Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university art, removes the dust from a 206-year-old household management book to reveal some helpful hints that have stood the test of time.

Since 2014, the generosity of University of London alumnus and book collector Anthony Davis has allowed Senate House Library and the Institute of English Studies (IES) to administer the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize for students at the University of London. From 2016, winners of the student book collecting prizes run by various prestigious universities have been put forward for a national prize awarded by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. In 2017 and 2018, the London candidate won the national prize.

Delight for the student and institutional pride blended with practical benefit, as part of the prize comprised money to buy a book for the winner’s university library. The winner in 2018 had in fact been one of two co-winners of the London prize. He received money to buy books for his collection, while the Library used its part of the money to buy a book pertaining to his co-winner’s collection on household management books from 1760 to 1960, introduced here.

The book in question, published in 1813, is entitled: The complete family assistant; including economical hints on the use of provisions, fuel, &c., interesting observations and moral essays the most useful receipts, prescriptions and tables; and approved methods for the preservation or restoration of health. A list of the London schools and charities; an abstract of the laws relating to landlords, tenants, and pawnbrokers; advice to tradesmen & farmers; and every variety of information calculated to benefit the condition of the poor; or connected with domestic economy.

 The author and publisher is John Morris Flindall (1775–1841), of Lambeth Marsh. This is the most extensive of three items originating from him, the others being a description of some engraved British portraits and rare books (also, 1813) and a print of the ice at London Bridge in January 1815.

Having married in 1799 and subsequently fathering nine children, Flindall presumably had every reason to be interested in domestic economy. His purpose in writing the book, as explained in the preface, was usefulness in filling a gap: ‘During many years intimacy with books, I could never meet with any, in my opinion, deserving to be considered as a manual universally acceptable in domestic life. In such as have been offered, the intellectual and the practical have not been often united …’ (p. [iii]). Advice, in itself partly but not entirely new, is given on the basis that ‘from time to time, it is necessary to remind, as well as to instruct.’

The targeted recipients are ‘those of the middle, as well as the lower ranks of life’, with particular acknowledgement of recent impoverishment of the former through inflation of prices. Advice covers such diverse matters as the importance of air to health, methods of detecting the adulteration of bread and flour, the best way to cook meat (stewing), cleaning tins, pain, chairs and mirrors. It provides guidance on making bread (the London way and otherwise) and cheese, mending glass and china, eliminating vermin, hints on washing, curing coughs and colds, and unreasonable husbands and the conduct of wives.

We may not agree with the view that roasted potatoes are more nutritious than boiled ones, nor wish to substitute them for bread, an expediency arising from the escalating price of bread between 1790 and 1820 (see pp. 22–3). While taste will dictate whether we accept that rice pudding is the most pleasant, as well as the most cheap and wholesome, that one can consume, we probably shall not regard the excellence of rice as being particularly suitable for ‘the young, feminine, and sedentary classes’ (p. 82).

Other household suggestions remain current. ‘A small piece of bread fixed on the point of a knife, while peeling onions, will in a great measure, if not wholly, prevent any disagreeable effect to the eyes.’ (pp. 59–60; compare with advice on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet to hold a piece of bread in the mouth while peeling onions to avert tears).

To take ink stains out of mahogany ‘Put a few drops of spirits of sea-salt, or oil of vitrio, in a tea spoonful of water. Touch the stain or spot with a feather; and on the ink’s disappearing, rub it over immediately with a rag wetted in cold water, or there will be a white mark which will not be easily effaced’ (p. 271).

Some examples that may speak to us across the centuries:

Study: Hard study always implies a sedentary life; and when intense thinking is joined to the want of exercise, the consequences must be bad; nor can anything afford a greater proof of wisdom than for a man frequently and seasonably to unbend his mind. This may be done by mixing in cheerful company, active diversions, or the like (p. 136).

Exercise: It is absolutely impossible to enjoy health where the perspiration is not duly carried on; but that can never be the case where exercise is neglected; and no piece of indolence hurts the health more than the modern custom of lying a-bed too long in a morning. Besides, the morning air braces and strengthens the nerves, and in some measure answers the purpose of a cold bath (p. 158).

Coffee: The public appear not to be sufficiently aware, that coffee as a beverage is the cheapest, most wholesome, nourishing, and agreeable that can be used. That the article of coffee is most agreeable and nourishing, is in some measure shewn by its being preferred by the population of almost the whole of Europe … as well as throughout the greatest part of Asia and the United States of America, where the consumption is progressively increasing (p. 92).

Flindall continues by commending coffee as being particularly refreshing after hard labour, and as a desirable breakfast, which strengthens the stomach. He advises roasting or grinding it, as it is wanted, and keeping it in a bottle, or preferably a canister.

And in these days when smacking is frowned upon: ‘Punish your children more by their understandings than the rod; and shew them the folly, shame and undutifulness of their faults, rather with a grieved than an angry countenance; and you will sooner affect their natures, and with a nobler sense, than a servile or rude chastisement can produce.(pp. 145–6).

With six other copies on Copac, the book is not particularly uncommon, and it falls within a popular genre. But it provides a fascinating way to take, using the title of the BBC Radio 4 series, the long view.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.