On the book table in the RISW coffee morning I find a drab, battered paperback. It looks much older than the other books around it. The faded cover has three overlapping circular pictures featuring a housewife, a small child and a man digging with a spade. What takes my eye is the title, Hints and helps for every-day emergencies. I buy it, for 50p, together with a hardback of Hilary Mantel’s The assassination of Margaret Thatcher – another attractive title.
It turns out that the text belongs to the second edition of a book published by Ward, Lock in 1880 (the first edition came out in 1860). But it had been licensed (I assume, rather than pirated) and republished, at an unknown date, by Lever Brothers of Port Sunlight, as part of their ‘Lifebuoy Library’, complete with inserted advertisements for Sunlight Soap and Lifebuoy Royal Disinfectant Soap. (Curiously, no library on COPAC owns up to having a copy of this edition, so maybe my copy is rare.)
William Lever, the first Viscount Leverhulme, was an ingenious capitalist – a sort of nineteenth century Alan Sugar, with added philanthropy. In 1909 he bought a painting called Salem by Sydney Curnow Vosper and gave prints of it away with bars of Sunlight Soap, so that the picture appeared in thousands of Welsh homes as a symbol of pious rural nonconformity. Maybe copies of Hints and helps were similarly given away as promotions for Lever Bothers soaps.
The author is anonymous, which is a pity, because he – ‘she’ is unlikely, as will become clear – had a witty turn of phrase and a keen appreciation of the niceties of Victorian behaviour. Sometimes the Hints read as if they could belong to satirical works like Diary of a nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, or Three men in a boat by Jerome K. Jerome.
The ‘hints and helps’ range from no. 1 (‘Coffee as a deodoriser’) to no. 482 (‘New mode of assessing inflammation’). Together they give a strong impression that the late Victorian home was a dangerous place, harbouring all kinds of disease, pollutant, financial trap and social blunder. The word ‘emergency’ is a bit exaggerated. There aren’t many true emergencies in the book, except for hints on, for example, ‘how to fall from a horse’ (404) and ‘to escape from, or go into, a house on fire’ (213). Most of the entries give miscellaneous advice on cooking, gardening, DIY, transport and household economy.
Health is constantly under threat of being undermined, and there are dozens of tips on how to try and keep it, including ‘How to apply leeches’ (226), ‘The way to silence snorers’ (69) (plunge the offender’s hand into a jug of water) and ‘Cold prevented’ (327) (‘colds, generally speaking, are caught through persons coddling themselves up’). ‘The turn of life’ (332) is not about the menopause (unmentionable at this period) but refers to when a man reaches the dangerous age of sixty:
… the river of death flows before him, and he is at a stand-still. But athwart the river is a viaduct called the ‘Turn of Life’, which, if crossed safely, leads to the ‘Valley of Old Age’ … The bridge is, however, constructed of fragile materials, and it depends upon how it is passed whether it bend or break.
The well-scrubbed puritanical morality we associate with the Victorians infects many of the hints. Sleeping, and lying in bed in general, are not to be indulged in. Early rising confers ‘moral superiority and elasticity of spirits’ (101). An ‘Easy way of gaining five years of life’ (64) turns out to be cutting down on your sleep by an hour every night – thus adding five years to your life over a period of forty years.
Some of the hints are uncannily modern. Helps in writing (73) suggests that office workers should write while standing rather than sitting (‘great relief will be afforded’). No. 479 warns someone ‘betrayed into writing a letter under feelings of irritation’ to keep it in his pocket for twenty-four hours, to cool off – exactly as writers on email and Twitter etiquette today advise you not to respond immediately or in CAPITALS when outraged by a message. ‘Effect of colour upon health’ (8) reports a feng shui-like piece of empirical research: walls coloured white produced happiness among occupants, whereas yellow walls made them ‘inclined to melancholy’ and gave them headaches. ‘Hints to workmen and students for the preservation of health’ (45) include: don’t drink spirits, drink water (‘pure water is a far better beverage for the sedentary …’), take meals at regular times, never take patent medicines; take exercise, ‘but proportion it to your strength. The mind taints, and the body becomes enervated by too long sitting’. As today, walking is recommended as the very best way of keeping fit and health: ‘of all kinds of exercise, walking is that which is the most universally attainable, and at the same time the best’ (258).
Other hints, though, belong firmly to their age. ‘Be prepared for accidents at night’ (95) says that ‘no one should ever lay his head upon his pillow for the night without having at hand those little necessities which sudden illness or accident in the night are likely to demand. Foremost among the things wanted are lucifers, mustard, brandy, tea, etc.’ Few people today would need help with ‘Sending letters to transported convicts’ (158), ‘Drinking porter out of pewter’ (26), ‘Buying off a soldier’ (152) or ‘Sealing a letter without the aid of a candle’ (336).
The most revealing ‘hints and helps’ are about social situations. ‘Avoiding recognition’ (22) suggests turning into the nearest shop if you’re walking in the street and wish to avoid a person (merely averting your gaze and walking by is condemned as ‘too transparent an artifice’). Feeling that this antisocial advice needs some explanation, the author adds,
The advice here given may savour of duplicity, but there is, in truth, a class of persons whom one is either compelled to avoid, or, on the other hand, to submit to annoyance, irritation, and considerable inconvenience, which their twaddle or impertinence occasions.
The writer returns to the theme of social avoidance in no. 53 (‘Plan of escape from a convivial meeting’), no. 313 (‘Walking through crowded streets’) and no. 131 (‘Keep moving’):
Never take the slightest notice of any communication addressed to you by a stranger in the street, be it man, woman or child. This may appear ill-natured, but the truth is, that there are policemen and shopkeepers in abundance who can attend to these matters much more satisfactorily than any casual passer-by. Not a week elapses but accounts appear in the newspapers of persons being swindled, robbed, and even mutilated by designing wretches, who have managed to attract the notice of their victims in the first instance, and to accomplish their evil designs with the aid of confederates afterwards.
The lower classes are to be feared and avoided. ‘Best nights for theatres, entertainments, etc.’ (79) advises against Mondays: ‘on Monday nights theatres are filled with the lower orders, because with many, Monday is kept as a holiday, and they have more money to spend then than at any other portion of the week’.
Avoid a ‘shabby’ hat, advises hint 56, since it is ‘always associated with poverty, and never fails to give a man a forlorn and needy appearance’. But classier silk hats (189) also pose problems. ‘Nothing spoils a hat more than a shower of rain’; in persistent rain, you should turn your at round at regular intervals. The lack of air circulation and collection of sweat under a silk hat, says hint 430, have ‘evil consequences’: ‘the fact that those who wear silk hats become bald earlier than others is well known to every one in the hat trade’.
Servants could be even more troublesome than hats. No. 65, ‘Count your plate’, advises strongly that you ‘insist upon having it brought up every night, and count it’, before taking it into your bedroom with you for the night. If any piece seems missing, the indifference or dishonesty of your servants will be to blame. The best remedy for employers is ‘to show their servants that they are determined to protect their property’. No. 197 is also doubtful about servants. ‘Do not be in a hurry’, it counsels, ‘directly you are married to hire a kitchenful of servants. Consider first what your means will properly allow, and what will really add to domestic comfort, rather than gratify your own regard to appearances. Let the young wife remember, then, that much of her husband’s success is in her power’.
Women are mostly absent from the book, although we must assume it is they who actually perform many of the tasks it recommends. When they do get a mention they’re usually seen through the eyes of a man. ‘Consequences of refusing maintenance to a wife’ (153) starts off as if it’s a warning to men to do their duty, but soon offers them ways of evading it: ‘if, however, infidelity can be proved against the wife, the husband will be absolved from all responsibility. Nor is he liable if his wife has deserted him voluntarily, and without any reasonable cause’.
Children appear even more rarely, and never favourably: ‘never suffer your children to get into a habit of idleness, sitting totally unemployed; keep them constantly occupied from morning to night …’ (290).
It’s easy to poke fun at Hints and helps from the vantage point of 2018. But we should maybe remember two things. First, the author often has his tongue in his cheek. How else could you explain this advice?
The secret of public speaking. – A thorough contempt for your audience is the surest way to shake off nervousness, and to engender confidence. If a public speaker is afraid of his hearers, he is lost. (408)
And second, we can’t always afford to be superior. The Victorian approach to their possessions, for example, was arguably much healthier than ours. Hints and Helps always assumes that when a household object fails the obvious thing to do is to repair it. We in our wisdom would automatically throw the thing away and buy a replacement, so adding to the mountains of waste and accelerating needless consumerism. And that reminds me, it’s getting hard to find bars of soap in shops these days. Instead we’re expected to buy inferior liquid soap in plastic containers that often end up swirling in the oceans.