Saturday, October 15, 2011

Poxy Lady

Nineteenth century cookbooks didn’t just provide a literate wife or housekeeper with recipes for food — they also covered advice for everything you’d need to run a home. This approach didn’t really let up until the 1950s, when women jettisoned themselves from their kitchens into the workforce and fed their family with TV dinners. Such homemaker mavens as Martha Stewart revived the cult of the well-kept hearth with her many books, but steered clear of suggesting remedies for serious illnesses better left to medical professionals.

Not so her sisters of yesteryear: before doctors were as close as your nearest ER, a woman had to be her own triage unit, and her medicine kit consisted of items already on her shelves or in her garden. No seemingly fatal illness was deemed beyond her expertise, no matter how alarmingly contagious.

Small pox (so named to differentiate it from the “great pox,” or syphilis), one of the 18th century’s leading causes of death in Europe,  was eradicated in 1979. Smallpox enters the system via the mouth and first exhibits symptoms similar to a cold, hence this recipe for preventing a sore throat. A recipe for lessening the scars would have proven popular, as the pustules left behind a distinctive de-pigmented pit when they dried up and fell off.

Queen Elizabeth I wore heavy make-up to hide her smallpox scars; Stalin had his erased with photo re-touching. Smallpox was among the viruses chiefly responsible for wiping out great swaths of aboriginal peoples everywhere Europeans found them. 

Happily these are recipes we need never revisit. 

The Compleat Housewife, Eliza Smith, 1742

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