Monday, May 9, 2011

Want: Air Conditioning

Hungry for summer, blogger-at-large LAW reports:

Here in the North Woods, no sooner do we stop throwing logs into the woodstove than we start looking for ways to get cool. That’s how abruptly winter turns into summer in these parts. Of course, air conditioning was not even a dream in Youman’s day; it had to wait for the innovative genius of Willis Carrier, who was born just four years after the publication of the Dictionary of Every-Day Wants. We can imagine the young inventor spending hours poring over his family’s well-worn copy, and perhaps his invention owed something to memories of Youman’s practical approach to problem solving.

Sweltering in un-air-conditioned homes, Youman’s readers had only to turn to his entry on “HOUSES, To Keep Cool in Hot Weather,” with its reassuring statement that “in very hot days a cool apartment is a real luxury to be had far oftener than most people suppose possible.” The secret was one of utmost simplicity: don’t just bring in the cool air, but keep out the hot. “If the air outside a room or house be cooler than the air inside, let it in by all means; but if it be hotter, carefully keep it out….The mistake people generally make is to throw open their windows at all hours of the day, no matter whether the atmosphere outside be cool or scorching.”

“Let in cool air—keep out hot—that is the only formula to insure the minimum of discomfort.”

If their home still felt too warm, folks might turn to a cold drink for refreshment. But wait—don’t go gulping that ice water! First read Youman’s entry “DRINKING IN SUMMER,” which strongly recommends sipping, not gulping. “The sudden deaths while drinking frequently recorded in summer, are due to paralysis of the stomach, produced by drenching it suddenly with iced water.” Interestingly, in contrast to today’s belief that drinking more fluids is generally better for one’s health, Youman notes that “by sipping…less water is needed; for in all seasons the quantity taken is an important matter, nearly as important as the temperature.”

How did people manage to serve iced drinks in the summer, in the pre-refrigeration era? Here Youman moves into full self-help mode, with a series of entries on “ICE CHEST, To Make”; “ICE, To Gather”; and “ICE-HOUSE, To Build.”

On the ice house, Youman notes reassuringly that “a family ice-house need not be an expensive structure.” A building 12 feet square and 8 or 9 feet high “is sufficient for the wants of the most exacting family.” It could be built by two workmen in just one or two days—no special carpentry skills needed. In addition to giving detailed instructions for its construction (frame), insulation (sawdust), drainage (floor drain), and ventilation (in the roof, “the top [of the ventilator] defended from the rain or snow”), Youman tells exactly how to pack the ice—which, of course, you will have gathered back in December, on a clear cold day, and using proper ice tools (cross-cut saw, axe, pike pole, and an ice ladder), as “the first ice keeps best, and is easier procured.” To fill your ice house, you’d need 12 cakes, each 2 by 3 feet, to make each layer. This number, “laid up eight or nine feet high, is sufficient to last a large family.” (For the mathematically challenged, I’ll note that this is equivalent to about 11,664 modern-day ice-cube trays, or about 41,472 pounds of ice.)

How hard would it be to fill the ice house, and how long would it take? Youman quotes “another writer,” who said that “four men with one team, cut, hauled and packed the ice, and filled in the sawdust in less than two days, notwithstanding we had to haul the ice one-half mile.” And that’s another advantage of northern New England: ponds and lakes are everywhere, so it’s unlikely you would have had to haul your ice any farther than that one-half mile!

Done properly, your ice house would keep ice frozen all year round. It could even be an attraction to your property: “Plant morning glories or any climbing plant around the building and induce them to creep up the walls and over the roof as an additional defense against the fervid sun of summer,” Youman advises. Ever pragmatic, he goes on to note its additional advantages, as “a useful adjunct to the farm, its contents being invaluable in sickness…[and] convenient as a refrigerator on a large scale, preserving food of various kinds and the products of a dairy.” In the words of one satisfied ice-house DIYer: “We have used [our ice] freely through the season, sold to pic-nic parties, given away to sick neighbors, and have plenty of ice yet.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

Want: Colored Eggs

Our good Dr. Youman doesn’t get all worked up about religion in the Dictionary of Every-day Wants. The word God shows up in the text ten times, but most of these references are located either in a list of first names and their meanings or in the publisher’s back matter advertisements. Not a single Christian holiday is mentioned by name, even in terms of a holiday-specific recipe.

In the Household Miscellany section, Youman does prove himself not entirely without religious sentiment: he provides helpful strategies for fixing squeaky boots, to avoid embarrassment when entering a church after services have begun. Today’s entry on coloring eggs may be another example of religion creeping into the Dictionary.

The tradition of dying eggs for Easter came to America with immigrants from Germany in the eighteenth century. It’s hard to imagine what an egg boiled for an hour might have tasted like, but with the exception of some labor-saving Paas products, the general principles haven’t changed much. Even the trick of using wax to protect certain parts of the egg from color is still common. (In my day, the wax came in crayon form, which sounds a lot tidier than the melted beeswax version.)

Of course, there are folks out there still doing things the old-fashioned way: foodie style, step-by-step style, and scientific style.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Want: A Day at the Beach

Here’s another find from the watery depths by contributing blogger LAW.
After a seemingly endless winter, the prospect of a day at the beach has an irresistible allure that needs no supporting arguments. But A. E. Youman, M.D., is at hand to tell us that going to the seashore is more than fun—it can give us “a seemingly perfect renovation of wasted energies and renewal of the powers of life—effects not to be obtained by means of any purely medical treatment.” It’s just the ticket for “the used up man of business,” “the man suffering from general debility,” and “persons suffering from general languor and lassitude.”
Still, “sea bathing,” as Youman calls it, is something to be done with due care and attention. Under the heading “BATHERS, Aphorisms for,” he gives a set of rules, most of which were still current in the mid-twentieth century, and maybe even today, such as:
  •  Avoid bathing within two hours after a meal
  •  Avoid chilling the body “sitting or standing naked on the bank or in boats after having been in the water,” and
  •  Avoid remaining too long in the water
Youman’s main concern is with the effect of cold water—something else that makes me wonder if he was a New England lad. He worries about “the shock experienced on entering water at its natural temperature,” which he compares to a sort of death. Fortunately, this is counterbalanced by the “genial glow” and “feeling of general vigor” experienced by the bather. He recommends late July as the most suitable time for cold sea bathing, and afternoon as the best time of day.
 If Youman’s original readers wanted to explore the benefits of sea bathing and find the best beaches, they could turn to one of his medical colleagues: George E. Walton, M.D., who published a guide to The Mineral Springs of the United States and Canada that included “a list of sea-side resorts.” The book went through several editions, starting in 1872, the same year Youman’s Dictionary appeared. Unlike Youman, Walton may have been a midwestern boy, given the wistful opening to his chapter on sea-side resorts: “One who has passed his early life in an inland city or village can well remember how frequently he has desired to see the heaving waters of the ocean, to hear its tempestuous roar…To every one there is majesty and beauty in the sea.”
For Dr. Walton, the benefits of sea bathing come as much from the tang of the salt air and the excitement of the crowd as from the cold salt water directly. “The fascination of the sea, the attraction of many bathers in the water at the same time, the excitement attendant on the rolling in of the waves, and the exercise required in meeting them” all contribute to the good effect. “Here the person makes no conscious effort to exercise, but the entire surroundings lead him to do so…That the mineral constituents of the water have any part in the result is exceedingly doubtful.”
With a touch of Youman’s practical approach, Dr. Walton goes on to warn that “sea-bathing is not without danger to those who are reckless, or do not observe the rules…Those who, in a strong sea, quit the lines of rope are never without danger.” He helpfully provides a “ready method for resuscitating persons asphyxiated from drowning, [which] may prove useful to those at the sea-side.” It proceeds in eight steps, from “1. Treat the patient instantly on the spot in the open air…” to “8. Substitute for the patient’s wet clothing, if possible, such other covering as can instantly be procured, each bystander supplying a coat or cloak.” (Though it’s not clear to me why even Victorian bathers would be carrying coats and cloaks with them to the beach!)
His list of popular resorts includes, from north to south, Cushing’s Island, off Portland, Maine; Rye and Hampton beaches in New Hampshire; Swampscott and Nahant, near Boston; Newport, Rhode Island (“the most elegant watering-place in the United States”); Coney Island, and Rockaway, in New York; Long Branch, Cape May and Atlantic City, New Jersey; and finally, Old Point Comfort, Virginia (“the farthest south of the Northern group of sea-bathing places”).
A quarter-century later, we gain a glimpse of the bustling social scene at the beach—complete with bathers clinging to “lines of rope”—in a photo of Brighton Beach, New York, in 1901.
Note, if you will, the omission of the greatest peril of the sea, as far as Im concerned: sharks. According to Michael Cappuzo’s Close to Shore, reports of shark attacks on humans weren’t truly substantiated until the 1916 attacks near Matawan, New Jersey—which were witnessed by hundreds and would eventually inspire the book Jaws.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Want: High Times

In this blog, we spend a lot of time writing about how little things have changed since 1872. But every once in a while a real stunner pops up in the Dictionary of Every-day Wants, a reminder that the world hasn’t been in stasis for the past hundred and thirty years after all. See, for example, the following recipe from the book’s Druggist and Chemist section.

Cannabis indica?!? Who would have guessed that seemingly mild-mannered Dr. Youman was a fan of the ganja? 

Of course, drug use wasn’t a crime in the United States until 1914, and recreational marijuana was legal until the federal government passed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. Before the turn of the twentieth century, weed was the least of people’s worries, anyway: According to Time magazine’s 2002 article “The Politics of Pot,” 2 to 5 percent of Americans were unknowingly addicted to morphine, the super-secret ingredient in a number of widely available patent medicines. A Saturday night at Charlie Sheen’s house has nothing on the ingredients common in these “medicines”: alcohol, cocaine, opium, turpentine—the gang was all there.

After the Pure Food and Drug act of 1906 (a hearty thank you to Upton Sinclair), most patent medicines went the way of the dodo. There are a few hangers on, though, one of which I personally consume almost every day. In 2011, possession of cocaine may get you years in prison and fines of tens of thousands of dollars. But in 1886, possession of cocaine meant you had one of the key ingredients in its newly invented namesake, Coca-cola. Just for the taste of it, indeed.

Per Amsterdam Marijuana Seedbank, short growing seasons mean that indica, Youman’s bud of choice, is commonly grown today in the UK. It’s good for relaxation and stress relief (or so they say), and can even be used to treat insomnia. (American-grown pot is more often cannabis sativa, an “uplifting” high that’s “a good choice for daytime smoking,” say the helpful folks at the Seedbank.)

A dose of Youman’s buchu extract didn’t contain a lot of pot: This recipe seems to make seven quarts of liquid, to which two drachms—or about a fourth of an ounce—of cannabis indica would be added. Beyond that, modern Mary Jane is much more potent than what might have been harvested from cannabis plants in the nineteenth century. Michael Pollan devoted an entire chapter to pot in his book The Botany of Desire, in which he noted that plants grown before the 1980s were composed of 2 to 3 percent THC, marijuana’s principal psychoactive compound. Thanks to clever breeding, Pollan reports, in today’s marijuana plants “20 percent THC is not unheard of.”

This recipe proves that globalization isn’t an entirely modern phenomenon, as many of its ingredients aren’t native to America. Cannabis originated in Asia, balsam of copaiba was made in South America, and Harlem oil was formulated in Europe, according to this 1936 newspaper ad.

You can still find buchu extract on the Internet, although it’s presumably a bit tamer than this blend. Youman didn’t feel the need to tell readers just what his concoction should be used for. Nowadays buchu is considered a diuretic, but in the nineteenth century it was probably a hangover cure.

Hair of the dog I’ve heard of—but curing a hangover with marijuana? An interesting strategy, that.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Want: Revivification

When I was in my early twenties, I did a lot of fainting. This is surprising for two reasons: (1) from a central casting perspective, I look more your standard shrewish fishwife than a swooning rose, and (2) who knew people still fainted in this day and age?

It only happened when I was in a lot of pain—the afternoon I had my wisdom teeth removed, for example—and my doctor gave me a clean bill of health. It was caused by low blood pressure, she said, stemming from my reaction to the pain.

The fainting itself wasn’t so bad; all of a sudden, I simply wasn’t present. It was the lead-up and the recovery that sucked. All the clichés came into play: I felt like throwing up, I got all clammy, and the room spun wildly around me. Losing consciousness actually came as a relief, blotting out the discomfort with blissful, cool blackness. (Ever since, I’ve suspected that dying would feel the same way.) Waking up wasn’t so great. It involved crashing back into life just as I’d left it—sweaty and hurting and unhappy.

Dr. Alexander Youman, ever thoughtful, seems to have sympathy for the fainters among us. “Dashing water over a person in a simple fainting fit is a barbarity,” he wrote in the Dictionary’s chapter on accidents and emergencies. “Yelling out like a savage” is also off the to-do list (although it sounds like fun).

Having lived through the nineteenth century, Dr. Alexander Youman probably knew a thing or two about fainting. WebMD’s entry on the subject mentions the same primary cause, lack of blood flow to the brain, and also says that lying down will usually solve the problem. From my experience, they’re both right on what to do—once I laid down (or fell, as the case may be), I always woke up within a few seconds.

The strange thing about this entry is its specific mention of a fainting man. During Youman’s day, this seems to be the least likely suspect for a good fainting fit: After all, this was the era of the tight-laced corset, which we moderns tend to believe left women swooning nonstop.

Corsets were a fact of life for hundreds of years, but thanks to marvels of engineering and science, the nineteenth-century models were particularly unforgiving. Typically measuring between 18 and 30 inches at the waist, they were worn by everyone from bonbon-eating bons vivants, to women of the working class, to slaves in the American south (and, in modified silhouettes, some men). As seems inevitable in Western society, the point was to wear the smallest size possible, and according to Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History, these constricting foundation garments probably really did cause fainting and other physical ailments, if not quite on the grand scale many people imagine. 

It’s likely that the women around Youman wore corsets, so he must have seen a collapse or two. (According to Steele, 40 percent of Parisian women were estimated to wear corsets in the 1870s. Exact figures aren’t available for the U.S., but corsets were common enough to figure prominently in the discussion of social activists and doctors of the day.) Yet Youman chose to build this entry around a man fainting. Could it be because fainting women were so common, there was nothing more to be said on the topic?

It’s easy to scoff at corsets as antiquated and anti-woman, but our grandchildren may feel the same way about our plastic-surgery-mad culture. Whether you’re 7 or 70, the modern world seems convinced that there’s nothing a scalpel can’t fix.

Corsets themselves are by no means things of the past: they’re easily available online, both because they’ve taken on a naughty appeal, and because some people take their Victoriana obsessions a few steps too far.  And then there’s the whole subculture of genuine waist training, most famously represented by Dita von Teese, modern-day burlesque star and ex-wife of 90s rock star Marilyn Manson. 

Heck. If all corsets were this beautiful, even I’d be tempted.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Want: A Financial Plan

I’ve long believed that you get out of things what you put into them, and Youman’s work is no exception. I bring to the Dictionary a taste for books, for the ghoulish, for real estate, and for the concerns of women. But the Dictionary’s scope is so broad that no matter who you are, no matter what you care about, you will find something in its 557 pages that seems to speak to you alone.

The terrifyingly cruddy economy of late has inspired a new interest for many people: frugality. It’s too soon to say if the Great Recession will have a lasting impact on the way we live in America, but for a while there it changed the way many people looked at the world. Instead of seeming quaint and dated, depression-era strategies for saving money were a hot topic of discussion on the Internet. We visited Wise Bread and Get Rich Slowly for tips on the best interest rates, hoped that Suze Orman would tell us we really could afford something we wanted to buy, and used online calculators to figure out just how much disposable income we actually had.

As I was getting to know Youman and his Dictionary of Every-day Wants, it seemed certain that he would have plenty to say on the topic of living less-than-large. But guess what? Based on a Google search of the Dictionary’s contents, the word frugal—a term in common use since the sixteenth century, according the OED—doesn’t appear once. Neither do thrifty, abstemious, spartan, parsimonious, stingy, or even miserly. And unlike government representatives in 2011, Youman has no use for any form of the word austere.

Maybe this is because America’s future looked pretty rosy in 1872—in the wake of the Civil War, industry was growing, transportation was becoming easier, and Horatio Alger was penning the rags-to-riches fairy tales that would color our national identity for the next hundred years.

But a bit more exploration reveals that Youman did have a lot to say about frugality, but instead of couching it in general terms and abstract discussions, he focused on its real-world application.

(click to enlarge)

Youman’s advice is clearly just as valuable today as it was in 1872, whether you’re furnishing a house, buying a car, or visiting Costco: Buy what you need, not what you want. Instead of spending your every penny, set aside money for the future. Don’t spend more than you make, and don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, because “the truly judicious and respectable” know a person is more than the value of his or her possessions. And having spent last winter without an at-home Internet connection, I can personally attest that truer words than these have never been written: “As riches increase, it is easy and pleasant to increase comforts; but it is always painful and inconvenient to decrease.”

Youman’s tone is usually dispassionate and matter-of-fact, but when his blood is up, as toward the end of the entry, he’s not above swerving into the moralistic. Of living beyond your means, he writes: “The glare there is about this false and wicked parade is deceptive; it does not, in fact, procure a man valuable friends, or extensive influence.”

The Dictionary clearly recommends living with moderation—which is a good thing. Just as people haven’t changed much since Youman’s day, our economy’s tendency toward roller-coaster-of-terror-hood is nothing new. In 1873, one year after the Dictionary’s publication, the economy swooped downward: Banks were failing. Businesses were closing. People were losing jobs, or their pay was being cut. Sounds  eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Want: Oysters?

While Dr. Youman was certainly a smart cookie with lots of valuable things to say, the Dictionary of Every-day Wants is not without its WTF moments. Take, for example, today’s entry: “Oysters—are they healthy?”

Here’s what I know about oysters: they’re disgusting, icky splats of bottom-feeding mucus, and people tend to eat them not only raw, but alive. Youman, with his scientific bent, knows a lot more: Their juice is teeming with an assortment of microscopic animals, worms, and baby oysters—shell and all.

At first blush this seems laughably improbable, like Sarah Palin being a good president. And yet Mark Kurlansky’s 2007 The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell corroborates Youman’s seemingly fanciful tale. Oysters release eggs, Kurlansky reports, which in some species are then fertilized and grow, shell and all, inside the mother’s shell for several days before striking out on their own.

Youman is a tiny bit off the mark on one point, though; this only happens in European oysters, a fact that goes unmentioned in this book intended for an American audience. Breeds native to American waters release their eggs, which are then fertilized and grow externally. (Who knew?)

Whether oysters can actually glow in dark, I’m not so sure. This guy is, though.

This entry doesn’t really answer the question it poses: Are oysters healthy? But between the worms and the animalculae, I would say it leans toward no. And yet, what’s the very next entry?