Saturday, February 4, 2012

Light reading

We have one credit card between the two of us, and most of its use goes towards ordering books off Amazon (the UK site). And one of the things that we are now in possession of is Dick's Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes: or, How They Did It in the 1870s. Behind the formidable title lies a formidable book: in it are directions, "in plain language", for how to make cosmetics, soap, and patent medicines. How to preserve meat, purify metals, bleach anything, dissolve bones, preserve wood, polish Alabaster. In short, how to do everything and anything, without everything and anything that we have today.

It's a fascinating read, actually, particularly the section on patent medicines: the recipes range from hopelessly useless to if-this-doesn't-kill-you-then-you'll-probably-survive-the-disease. Recipes call for orange oil, rhubarb root, fennel, molasses...and things like nitric acid, belladonna, and laudenum. "Cures" for things like whooping cough consisted of pulverizing roasted onions and making a poultice wrap and setting it on your throat (alas, this arrived after my bout with Bordatella pertussis, so I did not get a chance to try it--purely in the interest of proving that such sh*t doesn't work). Preserving milk--keeping it "sweet"--meant boiling it with baking soda.

Supposedly, it is a very "practical" guide, assuming that you can get things like hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, saltpetre, etc. And that's to say nothing of some of the more fantastic concoctions, such as "essence of morphia" (morphine), opium, and cocaine (and people have issues with legalizing marijuana!). Try getting your hands on things like brimstone, cyanide, and benzene--the last, incidentally, was a cure for head lice (and the child who was thus afflicted, apparently)--these days. The scary thing, then, is not that all of these things were used. It's that they were apparently readily available enough that a "collection of popular and domestic receipts" thought nothing of including them.

There are two things I have concluded from perusing Dick's. The first is that the days of "all natural" things are an illusion we've made for ourselves. We tell ourselves that things were better off in the days before additives and preservatives with names I can't spell and can barely pronounce, but do you REALLY think using hydrochloric acid to preserve your meat is that much better? Anti-vaccine whackos (who really should be charged with manslaughter by negligence) have got all of us worried about autism, but going back to the days when a mashed onion was all that stood between you and death-by-diphtheria isn't exactly my idea of paradise. People in the 1870s would probably kill to have what we do, today: reasonably safe and effective cleaners (for all that I mislike using Purple Stuff, it is a good deal safer than cyanide), refrigeration for meat and dairy products, and medicines that actually work. "All natural" is overrated, and is the kind of thing that only people who've never actually had to live without can wish for.

The second is that people who wish for less government regulation really have no idea what they're wishing for. The free market in 1870 was probably a lot more capitalist than it is today, but if you wanted to sue your doctor for giving your kid a deadly dose of "chlorodyne" (laudenum and chloroform), you'd be hard up to try. When you read through the lists of recommended "receipts and processes", it's a miracle that anybody lived long enough to reproduce, and had enough functional internal organs to do so.