss, strangely, can be added to the list of ailments snails were alleged to treat.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

You can look at additional receipts for snail water (and more) throughout the year by visiting us. Email history@nyam.org if you are interested in consulting the collections. As a little tease, I left out the receipt for snail water with goose dung and sheep dung.

Happy Escargot Day!

1. Hatfield, Gabrielle. (2004) Snail. In Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.