10 Questionable Household Tips from the 19th-Century White House Staff


1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a big place, and understandably the upkeep is a little more complicated than that of any typical suburban home. That's why Fanny Lemira Gillette, famed housekeeping guru and mother of the inventor of the safety razor,  and Hugo Ziemann, the White House steward, teamed up in 1887 to write The White House Cook Book, a "comprehensive cyclopedia of information for the home" and one of the best-selling cookbooks in U.S. history. Aside from useful recipes for Chicken Jelly and Mayonnaise Fish, Gillette and Ziemann's book is full of expert housekeeping tips. Though we can't in good conscience advise trying most of these, here are 10 of the better examples.

1. Rooms get stuffy, probably more so when air-conditioning hasn't been invented yet. To clear the air in a room that needs some refreshing, Gillette advises pouring a healthy sprinkling of ground coffee onto a shovelful of hot coals. If no coffee is available or if you'd prefer to leave the house smelling like something different than a malfunctioning Keurig, try a cupful of sugar instead.

2. To keep your milk from curdling, grate a tablespoon of horseradish right into the pitcher. "It will keep it sweet for days."

3. Ventilation is key to keeping a home fresh-smelling and livable, but some rooms don't have windows. An alternative option is to place a pitcher of ice-water — "the colder the more effective" — on a table in the center of a room. This will "absorb all the gases with which the room is filled." Watch out, though, because that water, once it has done its job, "will be entirely unfit" for any other use. Don't even pour it in the flowerbeds.

4. To remove stains from laundry, rub them with egg yolk before washing. (There are no tips for removing egg-yolk stains from clothing.)

5. If you find your cooking oil goes rancid very quickly, try adding "a few drops of ether to the bottle."

6. Moths can be a real pain, especially if they're residing in your sofas. The good news is that moths and their eggs never live through a two-hour soak in a naphtha-bath. What the heck is naphtha, you ask? It's a group of highly volatile, lightweight hydrocarbons that are typically created during petroleum distillation, very similar to gasoline. So if you can get your hands on a vessel large enough (and can afford the hundreds of gallons of gas), just dip your furniture in and leave it for a few hours. As a bonus, "all oil, dirt or grease disappears, and not the slightest damage is done." Just remember not to try that burning-coffee deodorizer too soon afterward.

7. Say someone has been sick for a while and you'd like to disinfect the room. Put away your Clorox Wipes; there's a more flammable option and 'the perfume is very pleasant and healthful." In a saucer of coffee grounds, place a lump of camphor. Light the camphor with a match and let it burn until it and all of the coffee have been reduced to a sticky black resin. There you go, no more germs!

8. Got a problem with mosquitoes and/or bats coming into the house while you sleep? No worries: "If a bottle of pennyroyal is left uncorked in a room at night, not a mosquito, nor any other blood-sucker, will be found there in the morning."

9. Oh, goodness. An unrefined guest has failed to chew his dinner thoroughly and is choking at the table. You can try the Heimlich maneuver, of course, but in 1887 your options were a) straighten a hairpin, make a hook at the end, and pull out the offending piece of food, or b) "food lodged in the throat may sometimes be pushed down with the finger."

10. And finally, advice for preventing unpleasant cooking smells from escaping the kitchen. Boiling ham or cabbage: "Throw red pepper pods or a few bits of charcoal into the pan they are cooking in." Hope you like your cabbage spicy.