Library Find: Vintage ‘How To’

Yesterday when searching through my university’s library stacks, I came across this wonderful little book called The Expert Cleaner: A Handbook of Practical Information for All Who Like Clean Homes, Tidy Apparel, Wholesome Food, and Healthful Surroundings by Hervey J. Seaman, which was published in 1899. I couldn’t resist checking it out.

CoverI should have put a coin in the photo for a size reference, but it’s just 6″ x 4″ – a handy little guide.

Title Page

Its pages are full of practical advice about how to keep a tidy home, everything from choosing furniture, to storing food, removing all manner of stains, dying fabric, exterminating pests, and cleaning/polishing just about anything.

When I began to delve into this book, I prepared myself for an onslaught of sexist, patriarchal rhetoric, and while it is written on the premise that women manage the household (a fair assumption), I felt the tone of the book was more about empowerment. The author recognizes the challenges associated with running a household, rather than marginalizing the reader (housewife).ย  An excerpt:

“If the expert cook has cause to be proud, the expert housekeeper has even more reason, for she must not only possess an intimate knowledge of cooking, but of all other arts included in the domestic economy. In addition, she must be something of a chemist, a physician, an accountant, and a disciplinarian, as well as a sanitarian.”

And truly – in the 110 years since this was written, with all of our advances in technology – nothing much has changed. Men are increasingly undertaking portions of this role, but the tasks remain the same regardless of who accomplishes them.

As for the remedies, I was struck by the causal use of very harmful chemicals. For example, mercury (quicksilver) as a pesticide:

“QUICKSILVER – Quicksilver, mixed with the white of an egg, and applied to the ends of the slats and cracks of the bedstead with a feather, will kill bed-bugs.”


“TO DESTROY FLIES – Take two tablespoonfuls of water and sweeten. Then add one teaspoonful of laudanum and mix well. Put the mixture in a saucer, or several saucers, as you choose, and leave where flies can get it, and at the same time where children can not get it, as it is a narcotic.”


TO REMOVE GREASE FROM SILK – Removing grease from silk may be found easy and satisfactory, if done in the following way: Moisten the grease spot with chloroform, and then rub it with a cloth until perfectly dry. This will not injure the most delicate color.”

There’s all kinds of references to chemicals and substances that an average household no longer possesses (at least in its pure form), many of which are petrochemicals – turpentine, kerosine oil, benzine (not to be confused with benzene, fortunately), glycerin, camphor, peraffin – and many that are plant derived, such as pennyroyal, tobacco, gum arabic, quassia, lavender, and sweet clover. I wonder if, in another 110 years, people will look upon our current cleaning methods and products, and cringe at our use of triclosan (antibacterial agent) or some other “modern” cleaner that hasn’t been well tested for long-term health effects.

This reference also seems to have useful (if odd) remedies for common situations that we still encounter. For example,

INK ON WHITE LINEN – “When ink stains get on the white table-cloth, and you have nothing else convenient to apply, use a ripe tomato. Squeeze the juice from the tomato on the spot of ink, and work the juice into the spot, applying the tomato liberally. Pour clear water through the stain. Apply the juice again, and continue until the stain disappears. This will remove other stains as well as those of ink.”

A tomato? Really? I almost want to deliberately stain some white linen to try it out – I’m not quite sure how the stain-removal chemistry works here.

After browsing this guide, I was impressed at its thoroughness and detail – I imagine it must have been very helpful for several decades. I also realized that I don’t have a modern how-to guide in my own home, even though I/we could certainly use one. Do you have a housekeeping / home-remedy book you regularly refer to?

A Page


6 Responses to “Library Find: Vintage ‘How To’”

  1. 1 eliza 2009 September 30 at 5:00 pm

    thanks for checking out a library book and keeping us in business!

  2. 3 Meghan 2009 October 1 at 5:22 pm

    But wouldn’t the tomato leave a stain?!

    No reference book here…I always just end up googling whatever problem has come up. Or asking my dad – he was the housekeeper/cook/handyman in our house ๐Ÿ™‚

    • 4 rosemary 2009 October 2 at 1:05 pm

      I think you’re right! I just can’t imagine how a tomato would work…

      It’s wonderful that you have such a good resource just a phone call or email away ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. 5 Stina 2009 October 1 at 11:48 pm

    Where can I get some chloroform? I need to remove some grease from some silk and the consciousness from a pesky agitator all at the same time!

    • 6 rosemary 2009 October 2 at 1:07 pm

      Hmmm…chemical supply companies? But you’ll have to start working in a lab before then. Maybe stick with the dry cleaners for now? As for your agitator, we’ll you’ll think of something ๐Ÿ™‚

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rambleonrosemary [at] gmail [dot] com

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