By Mandy Aftel
In early America, settlers on an expanding frontier had to rely on their own skills and know-how. At the same time, itinerant peddlers made this self-reliance possible, by providing both materials that couldn’t be grown or made and practical information and instruction on cooking, medicine, and more. Even in Colonial times, aromatics peddler was a recognized profession, as distinct from, say, indigo peddler. “Usually a free-lance,” writes Richardson Wright in Hawkers and Walkers in Early America, “he managed to scrape together ten or twenty dollars, which was enough capital to set himself up in business, that is, fill his tin trunk with peppermint, bergamot, and wintergreen extracts and bitters.”[i] In that era, every settler was a distiller, and the bitters were in great demand to mix with homemade spirits. Aromatics were also used in food and all kinds of home remedies.
Peddling expanded with the frontier, and the peddler became a familiar figure there, his one or two small oblong tin trunks mounted on his back with a leather strap There were the general peddlers who hawked an assortment of useful “Yankee notions”—buttons, sewing thread, spoons, small hardware items, children’s books, and perfume. Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, left Yale to become a Yankee notions peddler before developing into a major figure of the transcendentalist movement.
Over time, a peculiarly American subculture grew up around this nomadic subculture that included not only peddlers but also medicine shows, carny folk, fortune tellers, dancing bears, minstrels, and all manner of “hawkers and walkers” who live on in our memory of what Greil Marcus has called the “Old Weird America.”
One pivotal figure in that world was “Doctor” A. W. Chase. Born in 1817, he started out as a peddler of foodstuffs and medicines in Ohio and Michigan. For a while he traveled with the circus, collecting recipes—among them “Backwoods Preserves”, “Good Samaritan Liniment” and “Magnetic Ointment,” which Chase insisted was “really magnetic” though it contained only lard, raisins, and tobacco— from the same people he peddled to: housewives, settlers`, doctors, saloon keepers. A recipe for Toad Ointment, a remedy for strain and injury that he got from “an Old Physician who thought more of it than of any other prescription in his possession,” called for cooking live toads along with other ingredients. “Some persons might think it hard on toads,” wrote Chase, “but you couldn’t kill them quicker in any other way.”[ii]
Eventually, Chase settled in Ann Arbor, where he printed a pamphlet of the recipes he had collected, giving it the title Dr. Chase’s Recipes; or, Information for Everybody. This was a distinctly American Book of Secrets, and like the one published by his predecessor Alessio Piedmontese, it became a huge success, sold by peddlers much like himself to people who wanted a practical, all-purpose book to help them with all manner of daily problems. Over the next dozen years Chase continued to add to it and to reprint it, until, by its thirty-eighth edition, it contained more than six hundred recipes. It was translated into German, Dutch, and Norwegian, and sold all over the English-speaking world. Although he sold his rights to the book and the printing house he had established, he ultimately lost his fortune and was a pauper when he died in 1885. But his book lived on, selling about four million copies by 1915. According to William Eamon, “There were years when Dr. Chase’s Recipes sold second only to the Bible.”[iii]
Some of Chase’s recipes were for things everyone needed— glue, ink, vinegar, ketchup—while others were specific to the needs of certain professions, from bakers to gunsmiths. He organized it not by chapter but by “departments”: “Saloon,” “What and How to Eat,” “How to Live Long,” “What to do Until the Doctor Comes,” “Sheep, Swine and Poultry,” and “Care of the Skin,” to name but a few. His disquisition on vinegar captures the flavor of can-do exhortation that made his book such an enduring hit:
Merchants and Grocers who retail vinegar should always have it made under their own eye, if possible, from the fact that so many unprincipled men enter into its manufacture, as it affords such a large profit. Remember this fact –that vinegar must have air as well as warmth, and especially is it necessary if you desire to make it in a short space of time. And if at any time it seems to be “Dying” as is usually called, add molasses, sugar, alcohol or cider—– whichever article you are making from, or prefer—– for vinegar is an industrious fellow; he will either work or die, and when he begins to die you may know has worked up all the material in his shop, and wants more.[iv]
Although experienced physicians regarded Chase as a charlatan, the medical remedies were the most popular aspect of his book. He recommends “soot coffee”– yes, made from “soot scraped from a chimney (that from stove pipes does not do),” steeped in water and mixed with sugar and cream, as a restorative for those suffering from ague, typhoid fever, jaundice, dyspepsia, and more. “Many persons will stick up their noses at these ‘Old Grandmother prescriptions,’ but I tell many ‘upstart Physicians’ that our grandmothers are carrying more information out of the world by their deaths than will ever be possessed by this class of ‘sniffers,’ and I really thank God, so do thousands of others, that He has enabled me, in this work, to reclaim such an amount of it for the benefit of the world.”[v]
[i] Richardson Wright, Hawkers and Walkers in Early America: Strolling Peddlers, Preachers, Lawyers, Doctors, Players, and Others from the Beginning to the Civil War (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1927) 56-57.
[ii] William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 359.
[iii] Ibid, 359.
[iv] A. W. Chase, Dr. Chase’s Recipes or Information for Everybody, revised ed. (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, 1903), 37.
Mandy Aftel is an artisan perfumer who has published on scent and flavour. She also has a small museum, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. (Details here.) The above excerpt is from her award-winning book, Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent (Penguin, 2014). You can purchase her books here.