25 Weird Old-Timey Life Hacks

Gallaher's Cigarettes recommended a hack that involved setting butter on fire.
Gallaher's Cigarettes recommended a hack that involved setting butter on fire. / George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections (Gallaher's Card), Carol Yepes/Moment/Getty (background)

Old-timey life hacks run the gamut from relatively mild to disgusting or dangerous—or both. From raw beef for wrinkle prevention to cleaning paintings with potatoes, here are some of the most memorable life hacks from days of yore, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube. It’s probably best not to try these at home.

1. Make Toast Water From Stale Bread

Instead of tossing out stale bread, you could always use it to make what Victorians called “toast water,” which was often served to people who were unwell. It’s exactly what its name suggests: Instead of steeping tea leaves in boiling water, you steep a piece of toast. Once the water has completely cooled, remove the soggy starch, strain the water, and serve. 

Certain recipes listed ways to gussy it up, like adding cream and sugar, or an apple baked with brown sugar. According to the 1884 edition of The Annals of Hygiene, “Some persons, particularly old gentlemen, like toast water warm and sweetened with good molasses.” But in her 1861 classic Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, author Isabella Mary Beeton specified that toast water should only ever be served cold.

As for the taste, food writer Kat Kinsman tested Mrs. Beeton’s recipe in 2016 and described it as tasting “like a pond that is haunted by the ghost of toast that drowned in it.” 

2. An Easy Remedy for Chapped Hands

Chapped hands
Chapped hands? There's an old-timey life hack for that! / Luis Diaz Devesa/Moment/Getty Images

In her 1867 book The Family Save-All, Hannah Mary Bouvier Peterson supplied readers with a homegrown cure for chapped hands. Here’s what it called for: A quarter-pound of hog’s lard, rinsed first in water and then in rosewater; the yolks of two new-laid eggs; a large spoonful of honey; and almond paste or ground oatmeal—your choice. Spread the mixture all over your hands, and … that’s it. Carry on about your day with greasy and possibly germy fingers.

3. Stuff Your Mattress With Leaves

The Family Save-All also had a DIY idea for people who couldn’t afford nice feather beds. Go outside on a crisp fall day, find the nearest beech tree, and gather a bunch of its driest leaves to stuff in your mattress. Why beech? The leaves are “very elastic, and will not harbor vermin.”

4. Use Your Stove (or the Sun) to Combat Mattress Dampness

But people who could afford feather beds needed to make sure the feathers had fully dried out before they tucked themselves in. Otherwise they’d risk catching “chill or rheumatism,” according to Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-Book, published in 1850. Author Eliza Leslie recommended leaving a new bed out in the hot sun or by the stove for a few days before moving it to the bedroom. 

5. A Hack for Detecting a Damp Mattress

Leslie had a nifty way to detect dampness, too. Place a warming pan beneath the sheets, and, as soon as you remove it, stick an upside-down drinking glass in its place. If the inside clouds up with condensation, your mattress is damp. 

6. A Trick for Keeping Hair Out of Food

A woman fixing her hair in a mirror.
Mirrors are for bedrooms, not kitchens. / clu/Digital Vision Vectors/Getty Images

To keep hair from ending up in your food, Leslie offered a simple fix: Don’t put a mirror in your kitchen, “as it is a temptation for the domestics to comb or arrange their hair … In houses where there is a kitchen looking-glass, hairs are frequently found in the dishes that come to table.” The kitchen staff, Leslie explained, should only ever fix their hair in their own rooms. 

7. A DIY Wallpaper Hack

Speaking of kitchen staff’s rooms, according to Hervey J. Seaman’s 1899 book The Expert Cleaner, those walls were the perfect opportunity to make DIY wallpaper out of all your old illustrated newspapers. “[The cook] will appreciate this more than if it were done in the finest cartridge paper,” Seaman claimed.

8. Save Iffy Meat by Putting it Outside

Some of Seaman’s cooking tips stretched the bounds of food safety, to put it mildly. To prolong the shelf life of meat that’s already begun to go bad, Seaman advised simply putting it outside “in the cool night air.” If a raccoon steals it, well … that’s probably for the best.

9. A (Highly Inadvisable) Way to Save Nearly-Sour Dairy

If your cream or milk is starting to go sour, Seaman recommended adding “a generous pinch of borax” per quart. Borax was a popular food preservative at the time, but its days were numbered. In 1902, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief chemist, Harvey W. Wiley, enlisted volunteers to consume foods with certain chemicals so he could determine if they were harmful. Borax was found to cause everything from gastrointestinal distress to vomiting, depending on the dose. 

Wiley’s experiments were one of the reasons the federal government decided to better regulate the food and drug industry. In 1906, it passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Food and Drug Administration. Wiley became its first commissioner, and borax is on the FDA’s list of banned food additives to this day.

10. Clean Your Floor With Milk … 

Milk in bottles spilled on a black surface
Spilled milk? Don't cry over it—try this old-timey life hack instead. / Ivan/Moment/Getty Images

So if you think your milk smells funky, skip the borax and just pour it down the drain. Or on your kitchen floor. In the Victorian era, some people thought milk made for a great floor cleaner. According to English Heritage, an organization that manages hundreds of historic sites across the UK, this actually works—as long as it’s a non-porous stone floor.

While Brodsworth Hall near Doncaster was closed during the pandemic, conservationists tried washing its stone floors with three different kinds of milk: full-fat, semi-skimmed, and skim. Skim worked the best. Amber Xavier-Rowe, English Heritage’s head of collections conservation, told The Guardian that they’d probably even use it again.

11. … And Your Wallpaper With Bread

The team also saw success with another Victorian tactic: sponging down grimy wallpaper with bread. According to Xavier-Rowe, “It does work, although it does need to be fresh white bread—stale bread would be too abrasive. I tried it with some of my sourdough and it was surprisingly effective. It’s very gentle. … You’ve just got to vacuum your crumbs up.”

12. Use the Power of the Sun (and Spuds) to Save Old Paintings

To restore old oil paintings, there are a couple old-fashioned tips that English Heritage doesn’t recommend. One, wiping them down with a wet slice of raw potato; and two, placing them in direct sunlight in order to kill mold. These will likely do more harm than good.

13. Wash Delicates With Egg Whites, Honey, Gin, and Plenty of Elbow Grease

Eggs on a blue background
Crack open an egg and get scrubbing. / Iryna Veklich/Moment/Getty Images

In 1858, Robert Kemp Philp published a book titled Inquire Within for Anything You Want to Know; Or, Over Three Thousand Seven Hundred Facts Worth Knowing. If you were “inquiring within” about a DIY laundry detergent for silks and satins, here’s what you’d find: four ounces of soft soap, four ounces of honey, one egg white, and one “wine-glassful of gin.”

Using that concoction, the clothing should be “scoured [thoroughly] with a rather hard brush,” rinsed, and “iron[ed] whilst quite damp.” 

14. A Highly Inadvisable Method for Killing Bed Bugs

Nineteenth-century homemakers didn’t just use egg whites to launder their clothes. They also mixed them with quicksilver to kill bed bugs. Quicksilver is another name for mercury; the hazardous liquid metal that used to be common in thermometers. If mercury is exposed to room-temperature air, it starts evaporating, turning into colorless, odorless vapor. When inhaled, it can cause all sorts of adverse effects, from chest pain to vomiting. 

In her 1838 book The American Frugal Housewife, Lydia Maria Child at least included a warning with her quicksilver-and-egg concoction: “What is left should be thrown away: it is dangerous to have it about the house.”

15. Create a Coffee Substitute Out of Roasted Peas

Plenty of Child’s other tips have actually now become the norm. She suggested sprinkling salt on ice-covered front steps, for example, and said you should always clean your teeth before bed. Other ideas from the time failed to catch on. If you ran out of coffee beans, Child discussed roasting peas, rum-soaked rye grain, or “dry brown bread crusts.” For what it’s worth, she also said that “None of these are very good.”

16. Use Ear Wax to Relieve Pain and Chapped Lips

But she swore by the effectiveness of ear wax as a pain-reliever, specifically for wounds inflicted by nails or other long, pointy items. She also recommended slathering ear-wax all over your cracked lips. 

17. Sleep With Raw Beef on Your Face

Raw steak on a teal background
According to this old-timey life hack, raw beef gets rid of wrinkles. / Javier Zayas Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Forget fancy serums or Botox to keep wrinkles at bay. How about just sleeping with raw beef on your face? According to Lola Montez’s 1858 book The Secrets of Beauty; Or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet, that’s what “many fashionable ladies in Paris” used to do. Every night, she wrote, they would “bind their faces … with thin slices of raw beef, which is said to keep the skin from wrinkles, while it gives it a youthful freshness and brilliancy to the complexion. I have no doubt of its efficacy.” 

18. Get Sparkling Eyes By Dropping Stuff in Them

Montez concluded her book with a section called “Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating,” which features this irresistible pick-up line: “ … you may ask her if she is always particular to shut her eyes on retiring to bed? She will ask why? And you will answer, Because if you do not, I fear that the brightness of your eyes will burn holes in the blanket, or set the house afire!

Wondering how to make your eyes sparkle enough to merit that compliment? Nineteenth-century women dropped everything from perfume to citrus juice in their peepers. Belladonna was also common, which optometrists actually still use today in drops that make patients’ pupils dilate. It’s an extremely poisonous plant, though. Ingesting just a couple berries is enough to kill a child, and even consuming a small amount could possibly make you hallucinate or put you in a coma.

Barkham Burroughs recommended a somewhat safer hack for sparkling eyes in his 1889 Encyclopaedia of Astounding Facts and Useful Information: “[Dash] soapsuds into them.” Pretty hurts.

19. Combat Sunburn With A Homemade Concoction

Say your face got a little too sunkissed during your last trip to the beach. Here’s a way to fade your tan fast, courtesy of the book The Young Housekeeper as Daughter, Wife, and Mother. Soak some unripe grapes in water and add in a little alum and salt. After that, wrap the grapes in paper and roast the whole bundle in hot ashes. Then “squeeze out the juice, and wash the face with it every morning: it will soon remove the tan.”

20. Use Unusual Methods to Get Rid of Freckles

For removing freckles, there are several recipes in the 1901 book Beauty's Aids: Or How to Be Beautiful, written by the anonymous “Countess C—”. One concoction contains camphor, almond oil, and half a pint of turpentine. Another calls for hog’s lard, zinc, and crystallized lead. Yet another involves mixing milk and hydrochloric acid, among other substances Hydrochloric acid can cause chemical burns, and lead is lead. Turpentine can be a skin irritant, too, and if it gets in your eyes, you could end up with corneal ulcers that cause blindness.

21. A Poisonous Cure for Head Colds

Countess C’s cure for a head cold is similarly ill-advised. Mix menthol, cocaine, and boracic acid—a.k.a. boric acid, which is poisonous—and snort it. To Countess C’s credit, that would probably make you less concerned with your cold.

22. Assess the Authenticity of Butter with Fire

An illustration of a woman holding a flame near a plate of butter
Fire can help you figure out if that butter is really butter—at least according to this historical life hack. / George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

If you bought a pack of Gallaher’s cigarettes in the early 20th century, you might find a little card inside with a life hack printed on it. These handy how-tos covered everything from lighting a match in the wind to drawing a duck without lifting your pencil. 

To find out if your butter is actually margarine hiding in plain sight, one Gallaher’s card recommended smearing some on a piece of paper and then setting it on fire. According to Gallaher’s copywriters, pure butter emits a “dainty and agreeable” odor, while margarine gives off  “an unpleasant tallowy smell.”

23. Use Apple Juice and Salt to Cure Irritated Skin

Here’s how to relieve pain from chilblains, which are itchy and/or blistered patches of skin that occur when small blood vessels get inflamed after overexposure to cold. Just rub the area with an apple slice covered in salt—and be sure to use “a good juicy apple.” 

24. Get Rid of Mucus by Snorting Salt

An illustration of a man holding salt up to his nose
These days, snorting straight salt is not advised. / George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

To clear mucus from your nose or throat, literally just snort salt and then gargle warm water. Today’s physicians would rather you mix the salt and water before you put it up your nose.

25. A Hack for Building Up Lung Capacity 

Here’s how Gallaher’s recommends building up your lung capacity. Every morning and night, stand on your toes, tip your head far back, and take really deep breaths—exhaling slowly and “allowing the chest to sink first, followed by the lungs.”