Have you ever wondered how your ancestors made soap? Have you particularly wondered how they made soap without the internet? When they were stuck they couldn’t have a quick look at eHow or one of the many handy YouTube videos on soap-making. Of course, most of the time the necessary skills would be handed down from parents to children, but not every parent would be available, willing, or able to pass on the needed skills.
This is when they could turn to a book like Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes, or How They Did it in the 1870s. Receipt is an archaic word for “recipe,” so this is basically a book of recipes, but not recipes for food, although it does include pickles and alcoholic drinks from cider to liqueurs. Receipt 551 is titled “To Make Home-made Soap.” It is a short paragraph that refers back to Receipt 550 for lye: ”Fill an iron kettle two-thirds full of the concentrated lye prepared according to the last receipt.” Then the receipt for lye refers back again to the receipts for making straw and slaked lime. Concentrated lye is made out of ashes, which doesn’t sound very ominous, but lye itself is very caustic and can cause burns. A lot a caution should be used for many of these recipes.
One thing I learned from Dick’s Encyclopedia is how hard our ancestors had to work, just for everyday life, and particularly in the domestic sphere! I own an antique gramophone with a large brass trumpet. Every now and then (not nearly often enough) I buy copper polish from the supermarket and I unscrew the trumpet from the base, spread out newspapers and spend a few hours polishing it. Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes has a section on copper, starting with the properties of the metal and going on to how to separate copper from various other metals like lead and zinc (not something I will try at home!) and finally Receipt 3252 “How the Clean Coppers and Tins.” The instructions call for pulverizing your own ‘rotten’ stone, and mixing it with turpentine and soft soap (that you undoubtedly made previously yourself). Nowadays, I don’t have to consider pulverizing my own stone. And I can put 10,000 songs on an iPod and not even have to wind the gramophone!
So perhaps I won’t really make my own soap or brass cleaner since I can so easily and cheaply get them from the supermarket, but Dick’s Encyclopedia also has sections on artistic pursuits. There are sections on marbling books and photography, including how to make your own photographic paper, glass and chemicals.
Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes, or How They Did it in the 1870s is a fascinating glimpse of how things were done almost one and half centuries ago. It is fun to browse through to get an idea of how hard our ancestors worked for everyday life, or possibly even a cautious use of some of the receipts.
Check the WRL catalog for Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes