Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million

I’ve decided to add something to this blog.  Every year for the past thirteen years, I have gone to English Camp on San Juan Island and have demonstrated mid- 19th century folkways.  There’s a lot of butter making and biscuit cutting going on — as well as spinning and candle dipping.

Mrs Hale's receipts cover

Leading my understanding of what a housewife put up with is my great-grandmother’s receipt book, MRS.HALE’s RECEIPT’S FOR THE MILLION.  This delightful book is both charming and informative, filled with 4545 “receipts” that range from cleaning leather and churns, caring for the invalid and making coffee. Published in Philadelphia in 1857, my great grandmother surely found use for it as she made her way from Western Pennsylvania to Kansas to craft a life with her surgeon/lawyer husband.

I think we should all get a daily dose or least every time I post. So here’s what’s in MRS. HALE’s RECEIPTS for today:

COFFEE: The infusion of or decoction of the roasted seeds of the coffee-berry, when not too strong, is a wholesome, exhilarating, and strengthening beverage; and when mixed with a large proportion of milk, is a proper article of diet for literary and sedentary people. It is especially suited to persons advanced in age.

I think I’ll go get some.

Memory Day

Just a quick post. It’s beautiful out and I want to work in the garden before it gets too hot for we northwesterners. And I want to write.

But I am thinking of vets today, including my late husband who served in Vietnam and my great grandfather who was a surgeon in the Civil War.  For many, this could be a painful time. My husband never wanted to talk about his experiences except for a brief time when we first met. For others, like my great grandfather, he did want to remember.  He went all over the west and to the east coast at GAR encampments, returning for even the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg where he was captured by the rebs for a few days and set up a surgery in a church and treated everyone.

On this day of memorial, of memory, I’ll be thinking of both  men and how deeply they affected me: my true love for his opening up my eyes to many things and broadening my love of nature all those years following him on fishing trails and streams and to WF Osborn, whose Civil War journals inspired me at a young age to turn to history and seek out the ordinary, not so famous people who lived through it.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Hot off the Press, 1851, that is.

For the past few months I’ve been up to my eyeballs with the Daily Alta California, a newspaper started in San Francisco in 1849 and the state’s first daily.  Using microfilm on loan from the state library down in California, it has been both a monotonous and rewarding experience as I search for the bark Ann Parry in her new digs on the West Coast after an illustrious (and not so) life as a merchant ship and whaler. (See earlier post).

Reading this newspaper from the Gold Rush’s first pangs to the downright dangerous and tumultuous times of San Francisco streets, I not only see the history of the city and state unfold, but that of Puget Sound in Washington State as well. Two terrible fires in May and June of 1851 pretty much sent ships north into Puget Sound to get lumber and pilings to rebuild the Gold Rush town.

The dangers of the bar at the Columbia River were well known.  Local settlements such as Olympia and at Penn’s Cove in present day Washington encouraged ships to go further up the coast and into the sound.  Their successful return to San Francisco helped to create Seattle, Port Washington, Steilacoom, Fire of May 3 1851 headlinePort Washington, Port Madison, Duwamps Bay and New York, some names now gone.

Further checking the timeline of this event, I discovered that only three days before a strong earthquake also hit the town.  Fires and earthquakes seem to be the stuff of San Francisco history from its beginnings, but these fires stirred up the drive to develop resources in the region that would soon become Washington Territory.

Historic Plumbing Part II

porta-potty2I’m now a week into the portable outhouse in my backyard as I work getting the sewer pipes replaced. Using it brings back memories of YWCA camp in the Pennsylvania woods with wolf spiders in the corner and a black snake that liked to sun himself at 1:00 PM in path to the john.

It also reminds me of the wonderful language resource I have used for years in researching my historic novels: I HEAR AMERICAN TALKING, An Illustrated Treasury of America Words and Phrases by Stuart Berg Flexner. Now out of print, it is a wonderful study of American words and sayings, showing when they first came into use in America and their origins. This information is especially important in historic novels. Word usage from the wrong period can really bump a reader.

Under the title chapter of “WHERE’s THE BATHROOM? Flexner explains the beginnings of usage around bathrooms and outhouses. For example, when the first outhouses appeared in the colonial days, lower class and rural colonists called their outhouses a privy, privy house or outhouse. The more aristocratic or cosmopolitan person used different words such as house of office, “a necessary house or simply the necessary. If behind a house, it might be called a backhouse; if earth were used to cover the excrement it might be called the earth house.” (Flexner p. 18)

Flexner also points out the origin of the half moon on outhouses. The half moon originally meant it was an outhouse for women. The sun indicated that the outhouse was for men. These are old medieval symbols.

Chamber pots for inside usage are another matter. Here in the Northwest, they were often referred to as “thunder mugs.” I won’t go any further than that. Cousin John or Jake were used by men for both the privy or chamber pot as early as 1530 according to Flexner. The word john has survived to this day.

My blue outhouse/privy does NOT have a sun or moon, but it does its duty. I’ll be happy when it’s gone.

Historic plumbing


My house is 105 years and I’m having a fatal breakdown with the sewer line. It must be 80 or 90 years old.  I know this because in 1913, a photographer, I think Sanderson, flew over Sehome Hill in a balloon and took a picture of the neighborhood. Going up the alley past all the house there were white outhouses. Historically speaking, my pipes must have gone in the 1920s.

Plumbing has been around for a long time. Here in the Northwest early communities hollowed out logs or cut them in half , shaped them inside and put the halves back together again with wire. In some houses in mid-19th century, lead pipes were known to be used.

Now if I could get my plumbing solved, I wouldn’t feel like such a relic.

Getting Started– All Over Again


It’s been quite a while since my last post, but I have been learning the frameworks of a blog while I balance work at a museum and conduct research in my off hours on a 19th century bark. For a writer and for the subject of all things historical such a blog needs to focus on writing, research, recent discoveries in different disciplines that compliment history, author interviews and thoughts on both fiction and non-fiction. I love to read and write both. For the purpose of this blog, it’s important to look at both and understand the genres.

For example, what is historical fiction?  That’s a good question.

According to the Historical Novel Society, a novel “must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research)” in order to be considered historical fiction. Sharpe’s Rifles is historical fiction, Cold Mountain, Prince of Foxes (an old favorite), Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Ice Reich, Atonement, The Wet Nurse’s Tale. All historical fiction. Then there is historical mystery, historical thrillers, and historical fantasies. All of them required some homework to create a believable world.

Non-fiction book on the history, on the other hand, is much more exacting. I was trained as an historian and did my undergraduate work at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. One of the requirements for my degree was to write a thesis. I had earlier been an intern for the Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian, flipping carefully through early 19th century American magazines on the lookout for graphics of Native Americans. Later, I wrote a thesis on the Comanche Indians as prisoners of war. I read saddle reports on microfilm, old magazines and letters which hadn’t seen light in over a century. When I wrote the piece, I could comment on the weather and quote what someone had recalled about the event, all backed by further research from different points of view and materials.

The Rule of Three

I was always trained that in writing the history about some event or person, I would need a minimum of three resources to support whatever I was writing about. For example, I am currently researching a 19th century bark. For years, historians reported that the bark was in a certain place at a certain time. I thought it was too early. It’s taken more than half a year, but I found the owner and a newspaper article about where the bark was located. So far, I have a pretty idea that the information about said bark was wrong. All I need now is some ad, some shipping intelligence report or a customs citation to firmly state my case. Then I can say with certainty what the new finding is. All this from 1850 materials.

Historical non-fiction has to be as true as one can discover. David McCullough is a good example of someone who knows the type of research that is required. It can take years, but with a good nose for records finding and a way with the pen (and computer) and prose, you can have a wonderful, informative read such as John Adams.