My Favorite Recipe Book: The Circle of Useful Knowledge


I want to share one of my favorite little books with you today.   Although it is a book of only 255 pages, The Circle of Useful Knowledge contains much of the practical knowledge to be had in the year 1893 when it was published.  I’ve spent several hours wandering around inside this book since receiving it as a gift in 2007, and have even been a little tempted to test some of the suggested remedies for their effectiveness.

According to Charles Kinsley’s preface, “The “Circle of Useful Knowledge” is a system of useful information, and contains hundreds of valuable receipts in the various departments of human effort, which can be relied upon, as they are tried receipts and have been procured from the most reliable sources, many of which have cost the author quite a sum of money for the right to publish them. They tell how to manage a farm, how to cook, all about wines and vinegar, how to fish and tan, how drugs and chemicals are composed, how to be your own doctor and nurse, – in short, everything connected with everyday life is treated of in a concise, clear style that tells what you wish to know.”

And Mr. Kinsely wasn’t kidding. Want to know how teach a horse to follow you? How to free your hands from warts? How to cure ringworms? How to clean silk? How to salt ham? How about the best way to make boots or shoes last three years or how to get rid of mosquitoes without using smoke? It’s all there and more. Mr. Kinsley’s little book is jam-packed with hundreds of tidbits that are still interesting and useful today.

Here’s Kinsley’s “receipt”for getting rid of bed-bugs:

To Clear Your Dwellings from Bed-Bugs

Corrosive sublimate and the white of an egg, beat together, and laid with a feather around the crevices of the bedsteads and the sacking, is very effectual in destroying bugs in them. Tansy is also said to be very effectual in keeping them away. Strew it under the sacking bottom. Common lard, or equal quantities of lard and oil, will destroy or keep them away. The best exterminator is black hellebore pulverized. It is a deadly poison to them. Place it where the bugs will be apt to crawl.

Judging from the marks he made in the book’s Table of Contents, the original owner of this little book, one Mr. Peter R. Fairweather of Toledo, Ohio, seems to have been particularly interested in the sections on “Shaving Soap,” “Shaving Cream,” and “How to Make Red or Gray Hair Glossy Black.” Nothing like a little DIY knowledge for the well-groomed man of the 1890s, after all.

There are recipes for dozens of health ailments, some of them rather ambitious, I suspect, like the ones to cure deafness, lockjaw, consumption, squinting eyes, and gonorrhea.  I know you’re wondering about that deafness cure, so here it is:

Obtain pure pickerel oil and apply 4 drops morning and evening to the ear.  Great care should be taken to obtain oil that is perfectly pure.

I have to assume that his might help to clear the ear canals of built up wax, so maybe the cure really did work.

Ever the optimist, the author says that his book will save money for: “lumber manufacturers, lumber dealers, millmen, carpenters, builders, carriage makers, ship builders, cabinet makers, ship brokers, ship carpenters, railroad conductors, engineers, machinists, freight agents, teachers, students, architects, accountants, farmers, housekeepers, stock-raisers, packers, doctors, clerks, gardeners, liquor dealers, druggists, photographers, artists, bakers, confectioners, flour dealers, hairdressers, ink makers, whitewashers, soap makers, bankers, barbers, printers, gilders, painters, shoemakers, clothiers, dry goods dealers, brewers, grocers, hotel keepers, iron workers, plasterers, masons, marble cutters, and many others.”

That should should be the vast majority of people alive in 1893, I suppose, so  I hope the man made a lot of money from The Circle of Useful Knowledge.  At $2.50 a copy in 1893 dollars, this little recipe book was quite an investment.

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