About this site

There are four kinds of advice and recipes you will find in old household manuals. There are the practical useful tips, the ones that is probably fine but just nasty, the ones that don’t work, and the ones that are incredibly toxic or dangerous. We're mostly interested in the last three categories.

I’m not even going to give an example of the first category, but just looking at the closest book to hand right now (Lady Hackett’s Household Guide) here are some examples of the other three.

Lady Hackett includes not one but two recipes for fish custard, and unusually for the time, they aren’t even in the invalid cookery section, which means you might risk encountering these at any dinner party or impromptu stop for lunch.

Take one filleted haddock, one egg, one gill of milk, salt, pepper. Butter a pie-dish, cut fillets into three, sprinkle with salt and pepper, place in the pie-dish. Beat up egg, add milk to it, mix well, and pour over fish. Bake in a moderate oven from 30 to 40 minutes

Moving on to things that don’t work, this advice on removing smells from newly painted rooms seems much more likely to just overlay one bad smell with another. That said, a lot of my books have advice on removing the smell of paint from rooms, which makes you wonder what was in the paint (apart from a lot of lead, which they mostly don’t mention and aren’t concerned about) to make it smell so bad.

To take away the smell from a room that has been newly painted, slice up three or four onions into a basin, and leave this overnight in the room, with doors and windows closed. Next morning the odour will have disappeared.

The final category is the most interesting. This advice for removing hair from the face is illustrative.

Spirits of camphor, 1/2 oz; peroxide of hydrogen, 2oz. Pour out half a teaspoonful, to which add a few drops of ammonia. First remove the superfluous hair by applying directly to it pure powdered pheminol, by which means the hair roots are weakened. The camphor lotion must then be applied daily in the manner described until the damaged roots are entirely killed.

There’s a lot to like here, but the most important thing to note is that pheminol was actually a brand name (and one that was name-checked in a 1914 report of the select committee on patent medicines to the British parliament, who said “This is an ordinary drug put up as a proprietary remedy under the fancy name, and sold, of course, at a fancy price”). The ordinary drug they’re referring to is barium sulphate, which these days is used for contrast CT scans (with a lot of warnings about shifting it out of your system ASAP after the scan), white pigment for paint, and, according to Wikipedia, 3D printing firearms. The list of symptoms is long and alarming, and the list of antidotes doesn’t include camphor, peroxide, or ammonia. Shaving might be safer, to be honest.

Subscribe to Happy Family Happy Home

Don't miss out on any of this very helpful advice - get it delivered straight to your inbox instead.