After I finished college, my friends decided that I was pursuing a degree as a goddess of domesticity. My mom took this to heart and, on our one year wedding anniversary, bestowed upon me said degree, with various trappings. One of the rewards was a copy of The American Frugal Housewife (named so as to disambiguate it from a British work of the same name. Whoops.). The book, by one Mrs. Child, is "dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy." It was published in 1832 and recently reprinted by a company out of Massachussetts called Applewood Books, which has made it its mission to furnish the reading public with copies of what it calls "America's lively classics."

The book is pretty fabulous. I've so far absorbed such useful tips as, "Poke-root, boiled in water and mixed with a good quantity of molasses, set about the kitchen, the pantry, &c. in large deep plates, will kill cockroaches in great numbers, and finally rid the house of them." If I knew what poke-root was and where to get it this might really be a lifesaver! Mrs. Child also counsels that "[i]t is thought to be a preventive to the unhealthy influence of cucumbers to cut the slices very thin, and drop each one into cold water as you cut it. A few minutes in the water takes out a large portion of the slimy matter, so injurious to health. They should be eaten with high seasoning." I guess I ought to be concerned about the raw, unseasoned cucumber slices I ate with my lunch the other day!

I had to look up several words and learned the following gems:

  • scrofula (noun): a disease with glandular swelling, probably a form of tuberculosis
  • mortification (unlike how we use it today): necrosis; the localized death of living cells (as from infection or the interruption of the blood supply)

There were other terms that I couldn't even find on Google, and warnings that I have no way of heeding since I don't know the substance in question. For example, corrosive sublimate. "Too much care can never by taken of corrosive sublimate, especially when children are about. Many dreadful accidents have happened in consequence of carelessness. Bottles which have contained it should be broken, and buried; and cups should be boiled out in ashes and water. If kept in the house, it should be hung up high, out of reach, with POISON written upon it in large letters." I'm now terrified that I have some corrosive sublimate hanging out in my kitchen that is improperly marked.

But for all I am poking fun at Mrs. Child, and despite the times I actually laughed out loud while reading her pointers, the introduction to the book has some good, timeless advice. Her premise is that "[t]he true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money." I like the sound of that, especially in our economic climate. And I think it's really not all that different from the mindset of those of us who coupon and save tissue paper from wedding gifts and reuse plastic bags. We just have different resources to get creative with.

So I think I'm going to persevere with Mrs. Child. I'll get some giggles along the way but perhaps also pick up some truisms and find some points that resonate with me. I'll make it a Friday ritual to come tell you about it here: to share the quotable quotes and the humorous quips. Hold on to your britches, because I just got to the section on gruel. I hope you'll come back next week to find out all about it.

The American Frugal Housewife. Mrs. Child. Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co., 1833; Bedford: Applewood Books.

Laura Lindeman

Laura Lindeman