In the days before Google, people had few options for solving their most vexing practical and social problems. If you wanted to know how to make pickles, fix the Victrola, or write a letter to your boss, your choices were generally to ask someone or look it up in a book. As our Google searches may someday be to future historians, the advice manuals of yore often provide a fascinating treasure trove of information about how people once lived, the problems they encountered, and what they considered most important.
How to Skin a Lion, out this month from University of Chicago Press, collects some of the most interesting and unusual pieces of advice found in the archives of the British Library. Author Claire Cock-Starkey draws on Georgian manuscripts, Victorian manuals, and self-help guides from the early twentieth century to collect tidbits on subjects as diverse as medicine and mourning, hunting and homemaking. The book includes instructions for putting back a dislocated jaw, catching and preserving eels, or making turnip wine—should you ever feel the need to.
Much of the advice, says Cock-Starkey, shows how much more self-reliant we used to be: “You needed to know how to mend your own clothes, make your own cosmetics and smoke your own bacon." What's more, even the simplest tasks took a lot more time. As the author puts it, “If you wanted ice in your drink you couldn’t just open the fridge, someone had to harvest that ice from glacial lakes in North America, ship it across the ocean and transport it in huge chunks to your ice-house.” (The book includes a fascinating account of the “ice farms”—American lakes—that Europeans relied upon in the 19th century.)
The most surprising advice she encountered, she says, was an Englishman’s account of a method used in India for getting rid of fleas. He “recounted that the locals would either cover the floor of their house in straw then set it alight, or get a herd of cattle to run through the house in the hope that the fleas would jump aboard the marauding cows and exit [the] abode.” The first method, according to the Englishman, would probably result in the house burning down, while the second was unlikely to do any good at all.
On her blog and Twitter account, Cock-Starkey has been spotlighting some of the most obscure terms and ingredients she encountered (such as a “skep,” a traditional domed wooden bee hive, and a "cheesart," or cheese vat). She has also been trying out some of the recipes: an experiment in making mushroom ketchup did not turn out as well as hoped, although the lemon barley water was a relative hit. Extracts from some of the more notable pieces of advices included in How to Skin a Lion are included below:
1. How to cure a headache
To ease a man of the head ache, thus make his nose bleed: take seeds of red nettles and make them to a powder in a morter and blow a little of the same into his nose with a quill. But if ye cannot get seeds of nettle put a whole of a herbe called milkfoyl or barbe into the nose and rub the nose outward softly; then it should bleed. But if it be winter and ye cannot get nettles, etc., and would glad ease the head ache, then take two sack bands and tye them, first, firmly about the legs around the knees, and this for the space of half a pater noster. Then lose it again and tye it again. Do this the space of a quarter of an hour, then tye his arms about the elbow, likewise, thus shalt though draw the blood from his head. This must be done carefully lest his limbs become blue.
2.How to read the future—with snails
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde (1887) suggests that the key to reading your future is to utilize the common or garden snail:
Another mode of divination for future fate in life is by snails. The young girls go out early before sunrise to trace the path of the snails in the clay, for always a letter is marked, and this is the initial of the true lover’s name. A black snail is very unlucky to meet first in the morning, for his trail would read death; but a white snail brings good fortune.
3. How to read moles
Nine Pennyworth of Wit for a Penny (1750) informed readers how to read their fortune by examining the positioning of their moles:
Moles in the face particularly, and those in other parts of the body are very significant as to good or bad fortune. A mole on the left side of the forehead, denotes the party will get rich by tillage, building and planting. A mole on the right side of the forehead, promises happy contentment of life, a loving state in matrimony, &c. A mole on the middle of the forehead, denotes a person subject to sickness, and other afflictions. A mole on the left side of the temple, promises loss and affliction to either sex in the first part of their age; but happiness by overcoming them in the end. A mole on the eyebrow signifies speedy marriage and a good husband. A mole on the left cheek, inclining towards the lower part of the ear, denotes loss in goods, and crosses by children; threatens a woman with death in child-bed. A mole on the nose, foretells the birth of many children, and persons powerful in generation. A mole on the right corner of the mouth, near the jaw, promises happy days to either sex; but on the left side, unlawful copulation, and much loss thereby. A mole on the left shoulder denotes labour, travel and sorrow.
4. How to brush your hair
The Handbook of the Toilette (1839) includes the following advice on the proper method for brushing your hair:
The skin of the head must therefore be kept perfectly clean, and in a state of proper tone. To effect this, a brush should be used thrice a day if possible, which is strong, not too close, and will penetrate through the hair to the skin. This application of the brush, on rising in the morning, should last full half an hour; and if the hair belong to a lady, and be very thick and long, a quarter of an hour more should be devoted to brushing it, making it in all three quarters of an hour. On dressing for dinner, the brush should be applied to the head during five or six minutes, and during about ten minutes at night. It is often serviceable to rub into the hair in the morning, before the brush is applied, either hair-powder or bran—it is almost immaterial which, though I think the first preferable.
5. How to use leeches
Leeches have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Household Medicine and Surgery, Sick-room Management and Cookery for Invalids (1854) recommends the following method:
When leeches are applied to a part, it should be thoroughly freed from down or hair by shaving, and all dirt, liniments, &c. carefully and effectually cleaned away by washing. If the leech is hungry it will soon bite; but sometimes great difficulty is experienced in getting the animal to fasten. When this is the case, roll the leech in a little porter, or moisten the surface with a little blood or milk, or sugar or water. Leeches may be applied by holding them over the part with a piece of linen cloth or by the means of a glass.
However, caution is advised if using the leeches in sensitive areas: “When applied to the gums, care should be taken to use a leech glass, as they are apt to creep down the patient’s throat; a large swan’s quill will answer the purpose of a leech glass."
To remove a leech, the following is recommended: “When leeches are gorged, they will drop off themselves; never tear them off from a person, but just dip the tip of a moistened finger in some salt and touch them with that.”
6. How a lady should conduct herself in polite society
Some advice is timeless, as evident in some of the tips provided by Etiquette for the Ladies—Eighty Maxims on Dress, Manners and Accomplishments (1838):
If you are a married lady, and have children, never insist on showing off their precocity before company. In nine cases out of ten, however much people may affect to applaud, depend upon it they look upon such exhibitions as a bore. Never allow your pursuit after fashion to be so eager, as to make people suppose that you have nothing better than the mode of your dress to recommend you. Perfumes are not altogether to be forbidden; but they should never be so strong or in such quantity, as to excite attention. When they are used too profusely, people are apt to suppose that you have some particular reason for their use, beyond the mere desire to gratify your olfactory organ.
Yet other nuggets of advice have not stood the test of time so well:
It is not considered proper for ladies to wear gloves during dinner. To appear in public without them—to sit in church or in a place of public amusement destitute of these appendages, is decidedly vulgar. Some gentlemen insist on stripping off their gloves before shaking hands;—a piece of barbarity, of which no lady will be guilty. Scarcely any thing is so repulsive in a lady—so utterly plebeian, as speaking in a loud harsh voice. As in Shakespeare’s time, a ‘small’ voice is still considered "an excellent thing in a woman."
7. How to keep fresh breath
The horrors of bad breath are described in The Handbook of the Toilette (1839):
If ladies were conscious of the effect produced upon the breath by late hours, heating diet, hot and crowded rooms, and the several other enemies to the constitution necessarily encountered by a life of dissipation, they would be horror-stricken at finding that they render themselves offensive and disgusting to those whom it is their duty as well as their best policy to please. The same remark applies to men under similar circumstances, joined perhaps to a habit of taking wine and ardent spirits, if not to excess, at least in greater quantity than is requisite. In the morning the body is feverish, the tongue loaded with a white crust; vapors rise from the stomach, and the breath is foul. And when this mode of life is continued, in addition to the loss of the bloom given by health, the breath is most offensively impregnated with fetid exhalations from the stomach. The most effective sweetener of the breath is health of body … but where vapours and fermentation of the stomach exist, the only substances which can destroy the fetid exhalations, are the disinfecting chlorides. As the solution of chloride of lime is too harsh, the concentrated solution of the chloride of soda … should alone be admitted at the toilette. From six to ten drops of this substance in a wineglassful of pure spring water, taken immediately after the operations of the morning are completed, will instantly sweeten the breath, by disinfecting the stomach, which, far from being injured, will be benefitted by the medicine.
8. How to refuse a proposal of marriage
The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony (1865) recommends:
When a lady rejects the proposal of a gentleman, her behavior should be characterized by the most delicate feeling towards one who, in offering her his hand, has proved his desire to confer upon her, by this implied preference for her above all other women, the greatest honor it is in his power to offer. Therefore, if she have no love for him, she ought at least to evince a tender regard for his feelings. No woman of proper feeling would regard her rejection of an offer of marriage from a worthy man as a matter of triumph: her feeling on such an occasion should be one of regretful sympathy with him for the pain she is unavoidably compelled to inflict. Nor should such a rejection be unaccompanied with some degree of self-examination on her part, to discern whether any lightness of demeanor or tendency to flirtation may have given rise to a false hope of her favoring his suit. At all events, no lady should ever treat a man who has so honored her with the slightest disrespect or frivolous disregards, nor ever unfeelingly parade a more favored suitor before one whom she has refused.
9. How to address a Maharajah
The etiquette necessary for socializing with the local gentry in colonial India frequently flummoxed the English, who often consulted guides such as Hints on Indian Etiquette Specially Designed for the Use of Europeans by Iftikhar Husain (1911). Husain advised that the following form should be followed when writing a letter to a Maharajah or person of a similar rank:
“You of exalted rank, lofty position and of noble birth, may you have increased graciousness.”
And he advises that one might sign off with the following:
“Your obedient servant”
“The lowest of the low”
“Humble as dust”
The Anglo-Hindoostanee Hand-book; or, Stranger’s Self-interpreter and Guide to Colloquial and General Intercourse with the Natives of India (1850) offered some counsel on the etiquette of visiting:
Natives of high rank—hindoo or moohummudun, when receiving visits of ceremony usually retain their seats, unless the visitors be their equals, or otherwise European officials of high rank in the service of the British government, in which event the parties visited rise and advance a certain distance according to the degree of ceremonious respect that the rank of the visitor may claim or circumstances suggest. The visitor must also remember to leave in the appropriate style, making sure they take careful note of the elaborate hints that indicate that they have overstayed their welcome: Immediately ere parting the parties visited usually present to each of their guests Utr-pan (a cud of betel-pepper leaves), and then, with bottles, sprinkle rose-water over their handkerchiefs or clothes, which ceremony if performed ere the visitors themselves be prepared to go, is the usual polite intimation that their departure is desired.
10. How to make a love charm
The Book of Charms and Ceremonies: whereby all may have the opportunity of obtaining any object they desire by "Merlin" (1892) offers the following instructions on how to make a love charm.
Agrippa says that the hair off the belly of a goat, tied into knots and concealed in the roof of the house of the beloved, will produce furious love, whereby the maiden will not be able to withstand the entreaties of her lover, but will be so enchanted with him that marriage will soon take place.
11. How to skin a lion
Should the hunter also wish to preserve the lion’s skull as a trophy, Charles McCann advises the following method in his 1927 A Shikari’s Pocket-book:
Cut off all the removable flesh. Take out the brain through the orifice at the back by pushing a stick into it and stirring them up, then shaking out the resultant porridge. Pouring hot water into the brain-case and shaking it out again will help greatly to bring away the contents. Do not give this job to an ignorant native to do, unless he has done it before correctly in your presence. If not he will inevitably chop off the back of the skull with an axe in order to get at the brains. Wash the skull and hang it up to dry, after tying the lower jawbone firmly on to it.
12. How to prevent bad luck
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde (1887) is full of advice on how to protect the family from those most pesky of pests, witches, and fairies:
The witches, however, make great efforts to steal the milk on May morning, and if they succeed, the luck passes from the family, and the milk and butter for the whole year will belong to the fairies. The best preventative is to scatter primroses on the threshold; and the old women tie bunches of primroses to the cows’ tails, for the evil spirits cannot touch anything guarded by these flowers, if they are plucked before sunrise, not else. A piece of iron, also, made red hot, is placed upon the hearth; any old iron will do, the older the better, and branches of whitethorn and mountain ash are wreathed around the doorway for luck. The mountain ash has very great and mysterious qualities. If a branch of it be woven into the roof, that house is safe from fire for a year at least, and if a branch of it is mixed with the timber of a boat, no storm will upset it, and no man in it be drowned for twelvemonth.
13. How to get presented at Court
Getting presented at Court was vital for any young lady wishing to become part of the English social scene. The methods have changed over the years, but Complete Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen: A Guide to the Rules and Observances of Good Society (1900) describes the Victorian method, in which girls had the opportunity to be presented to Queen Victoria four times a season (twice before Easter and twice after).
When a girl is about to be presented at Court she procures a large blank card, and write legibly upon it her own name and that of the lady who presents her, thus: ‘Mrs. Percy, presented by Lady White’ … This card is left at the Lord Chamberlain’s office in St. James’s Palace at least two clear days before the drawing-room, and is accompanied by a note from the lady who is to present her … The names are submitted for Her Majesty’s approval, and on sending to the office two days later the lady receives two ‘presentation’ or pink cards, on which she write legibly the same words as those on the former card. These cards she takes with her to the palace, one being left with the page-in-waiting at the top of the grand staircase; the other is taken by an official at the door of the presence-chamber, and passed to the Lord Chamberlain, who reads the name to Her Majesty. The doors of the Palace are opened at two o’clock, and the Queen enters the throne room at three. Ladies carry their trains, folded, over the arm until they reach the door of the picture gallery, where it is removed from its wearer’s arm by the attendants in waiting, and the lady passes across the gallery with it flowing at full length to the door of the throne-room. If the lady is to be presented she must have her right hand ungloved, and as she bends before the Queen she extends her hands palm downwards; the Queen places her hand upon it, the lady touches the royal hand with her lips, and the presentation is over; the lady passes on, stepping backwards, curtseying to those members of the royal family present. A lady requires to be re-presented when any change occurs in her social status. For instance, she must be again presented on her marriage, if she has been presented before, also should her husband succeed to any higher title. If she fails in this, she has no further right to appear at Court.
14. How to dress like a gentleman
Some tips become quickly outmoded, but these tips for the stylish man from All About Etiquette: or The Manners of Polite Society for Ladies, Gentlemen, and Families (1879) are timeless:
If you wear your beard, wear it in moderation—extremes are always vulgar. Avoid all fantastic arrangements of the hair, either turning it under in a roll, or allowing it to straggle in long and often seemingly ‘uncombed and unkempt’ masses over the coat collar, or having it cropped so close as to give the wearer the appearance of a sporting character. For appendages, eschew all flash stones; nothing is more unexceptionable for sleeve-buttons and the fastenings of the front of a shirt than fine gold, fashioned in some simple form, sufficiently massive to indicate use and durability, and skillfully and handsomely wrought, if ornamented at all. A gentleman carries a watch for convenience and secures it safely upon his person, wearing it with no useless ornament paraded to the eye. It is like his pencil and purse, good of its kind, and, if he can afford it, handsome, but it is never flashy. The fashion for wearing signet rings is not so general, perhaps, as it was a little while since, but it still retains a place among the minutiae of the present subject. Here, again, the same rules of good taste apply as to other ornaments. When worn at all, everything of this sort should be most unexceptionally and unmistakably tasteful and genuine.
15. How to use the English method of fortune-telling by cards
A Handbook of Cartomancy: Fortune-telling and Occult Divination by Grand Orient (1889) reveals the secrets of fortune telling with cards. The suit of diamonds was said to have the following meanings:
Ace of Diamonds – A letter – from whom, and what about, must be judged from neighbouring cards. King of Diamonds – A fair man, hot tempered, obstinate and revengeful. Queen of Diamonds – A fair woman, fond of company and a coquette. Knave of Diamonds – A near relation who considers only his interests. Also a fair person’s thoughts. Ten of Diamonds – Money. Nine of Diamonds – Shews that a person is fond of roving. Eight of Diamonds – A marriage late in life. Seven of Diamonds – Satire, evil speaking. Six of Diamonds – Early marriage and widowhood. Five of Diamonds – Unexpected news. Four of Diamonds – Trouble arising from unfaithful friends; also a betrayed secret. Three of Diamonds – Quarrels, law-suits, and domestic disagreements. Two of diamonds – An engagement against the wishes of friends.