06 February 2007

Old-Time Curiosities from Books

Reading all the "Five Little Peppers" books over brings one back to a different age. Imagine being so poor that you've never received a letter or a parcel, like Mrs. Hansell in Ben Pepper. Or a wonderful game for children being "playing company," dressing up and pretending to call on your own brothers and sisters.

Some other aspects of Victorian America emerge. For instance, in the second story ever written about the Peppers, little Phronsie celebrates a great event: getting her first pair of brand-new shoes! But even then Mrs. Pepper must cut corners. She tells Polly and Ben to make sure that Mr. Beebe the shoe-store man gives them "evens" so the shoes will wear longer. If you're familiar with the history of shoes, you know that they were originally made the same for both feet. Once on, the shoes then conformed to the shape of your feet. If the shoes wore unevenly on one side—I always "turned on my heels" and rounded out the outsides of them, so my mother had the shoemaker put rubber "taps" on those corners—you could swap shoes and thus "evens" would wear longer. (As someone who has trouble with shoes, I can imagine how uncomfortable that would be!) Around 1822, American cobblers invented the first "left" and "right" side shoes made from specific lasts (molds) of each foot. Some slippers and light women's shoes continued to be made on straight lasts by the turn-shoe method until perhaps 1870. Apparently if Mrs. Pepper was still requesting "evens" in a story written in 1887, either they still made shoes like that for children, who were so hard on shoes, or Mr. Beebe was a very old-fashioned cobbler.

In several of the stories, Mrs. Pepper or another adult applies something called opodeldoc to cuts or bruises. This was a liniment made from, among other things, soap and camphor. Wikipedia tells a little more about opodeldoc, including the origin of the name. It's hard to imagine a day when a simple broken leg was a reason to panic, but blood poisoning or crippling might be the result of the injury.

There's also what sounds like a strange sounding remedy for the bruises that result when Dick Whitney falls down the stairs: brown paper is soaked in vinegar and put on the swellings that result. Again, this is a homeopathic remedy still recommended today:

Put five or six sheets of strong brown paper into a pan and cover with sage vinegar. Place a lid on the pan and steam over a very low heat for a few minutes. The time will depend on the type of paper used. It should soften and absorb some of the vinegar without breaking or disintegrating. Remove the paper and wrap it in overlapping layers around the affected part. Apply as hot as possible and build up several layers. Cover with plastic wrap and bandage in place. Leave for four hours and reapply twice a day until the swelling and bruising have subsided.

This is an effective remedy enshrined in the children's rhyme "Jack and Jill" (Jack "went to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper"). It is very supportive and strengthening for bruises and swellings.

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