Category Archives: Textual Communities

Pimples, Corns, and Correspondence: Remedying Victorian Beauty Dilemmas

By Jessica P. Clark

As we’ve seen in previous posts, eighteenth-century English newspapers were important sites for exchanging recipes and knowledge. This tradition flourished in the nineteenth century via a textual forum aimed specifically at female readers: correspondence columns in leading women’s magazines. However, rather than share recipes for curing the common cold, nineteenth-century correspondents often used this textual space to tackle highly personal beauty “problems” plaguing both men and women: chilblains, bald spots, warts. From time-honored home recipes to reviews of a new generation of manufactured beauty products, this imagined community traded information on how to enhance readers’ appearances and, most likely, improve their lives.[i]

In the mid-nineteenth century, new print technologies and reduced taxation prompted a boom in print publishing. Publishers turned their attention to expanding markets of female readers; new ladies’ magazines like the Ladies’ Treasury (1858), Le Follet (1846), and The Queen (1861) kept readers up to date on the latest Parisian fashions, shopping advice, and culinary recipes.[ii] Correspondence columns became a regular feature in many of the publications. Most notably, readers of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (produced by Isabella and Samuel Beeton of Mrs. Beeton fame) submitted personal queries to the “Englishwoman’s Conversazione,” which tackled rules of etiquette, fashion trends, but also questions about health and the body.

Title Page of "The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine," September 1861. Source credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Title Page of “The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine,” September 1861. Source credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A survey of the “Englishwoman’s Conversazione” through the 1860s reveals frank admissions of highly personal aesthetic concerns. In one column from 1868, for example, readers inquired “how to cure little pimples on the forehead and chin” or for advice on stimulating hair growth after developing “two large places on the head [that were] perfectly bare” from wearing false hair. Such unsightly problems seem trivial when compared to the “50 small warts” on the back of one reader’s hand or the “natural fleshy enlargement” on the chest of another, a point of “great annoyance” for her. While brief, the letters betray correspondents’ intense desire to solve aesthetic dilemmas, with contributors promising gratitude or perhaps “a very good recipe for the cure of corns” in exchange for assistance.

 

Respondents were quick to heed the call of their fellow readers, and remedies appeared in subsequent editions of the “Conversazione.” These responses reveal fascinating processes in nineteenth-century home production, as women manipulated dyes, powders, and ointments. Readers suggested compounds often replete with chemicals, like one mixture for homemade colorant that depended on sulfur. Another reader suggested as a cure for chilblains “[h]ydrochloric acid, diluted, ¼ ounce; hydrocyanic acid, diluted, 30 drops; camphor-water, 6 ounces,” before warning “it is a deadly poison, and should be kept under lock and key” – except, of course, when applying it to the body!

The effects of these home remedies sometimes proved unexpected and detrimental, and correspondents shared “horror stories” in their quest for beauty. One reader described how her “hair came off” after a botched recipe, but now “few ha[d] thicker hair than” she. She even offered to send a sample of her revamped hair-growth treatment to correspondent “Hibernia” to try herself. In this way, the “Conversazione” functioned as a means of determining the efficacy and safety of home concoctions, a virtual testing ground for the latest hair dye and cosmetic wash.[iii]

"Mrs. S.A. Allen's World's Hair Dressing or Zylobalsamum," 29 May 1860. Source credit: brary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
“Mrs. S.A. Allen’s World’s Hair Dressing or Zylobalsamum,” 29 May 1860. Source credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

But this exchange did not only apply to homemade beauty concoctions. From the mid-nineteenth century, Britons increasingly depended on manufactured goods, including beauty and grooming products. By the 1860s, the “Conversazione” assisted readers in navigating this new commercial scene, allowing readers to debate the efficacy and, more importantly, the safety of widely available products. For example, the column featured a series of letters from March 1868 on “Mrs. Allen’s World’s Hair Restorer,” an American commercial hair wash distributed by local wholesalers. Hearing that the product caused itchy, red scalps in two acquaintances, a female correspondent turned to readers of the “…invaluable Conversazione, which so often helps us out of difficulties.” Her letter set off a chain of responses over the coming months. Respondents warned that “Mrs. Allen’s Dressing” contained hazardous amounts of mercury, eventually prompting a defensive response from London agent John M. Richards, who asserted the “natural” makeup of the product. Reader responses followed both refuting and supporting the charge of mercury, accompanied by correspondents’ proven personal recipes for hair-restorers. In this Victorian precursor to “customer reviews,” readers placed their trust in the textual community in an effort to recreate the traditional exchange of advice among female intimates. Their efforts bore fruit; they elicited responses that exposed the dangerous chemical makeup of manufactured beauty products, all while soliciting tried-and-tested alternatives from readers’ own recipe collections.

 

 


This post cites letters published in the “Englishwoman’s Conversazione” between November 1862 and October 1870.  The EDM is available via Gale’s 19th Century UK Periodicals.

[i] On “imagined communities,” see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities; Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991) and Margaret Beetham, “Periodicals and the New Media: women and imagined communities,” Women’s Studies International Forum 29.3 (2006): 231-240.

 [ii] For more on women’s magazines, see, for example, Margaret Beetham, A Magazine of her Own?: Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (London: Routledge, 1996); Margaret Beetham and Kay Boardman, eds., Victorian Women’s Magazines: an Anthology (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001; and Hilary Fraser, Stephanie Green, and Judith Johnston, Gender and the Victorian Periodical (London: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

 [iii] Samuel Beeton eventually complied toilette recipes in his Beeton’s Domestic Recipe Book (London: Ward, Lock, and Co., 1871) 65-78.

Following a Recipe through Different Manuscripts

By Catherine Rider

Recently I’ve been looking through medieval recipe collections for remedies and tests relating to infertility, the subject of my new research project.  At first I was looking for any remedies, from the fairly mundane (mares’ milk) to the ones that look more exotic, at least to modern eyes (numerous animal testicles and a few charms) but recently I’ve taken a more targeted approach, comparing the different manuscripts of a single recipe collection to see if the infertility recipes change as the collections were copied.  I’m hoping that these changes will tell me something about the priorities of the various different copyists and owners of the manuscripts, and so shed light on how infertility remedies may have been used in practice – or at least, how the scribes who were paid to copy collections of recipes thought they might be used.  Monica Green has taken a similar approach to manuscripts of gynaecological texts in her book Making Women’s Medicine Masculine.[1]

I started this when I noticed that a few collections included recipes which assumed the man would take a role in seeking or administering a cure for infertility.  For example one recipe to aid conception in the Liber de Diversis Medicinis (Book of Diverse Medicines), an English recipe collection published by Margaret Ogden from a fifteenth-century manuscript, opens with the heading ‘If a man will that a woman conceive a child soon.’[2]  This interested me because it’s often assumed that in the Middle Ages infertility was seen as a female condition and women therefore bore much of the responsibility for seeking treatment, and yet here we have the suggestion that a man might take the initiative in seeking a remedy.  I wondered how typical it was.  One way to find out was to look at the other manuscripts and see if they kept the same heading, or substituted a different one.

The Liber de Diversis Medicinis was a good collection to start with because it was quite widely copied: the volume of the Manual of the Writings in Middle English dedicated to scientific and medical texts listed sixteen manuscripts, and several were in London or Cambridge and so fairly easily accessible for me.  I spent some time in the British Library and a couple of Cambridge college libraries, checking their copies against Ogden’s edition; I still need to get to Oxford, Durham and Manchester for the rest.  Many of them look a bit like this – a 15th-century recipe book in the Wellcome Library:

L0000832 Receipts for cataract and teeth whitening
15h-century leechbook. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London

The first thing I noticed was the sheer amount of difference between manuscripts.  Scholars have often noted that medieval recipe collections display significant variations between manuscripts and in the case of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis the differences were very large. One fifteenth-century manuscript in the British Library (Egerton MS 833) omitted a large section of the collection, including the infertility recipes – although this may have been because pages had been lost from the manuscript, or from the exemplar copied by the scribe, rather than because the scribe had decided not to copy them.  Another British Library manuscript (Royal MS 17.A.VIII) included only a few remedies for each ailment, rather than the much greater number of possibilities recorded in the manuscript used by Ogden.  Moreover, the infertility remedies it gave were very different, as were the headings used to introduce them.  Gone was the recipe for a man who wanted a woman to conceive soon, and instead there was a heading which encompassed both sexes: ‘To do a man gete child and a woman bere child.’[3]

Another manuscript again (British Library MS Sloane 962) included a recipe for conception in Latin alongside the English ones.  Switching between languages is not unusual in medieval recipe manuscripts but it still tells us something about the scribe and the person who owned it – both had at least a basic knowledge of Latin, the language of university medicine, which suggests this manuscript is more likely to have been aimed at a male medical practitioner than an interested amateur.

So far, though, I haven’t found another manuscript which includes Ogden’s heading, aimed at a man who wants a woman to conceive, so perhaps the idea that a man might take the initiative was unusual after all.

I’m still thinking about what all this means and how significant these variations are.  In some cases variations may be the result of missing pages in a manuscript, or simple miscopying.  Even when they are not, it is difficult to tell how far scribes were consciously making these changes in order to adapt the text to the needs of a new reader – one who could read Latin, for example, or one who imagined that men would come seeking help to make their wives conceive.  However, in most cases these manuscripts do show us scribes who did not copy blindly, but rather were familiar enough with recipes to change things in ways that made sense to them.   By tracking these variations I’m hoping to uncover as many medieval attitudes to infertility and its treatment as possible.


[1] Monica Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] The Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript (MS Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2)¸ ed. Margaret Sinclair Ogden, Early English Texts Society original series 207 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 56.

[3] London, British Library MS Royal 17.A.VIII, f. 63v.

An Early Modern Medicine for a Re-emerging Disease

By Glennda Bayron

A rachitic skeleton, measuring two feet two inches in length (1749). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A rachitic skeleton, measuring two feet two inches in length (1749). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In Mrs. Jane Baber’s cookbook (Wellcome MS 108), there is a medicinal recipe “For the Ricketts” tucked between a recipe to treat rheumy eyes and another for preserving raspberries. For many of the medicinal recipes in early modern receipt books, there is often no clear modern disease correlation, but rickets has again recently started to become more common in the western world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rickets is a “disease of children caused by vitamin D deficiency, which results in abnormal calcium and phosphorus metabolism and deficient mineralization of bone (osteomalacia) with skeletal deformity”.[1] In April 2012, congenital rickets was found to have resulted in the death of a little girl in London. Since the disease is uncommon in Britain, the parents had initially been charged with murder. With the resurgence of the disease, physicians and parents need to be aware of its early signs, with an eye to prevention. Modern treatments for rickets include increasing the amount of vitamin D and calcium in a child’s diet.

Rickets 2
Jane Baber, Wellcome Library, WMS 108, f. 4v.

The recipe in Mrs. Baber’s cookery book calls for speecke, rosemary, camamill, sage, verbane, hayhoes, nipp, neats foote oyle, butter, ale, and sasafras.  While some of these are cooking herbs that we use today, many of them are unrecognizable to the modern chef (or doctor, for that matter). Through researching herbal databases as well as help from others, I was able to determine what the uncommon ingredients were and how they were beneficial. “Speecke” turns out to be spike lavender, which is used as an anti-inflammatory. [2] “Verbane” is considered to strengthen the nervous system and creates a relaxing effect on the body.[3]  “Hayhoes” is the shortened version of hayhooves, another name for alehoof, which is often used with chamomile flowers (also in this recipe) as a poultice for abscesses.[4] “Neats foote oyle” is comprised of boiled cow skin bones and feet and is used today for shining leather and there is no record of a modern medicinal use.[5] “Nipp” or catnip, an ingredient not commonly found in your medical doctor’s office, is found in many holistic medicines to treat insomnia, anxiety, migraines, indigestion, gas, and to assist with delayed menstruation in girls.[6]  Sassafras is “the dried bark of this tree, used medicinally as an alterative; also an infusion of this”.[7] Although considered poisonous, it is still used to treat urinary tract disorders, syphilis, gout, cancer, and high blood pressure.[8]

Can of Neatsfoot Oil. 2008. Credit: Montanabw,  Wikimedia Commons.
Can of Neatsfoot Oil. 2008. Credit: Montanabw, Wikimedia Commons.

Barber’s recipe calls for the ingredients to be boiled together and applied by cloth to the joints of the child–minding the lower back as to not weaken the joints. The child must then drink ale with sliced sassafras in it. In the mid-seventeenth century, Hannah Wooley describes a beer with herbs boiled into it as the cure for rickets.[9] The Queen’s Closet Opened (1659) contains a recipe that created an ointment to apply to the weak joints of a child’s body afflicted with rickets.  What these two recipes show is that while the recipes were different, the methods of curing the disease were similar, including ingestion of ale with herbs and application of ointment on joints.  Given that all three recipes provide a similar cure, they suggest the widespread thought and practices in seventeenth-century England. Rickets treatments focused on the results of the problem, from inflammation and skin problems to pain and anxiety. Something, perhaps, for modern physicians to keep in mind.

 

[1] “rickets, n.”. OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[2] Thanks to Rebecca Laroche for the help identifying “Speecke” and “Hayhoes.” See also: “Lavender (Spike) Essential Oil”, Mountain Rose Herbs, viewed 10 May 2013.

[3] “Vervain Herbal Information”, Vervain / Verbena Officinalis Herbal Information. Indigo Herbs of Glastonbury, viewed 10 May 2013.

[4] “Alehoof (Glechoma Hederacea)”, TJ Clark Liquid Mineral Supplements, viewed 10 May 2013.

[5] “neatsfoot oil, n.”. OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[6] “Catnip: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings”, WebMD. Viewed 23 March 2013; “nip, n.”. OED Online, accessed March 2013.

[7] “sassafras, n.”, OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[8] “Sassafras: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings”, WebMD, viewed 23 March 2013.

[9] Hannah Wooley, The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675), section 57.

Glennda Bayron is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. She was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.

Liquorice: “The Spoonful of Sugar that Helps the Medicine Go Down”

By Sandra Jergensen

Licorice 1If you wish “To make Juise of Liquorish in the beginning of Maye” à la Jane Baber you need to do some advance planning.[i] Chances of finding suitable fresh liquorice root are slim; you will most likely need to grow your own. By starting prep work immediately you should be ready for juicing, roughly three years from now. While recipes often have many steps and tedious wait periods, just acquiring the ingredient list for “Juise of Liquorish” makes a month-aged fruitcake appear as petty convenience food.  Even though growing proper liquorice, a small leguminous plant, takes “three summers for the roots to grow to full size,” it is worth the investment.[ii] Good, fresh liquorice tastes as good as it is for you. In fact, it may just be the “spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down” that Mary Poppins advocated.

Liquorice has been cultivated on a large scale in England beginning in Pontefract, Yorkshire in the seventeenth century. Even before the Reformation, the region’s monastery popularised liquorice, turning this area into what is still the center of English liquorice tradition as the home of the ever-beloved Pontefract cakes. These coin-sized disks of candied black liquorice stamped with a castle and an owl may have been made as early as 1614.[iii]  While I am unaware of the location where Jane Baber’s seventeenth-century Book of Receipts was written, her use of the “juise of licquorish” is strikingly similar to a recipe for making Pontefract cakes.[iv] The inclusion of such a similar recipe at the time of her manuscript production in 1625 seems downright trendy including considering the fashionable status of liquorice at that time in England. The connection is not just the use of liquorice, but an almost identical preparation of the ubiquitous confection.

While I realized that while neither recipe advertises candy, they both produce it. Baber’s technique, like the recipe for Pontefract cakes, direct the cook to make a combined liquorice root, water and sugar to be cooked and thickened, and shaped into rolls. The Baber recipe also calls for the addition of hyssop, rosemary and colesfoot for added flavor or medicinal use. Even without the precision of a candy thermometer, Baber’s candy-making instruction is spot-on for reaching a “soft-ball” stage of candy making where the liquid has boiled out and the sugars have begun to harden into a tacky, sticky consistency that would allow you to “see the bottome of the bason [while you are] stirringe it very still.” If you follow the directions as written, you should end up with the classic chewy sweet we expect liquorice to be, and the ever-popular Pontefract cakes still are.

Licorice 3In its purest form, Glycyrrhiza glabra, or liquorice, trumps cane sugar’s sweetness fifty times over. Yet the foil is in the bitter flavor it also possesses, which inhibits some tasters from recognizing the intensity of the plant’s sweet flavor. Oddly enough, the sweetness also depends on the way in which liquorice root is cut. The thicker the cut, the sweeter the root seems, while a thinner cut tastes saltier and a bit bitter. Unfortunately I don’t know the result of stamping them all together in a mortar as Baber directs in the recipe. Even so, she covers her bases, calling for the addition of the “three or fower ounces of redd suger Candy.” Although sweet with candy, and perhaps sweet like candy, the classic English treat (Allsorts, anyone?) had more value than a pleasing, sugary sweetness on the tongue: it was most likely intended as medicine.

While liquorice was also a frequent flavoring for stout and gingerbread in early modern England, liquorice was primarily used medicinally. It was a common remedy to treat ailments such as inflammation, mild constipation and the “rume” (excessive mucousal secretions), as Baber’s recipe recommends. Liquorice’s popularity rose, becoming a go-to flavoring for medicine rather than just the medicine itself. Cough lozenges, teas, tonics and ticcatares could be infused with liquorice to cover up less pleasant tastes.

It was most likely in that shift from medicine to medicinal flavoring and candy-like medicine to candy that the original usage was largely forgotten. Yet, all those who enjoyed the flavor du jour, may have not be cognizant of the benefits–that the “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way.”  Jane Baber’s medicinal receipt “To make Juise of Liquorish in the beginning of Maye” may have not been a recipe for her favorite candy, but it yielded dry noses, happy bowels, and surprisingly eager recipients.

 


[i] Baber, Jane. Book of Receipts, 1635. MS 108. Wellcome Library, London, f. 21v.

[ii] “Liquorice”, The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History, ed. David Hey, (Oxford University Press, 2008;  Oxford Reference, 2009), date Accessed 8 Apr. 2013 <http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy.uta.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780199532988.001.0001/acref-9780199532988-e-1128>.

[iii] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 455.

[iv] http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/Liquorice/recipe.htm

Sandra Jergensen is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. She was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.