Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Queen of the Household"

Minnie as an infant circa 1891
As described in an earlier post, Grandma Minnie spent her earliest childhood living along the Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley, where her father Fred Fineour ran a grocery and feed store that supplied the canal boats that came through the lock at Fort Plain. What was it like for Great-Grandma Nan (Kittie Van Slyke Fineour) to keep house in the apartment over the store?

We can glean some hints of what housekeeping entailed in the last decade of the 19th century by peeking into Kittie’s book of household hints, which has been handed down to me along with Grandma Minnie’s cookbook.

The title page announces: “Queen of the Household: A Carefully Classified and Alphabetically Arranged Repository of Useful Information on Subjects that Constantly Arise in the Daily Life of Every Housekeeper.”  Indeed, the heavy volume, all 737 pages of it, is chock full of recipes for all occasions, laundry tips, hints on cleaning furniture and woodwork, child care, home remedies for common ailments, “many uses of common things”  -- and a whole chapter on fancy ways to fold napkins.

Title Page: "Queen of the Household"

The book was written by Mrs. M.W. Ellsworth, also known as the Queen of the Household, published by her husband, and sold all through the United States by traveling salesmen. The edition I have was published in Detroit in 1891, and must have been purchased by my great-grandparents the year after Minnie was born. Now it is tattered, torn and stained in spots, which bears witness not only to its advanced age, but also to the fact that it must have been used a lot. I picture Mrs. Ellsworth, nee Mary ("Tinnie") Wolcott Janvrin as the Martha Stewart of her day, but her advice and instructions seem much more down-to-earth than those of today’s domestic diva. In fact, as her husband’s preface states, the book is “rigidly economical, thoroughly practical, with short but plain directions, and nothing put into it simply to fill [it] up.”

Here, for example, are recipes for making your own bleach, soap and furniture polish, dissolving and reconstituting scraps of soap (economical, for sure!), removing ink stains from cloth or marble, cleaning hardwood floors or furniture, and dealing with rats, mice and insects. Before beginning my own spring cleaning chores earlier this year, I decided to skim through Mrs. Ellsworth’s hefty tome and see how many of her tips had survived the test of time.

I quickly gave up on the idea of making my own bleach, or javelle water, as it was called in Tinnie’s time. The recipe called for four pounds of sal soda (sodium carbonate), 1 pound of chloride of lime, and 1 gallon of boiling water. “Put the sal soda in the water and let boil 10 or 15 minutes, and add the chloride of lime; when cool put into jugs and keep corked tightly. Nothing like it for soiled linen.” I wasn’t sure where to find the ingredients, or just how toxic they might be, so I found it easier of course to buy my own bleach at my local supermarket.

Illustration from Queen of the Household
As for the soap, well, I asked myself, do I want to try hard soap, soft soap, or ox-gall soap? For this last, Tinnie suggests getting a pint bottle filled with fresh beef’s gall at the butcher’s. I tried to imagine the look I might get upon requesting this item at the meat counter of my local supermarket, and decided against it.

But as Mrs. Ellsworth writes, “It is a simple matter to make hard soap: To 7 pounds tallow use 3 pounds rosin, 2 pounds potash, and 6 gallons water; boil for 3 hours, or, better still, for 5.” None of these essential ingredients are to be found in the average 21st century household. I was beginning to think I would never make it to be Princess of my household, let alone Queen!

The soft soap recipe also called for items I didn’t have: 6 gallons of rain water and 4 tablespoons hartshorn, along with hard soap and sal soda. I had to resort to my unabridged dictionary to figure out what some of these ingredients were. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, hartshorn is just that: the antler of a hart, i.e., a male deer, formerly used as a source of ammonia and in smelling salts (ammonium carbonate). Sal soda is a hydrated sodium carbonate used as a general cleanser. Again, not commonly available in today’s supermarket, unless under a more recognizable brand name.

I did try Mrs. Ellsworth’s instructions for reconstituting scraps of soap by cutting them up and dissolving them in boiling water, stirring in oatmeal and letting the mixture harden in a greased cup. This is definitely “reduce, reuse, recycle,” in modern 21st century fashion, and not as onerous a task as making my own soap from scratch. The Queen claims that this will be an ideal soap for the nursery, meaning great for scrubbing children’s dirty hands. I had mixed results with this experiment. The oatmeal sank to the bottom of the cup as the mixture solidified, and it only hardened to a consistency a little firmer than margarine. Small chunks of undissolved soap rose to the top as the mixture hardened, giving the soap a mottled appearance and releasing unexpected bursts of perfume now and then when I tried it out in the shower.

"Golden Sands" from Queen of the Household

One cleaning tip I found in the pages of Tinnie’s book that has definitely stood the test of time is the idea of using weak tea, at room temperature, to clean hardwood floors. In fact, shortly before I found this idea in the book, I received a promotional postcard from the real estate agent who had helped me buy my house; his postcards always include decorating or cleaning tips, and the latest one was just this: clean hardwood floors with black tea. This is simple, practical and effective. I used a soft cloth dipped in the warm tea to gently rub away dirt and dust, and it made my wood floors shine without too much effort. After cleaning the floor with tea, Mrs. Ellsworth suggests using a furniture polish made of 1/3 linseed oil, 1/3 turpentine and 1/3 vinegar. “Shake it well together in a bottle, and pour it into a saucer and rub hard.”

This seems a simple enough recipe, but linseed oil and turpentine are both highly inflammable, so if you try this, you should use much caution. In fact, the floor polish I have in my cupboard contains petroleum distillates, which are also highly combustible. The label warns you not to use it near an open flame, and to use only in a well-ventilated area. Good advice for any household product, whether formulated by the Queen or not.

Would you like some ideas for brightening your carpets? Mrs. Ellsworth suggests beating your carpet to remove the dust, then scrubbing it with soap dissolved in soft water mixed with bullock’s gall. She claims, “This will restore the carpet to its original colors and make it look almost like new.” Again, the problem of where to find bullock’s gall presents itself! Not only that, but this sounds like an awful lot of work; however, I remind myself that it was written in the days before most people had vacuum cleaners. In fact, by 1891, a number of inventors had tinkered with various types of suction devices for cleaning carpets, but it was not until after World War II that vacuum cleaners became standard equipment in most middle class households.

The last thing I thought of trying out was Tinnie’s instructions for cleaning silver. She suggests that “Nothing is better to clean silver with than alcohol and ammonia.” As soon as I can find these ingredients in my local hardware store or drugstore, I’ll try it on my Moroccan silver coffee service. I just hope it doesn’t harm the finish.

"Flowers" by Longfellow, from Queen of Household

According to information on , a popular genealogy Web site, Mrs. Ellsworth and her husband were both teachers; perhaps that is where their desire to instruct housewives in domestic science came from. At that time, many of the products that we now purchase at the corner store had to be made from scratch. This was probably especially true for households out on the frontier. Remember, this was still the era of westward expansion across the Great Plains.

This was also an era of expanding industry --  and federal budgets. Benjamin Harrison was in the White House, and during his administration, the federal budget reached a billion dollars for the first time in American history. In Great Britain, the British Empire prospered and grew, and Queen Victoria would rule for another ten years.

Perhaps Great-Grandpa Fred Fineour purchased the volume from a traveling salesman who may have shopped at the store while the canal boat he was traveling on went through the canal lock. I wonder if the store sold some of the ingredients needed for Tinnie’s concoctions: potash, lye and sal soda.

Many of the household hints in “Queen of the Household” seem quaint and outdated to us now. But we are living in an era of shrinking resources and global warming. It therefore behooves us to reexamine our own habits and see where we can use fewer toxic chemicals and stretch our available resources by re-using or recycling them. Tea, anyone?

Oh, and one last tip from the Queen – “Always govern your household with the triple-jeweled crown: Love, Patience, Prudence.” That’s good advice in any era.

An earlier version of this article was published in The Altamont Enterprise on April 26, 2007. Reprinted with permission. 

Stay tuned  --  Next week we return to the Netherlands to learn more about Grandma VandenBergh's forebears in Loosdrecht. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pony Pictures

Me and my Sis on Painted Pony 1953
One fine day in the summer of 1953, an itinerant photographer came down our street leading a painted pony. He snapped this black and white photo of my sister and me astride the just-our-size mount.

I remember the discrete dispute about who would get to wear the cowboy hat and who the bandana. I wore the bandana, which was, well . . . almost as good as the hat. I remember as well the acrid odor of horseflesh and how excited I felt to be seated atop a real horse.

That summer, when Dwight “I like Ike” Eisenhower was in the White House, was the best of times and the worst of times. It was an era when unemployment stood at 2.9 percent in the U.S., average annual salaries were $4,000, and the inflation rate was under one percent.  A new car cost on average about $1600, a gallon of gas 20 cents, and a new house about $10,000.

This was also the year that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would conquer the unconquerable summit of Mount Everest. Scientific advances would include Dr. Jonas Salk’s first successful trials of a vaccine to prevent polio and the unveiling of Watson and Crick’s double helix model of DNA. Across the ocean, Elizabeth II would be crowned Queen of England and Albert Schweitzer would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, these positive events took place against a background dominated by the Cold War. Tension between the Soviet Union on one hand and Western Europe and the United States on the other colored the geopolitical landscape a bleak gray. The USSR would brutally repress protests against the Communist government in East Germany. After Josef Stalin’s death in March of that year, Nikita Krushchev would eventually win out in the ensuing power struggle.

Of course my sister and I were oblivious to these events. We knew nothing of Ike or Stalin or even of Sir Edmund Hillary. Our hero was Superman, that caped figure on the TV screen who was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, [and] able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

Seated on the painted pony, we smiled directly at the camera. As for the pony, I don’t remember if she was patient or whether she pawed her front hoof and snorted a puff of pony breath as ponies do, but I suppose she did. Perhaps she was thinking, “Let’s get a move on here,” down the street to the next house with children.

                                                *   *   *
Grandma's Children on Pony 1923
Pony pictures seem to have been a family tradition. Thirty years before my sister and I posed on the pony, another family of children took a similar photo. This picture of Grandma Minnie’s four eldest children was probably taken in the summer of 1923. Marg stands behind the horse and Charlotte in front. Bill (Dad) and Glenadore are seated on the pony.

This too was an era of contrasts. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th American President in early August, following the death of President Harding. One could purchase a dozen eggs for 25 cents, an oven and broiler for $59.00, a “roadster” automobile for $480, and a pair of tweed knickers for a dollar and a half.

Medical advances included the first use of insulin to treat diabetes; technological advances for the modern family included the development of the first portable radio and the first household refrigerator.  In popular culture, the names Harry Houdini, Louis Armstrong, Jack Dempsey, and King Tut were on everyone’s lips. In higher culture, William Butler Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his eloquent and artistic poetry. Italian actress Eleonora Duse became the first woman whose features graced the front cover of the new weekly news magazine, “Time.”

In spite of the fact that this decade is often known as the “Roaring Twenties” for its prosperity and highly spirited shedding of inhibitions following the First World War, 1923 was also the year that several events occurred which foreshadowed darker days to come in the 1930’s and ‘40’s: it was that year that all non-Fascist political parties were banned in Italy, and Benito Mussolini’s troops bombarded and briefly occupied the island of Corfu off the coast of Greece.

In Germany, the currency was devalued to a rate of 600,000 Deutsche mark to one US dollar. Taking advantage of dissatisfaction with this hyperinflation, Adolf Hitler led the Nazi party in a failed coup attempt against the Weimar Republic. East of Germany and north of Italy, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was consolidated.

These clouds as yet barely visible on the horizon did not prevent adults from partying through the Twenties, or children from smiling for pony pictures. On that summer day in the Mohawk Valley, perhaps Minnie’s children were also anticipating a tempting piece of her raspberry cake for an afternoon treat:

Grandma's Raspberry Cake Recipe

Here is how I updated the recipe:

                                  Grandma Minnie’s Raspberry Cake


- 1 ½ cup flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup margarine ( = 1 stick margarine)
- 2 eggs
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons milk
- 1 cup raspberries


- Pre-sift flour; preheat oven to 350 degrees. (325 degrees if using a glass pan)

- Grease and flour an 8 inch or 9 inch cake pan.

- Sift dry ingredients together and set aside.

- Cream margarine with sugar. (Margarine should be left at room temperature for a while before beginning this.)

- Mix in eggs and vanilla.

- Add milk and flour alternately, while mixing. Do not overbeat.

- Fold in raspberries. Add a few drops of red food coloring if you wish.

- Pour into cake pan and bake until toothpick comes out clean. (This might be 20 to 25 minutes, depending on size of pan.)

I have tried the recipe in several ways:  folding the raspberries into the batter gently, or using a mixer to mix them in more thoroughly. With the second method, the batter became blue instead of the pink I was expecting. I have also tried decreasing the margarine or butter a bit more, or using butter-flavored baking shortening, which is less fatty, but unfortunately more expensive than margarine. 

I have also made the cake with strawberries instead of raspberries, which is just as tasty and less gritty.

The photo shows an example of how to serve this pleasing summer dessert. 

Raspberry Cake

Note: Historical information cited in this essay was drawn from the following sources:
 - The People History: 
- The Nobel Prize:
- Time Magazine Archive: 
- Brainy History:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wedding Bells, No. 2

In the back yard at Beacon Avenue after the Wedding
On a bright and sunny late summer day 65 years ago today, when the autumn leaves had already begun to fall, my parents exchanged vows and later posed for pictures in the back yard of the VandenBergh home. Squinting against the sunlight, they stood between their best man (Dad's friend and colleague Don) and matron of honor (Mom's eldest sister Betty).

The bride wore a headpiece decorated with tiny flowers and a long white veil, and carried a bouquet of white rosebuds with trailing white ribbons. Betty was dressed in a pale pink gown and clutched a bouquet of pink roses. Dad wore his best navy blue suit, while Don was dressed in a formal black suit. The men had white boutonnieres, which matched the bride's bouquet.

A formally posed photo, in black and white, shows a more solemn group, looking straight at the camera, with Mom's long gown swirling gracefully around her feet:

Studio photo 1946

Dad had graduated from Union College in Schenectady in 1943, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. He was recruited right away to work at Sterling Winthrop Research Institute in Rensselaer, across the Hudson River from Albany. His class graduated early so that many of his classmates could enlist in the armed service, as the country was in the throes of World War II. He immediately began work  on helping develop synthetic anti-malarial drugs to be used by the soldiers fighting in the Pacific.

Mom - High school graduation 1936
Mom had graduated from Albany High School ten years before they were married, and had worked first at a factory job, then for a State agency whose offices were in the Alfred E. Smith Building on Washington Avenue in downtown Albany, which today houses the New York State Civil Service Department.

Mom's sister Louisa was employed at Sterling Winthrop as what was called in that day a "lab girl," assisting the chemists with ensuring that their flasks and other equipment were sterile and in the proper condition when needed for the lab experiments. It was Louisa who arranged for Dad to meet her younger sister.

As this photo shows, the young chemist smoked a pipe, perhaps having been influenced by his Uncle Frederic, who started smoking a pipe when he went off to college in the 1920's:

Dad and pipe in the early 1940's

In this slide taken during the couple's courtship, by a trick of light and the fading of the Ektachrome film, they seem to be glowing as they wade in a stream somewhere in the countryside:
"Wade in the Water"

And one last photo from that bright September day so long ago:

Mom and Dad, September 14, 1946

"The arms of love encompass you with your present,
your past, your future, the arms of love gather you together."

                                        - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Back to the Future in Loosdrecht

Forty years before my recent visit to the Netherlands, my mother made a similar pilgrimage with two of her sisters, Aunt Betty and Aunt Connie. The three sisters were delighted to meet their Dutch cousins and to visit the area where their parents had grown up. They were also able to meet several of their aunts and uncles  --  sisters and brothers of their parents who were still living in 1971. I accompanied them on some of their excursions, as I was studying in France that year, and spent part of my school vacation in the Netherlands.

Mom on footbridge near Loosdrecht

The sisters took photos of scenic spots around Loosdrecht:

17th century mansion on River Vecht

They were also able to shoot several aerial views of the area around Loosdrecht, as one of their cousins had a small plane and took them up for a ride:

Nieuw Loosdrecht, with Sijpe Church (center)

The Loosdrechtse Plaassen (Loosdrecht Lakes) were and are a busy tourist location during the summer:

Loosdrecht and Lake

The medieval town of Naarden is an impressive sight from the air, looking as though it was cut out with a giant cookie-cutter. Its ramparts were built between 1675 and 1685 to defend the eastern approaches of Amsterdam:

Naarden from the air

In Loosdrecht, Grace, Connie and Betty also paid their respects to their brother Jasper, who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and is buried in the cemetery on the outskirts of their mother's hometown. A cousin regularly tended the grave and saw to it that there were always fresh flowers there :

Jasper VandenBergh's grave in Loosdrecht Cemetery

Other trips took the sisters to Zaanse Schans and Marken. In this photo, the contrast between the American tourist ladies and the Dutch women in traditional costume is striking. I'm not sure if the Dutch ladies really wanted their picture taken:

Checking each other out in Marken? Zaanse Schans?

And of course, who could resist photographing the wholesale flower market, where thousands of flowers are auctioned off and shipped all over the world to decorate homes in far-off lands? Although somewhat faded, the old Ektachrome slides still show off the brightness of the crimson blossoms:

Flower auction

Last but not least, Mom took this shot of a Dutch windmill, not so different from the digital photos I took forty years later:

Windmill and canal in the Dutch countryside