Wednesday, February 26, 2020

'Never Resist a Call of Nature'

The library cart was stacked with books and topped with a handwritten sign bearing every bibliophile’s favorite word: “FREE.” Most were discarded art books with blurry, out-of-register color plates, along with paperbacks in French, though one title briefly held my attention – The Gourd Book (1979) by Charles Bixler Heiser. These were books donated to the university library but judged unworthy of absorption into the collection.

Lying horizontally on the cart’s bottom shelf was a fat, older-looking volume with a scuffed leather cover. One of its 808 pages fell out when I opened the book, which turned out to be a nineteenth-century bestseller: Dr. Chase’s Third Last and Complete Receipt Book and Household Physician or Practical Knowledge for the People (1887). The author is Dr. A.W. (Alvin Wood) Chase (1817-1885), a native of upstate New York and a graduate of the Eclectic Institute of Cincinnati (which sounds as though it had been invented by the late Charles Portis).

Chase was not exactly a quack. At the time, medical accreditation was fluid. Patients were less impressed by the medical degrees hanging on the wall, patent medicines flourished and malpractice insurance was unheard of. Receipt in Chase’s title refers not to an authentication of purchase but, in the words of the OED: “a statement of the ingredients and procedure necessary for making a medicinal preparation, a prescription. . . . a remedy or cure.” The word is closely related to the modern recipe, and the book, indeed, contains many instructions for preparing food. When doctors were scarce and people lived in remote parts of the country, a book like Chase’s might save a life or preserve a limb – or claim both. In his preface, Chase writes:

“As I was once traveling through Illinois, a gentleman, just before we reached the crossing of the Mississippi at Burlington, approached me, and said, ‘Isn’t this Dr. Chase, the author of Chase’s Receipt Book?’ (referring to my first) to which I replied, ‘Yes, sir,’ when he remarked: ‘I thought I recognized you from the frontpiece in your book;’ and added, ‘We read it more than the Bible,’ etc. To which I remonstrated and begged to suggest that he instruct his family from that time forward to read the Bible most, inasmuch as eternity was of infinitely more importance than this life.”

Chase’s book is a grab-all, a loosely organized compendium of remedies, theories and platitudes – and a lot of fun to read. Under the heading “LIFE LENGTHENED—Sensible Rules for,” he makes fifteen suggestions, including: “Cultivate an equable temper; many have fallen dead in a fit of passion” and “Never resist a call of nature, for a single moment.” In his entry for gonorrhea, Chase assures us the disease is caused by “impure cohabitation.” For a remedy he prescribes a “cooling purgative” consisting of “compound powder of jalap, with cream of tartar, or a full cathartic dose of any medicine one is in the habit of using as a cathartic.”   

An earlier reader clipped articles from newspapers and slipped them between the pages of Chase’s book. All are brown and brittle. The only one dated is from 1929. Its headline reads: “Quinine is best remedy for influenza or grip.” Another headed “Tested Recipes” includes instructions for making fried apple sauce, apple whip, and fried bacon and apples. There’s a recipe for Southern Spoon Bread and tips on the “Wise Way to Cook Rice.” The final text is equally helpful: “Celery can come out of the luxury class if all of the bunch is used. The green ends and leaves may be used to good advantage in soup.”

For a sample of Chase’s folksy, earnest prose, see his entry for the preparation of minced-meat pies, which concludes with these “remarks,” as he calls them:

“Some people will have brandy or wine in their mince pies, let such put in 1 cup of brandy, or 2 cups of wine, into the above amount. It is each one’s privilege to suit themselves, or the demand of the majority, or the head of the house, as the case may be. What is not baked up when made, pack nicely in jars and cover well with cloths and a plate with a light weight upon it, or other cover, not adding the apples only as used, and the meat keeps better without.”

Sounds like a recipe for botulism.

1 comment:

R.T. said...

I've been reading about quack medicines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the book you so nicely highlight enforces my opinion: the medical profession was (and still is) full of trial and error.
Best wishes from the Gulf coast: