I needed another book. So, after my homestead errands, I went shopping. I drove to one of my favorite thrift stores. It’s in an old building, by a historic train depot. I think it’s an ideal spot when hunting treasures from yesteryear. I parked near the depot. Then, I made my way across the street to a sidewalk. It was quiet.
I walked alongside the store’s large windows. In the morning sunlight, the bright glare made it hard to see. I couldn’t tell if the store was open or closed. However, there was an open sign on the old, wooden door. The paint was peeling, but its original doorknob was still intact. With a twist and a firm push, I entered. Immediately, a bell from the top the door was jarred. It cheerfully announced my arrival, over the train whistle behind me.
I was surrounded by dim lighting. And assorted smells fought for my attention. There were fruity air-fresheners and musty boxes. There were also moth balls and aged plaster. Overhead, hushed, gospel music played. Below, wooden floors complained; if you cared to listen. Some folks would argue that this building needed upgrades. They’d say it’s desperate for cosmetic repairs. Alas, they would take one look at me and say the same.
Over the years, the store has had different managers and owners. For now, it’s a labor of love for a gal named Mary. She and others organize donations and dump off’s. In the windows, there’s seasonal displays. In the foyer, there’s a jewelry counter. Behind it are shelves for more fragile items. The back room has clothing. And the side room has everything else.
Within a few steps, I spotted my treasure. It was dusty and heavy. I picked it up carefully, as rogue pages fell out of place. At first glance, it appeared to be a well-used Bible. The spine was loose and threads peeked out, here and there. The hardcover was draped in the perfect black dress; a classic. At one time, it would have been flawless and accessorized with gold embossing. I imagined it had been the center of attention, in select circles. Perhaps, it had also been the talk of the whole town.
Shamefully, this book was now just another outcast. Like me, it had lost its youthful appearance. It was old, wrinkled, faded, and falling apart at the seams. Yet, its disheveled look didn’t deter me. In fact, it’s what attracted me. It had a story to tell and I wanted to hear what it had to say. Perhaps, I would be gifted hidden words of wisdom.
I started by seeking out a name. My eyes strained behind tri-focals to read stamped letters on the spine:
THE R.C. BARNUM CO.
It was three books in one and three-inches thick. There were 313 yellowed and ragged pages. Most of it was text. But, there were a few antique photos, too. The content was copyrighted in 1910. And this book was published in 1919. Inside the first few pages, it read:
THE PEOPLE’S HOME LIBRARY
BEING A SET OF BOOKS
‘BY THE PEOPLE AND FOR THE PEOPLE’
IS MOST RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED
TO THE PEOPLE.
May it serve them well
in their hour of need.
I was smitten. Plain and simple, I’m a bibliophile. And I’m not alone. In fact, I’m in good company. J.A. Langford said, “(The) lover of books is the richest and happiest of the children of men.” He should know. Langford was born an English commoner, in 1823.
Sadly, as a child, Langford had little access to books. Yet, Langford was determined to read. And by 1843, the machine printing presses started up. Then men like Langford helped other commoners get books. Soon afterwards, some books cost only a shilling. By the 1850’s, “penny dreadfuls” and “dime novels” were introduced. Ever since, everyday folks could own books.
Today, a hardcover book costs about $27.00. My treasure was marked $10. It was a fair price. But, I was $6.25 short. I only had $3.75 cash in my pocket. And I was surprised. Not long ago, the shop’s paperback books cost only $.50. And their hardbacks were $1-$3. My $3.75 had usually been enough. This meant I needed to decide how much it was worth to me. This deserved more time browsing through the book, instead of the store.
The book’s pages of text were yellow and softened. Yet, they were also brittle. And the photo pages were different. They were made from a more durable paper. They were ivory, glossy, and only one sided. All were black and white. The medical ones were disjointed. And some were painfully “doctored”. They had touches of orangey-red blush. For 1910, it was state-of-the-art photography.
I gently turned more ailing pages. Toward the back of the book, I found veterinarian care for livestock. I was shocked. It was written for folks like me. Although the information was from yesteryear, not all of it was outdated. I found the same to be true of the cooking section. And many of its recipes tempted me.
Yes, I needed this book. It was worth more than the one thin dime and every penny in my pocket. The spirit of Henry Ward Beecher whispered, “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”. So, I used my debit card. Afterwards, I thanked Mary. She smiled and told me I had gotten a good deal. Her comment reminded me of another Mary; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
Lady Mary, lived three-hundred years ago. She wrote, “No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting”. And it was true. I’d bought cheap reading. An online search told me so. The original is at Cornell University. Copies sell for $40-$50. Mine was a steal for only $10.
“The more one reads the more one sees we have to read.” At least that’s what John Adams believed. And I wanted to read more about the history of my book. As I did so, I stumbled across an unfamiliar blog. The author was known only as Missy from Omaha.
Missy said she was divorced and childless. She had three followers. Before blogging, she admitted that she, “never shared much with anyone”. Missy added that she plays computer games, like World of Warcraft. She also wrote that she enjoys cooking and cookbooks.
Missy had links to twenty-five cookbooks. And she boasted she had at least eighty-five. She offered to share recipes. Then Missy describes them as, hilarious… gross… delicious…”. The post I read was titled, “Exploring Cookbooks: 1913 – The People’s Home Library”. There were no visible comments. But, there was a picture of the book. It looked like the one I had bought.
What Missy wrote, intrigued me. She said she’d received her book as a gift. She wrote, “I’m going to be honest, I have never made a single recipe from this book. Most are very old-fashioned, don’t appeal to my taste, are too difficult to use (no oven temperatures and sometimes no measurements) or in a lot of cases the recipe is just plain gross and inedible”. Missy continued, “…most (of the) sandwiches most children would never eat, even if being bribed!”. And on meat substitutes, she wrote, “interesting. Veganism in 1913. Who knew?”.
I paused. Of course, some folks in 1913 were Vegans. Vegans and Vegetarians are as old as history itself. But, this substitute section was most likely written for folks who wanted meat, but didn’t have it. She continued, the JUNE 13th SALAD recipe and TOMATO JELLY recipes are, “absolutely revolting. I have no idea how people could eat those.”. Well, I know the answer. Some folks were hungry. They made do with what they had or they starved. And a hundred-years later, starvation still exists.
Next, Missy bemoaned, “I’m afraid to say that the cookies section is somewhat dreadful. Things like Ginger Drop, Oatmeal, Molasses, Rocks, Cornstarch and Mince Crisp. Very old fashioned. For your amusement, the following recipes are posted exactly as written…”. Unlike Missy, I wasn’t repulsed. And I wasn’t making fun of the recipes. These were golden nuggets. They had hidden morsels of wisdom, like adding sour cream to molasses cookies.
Finally, Missy commented, “A complete section (is) in the back on how to do things like clean carpets, mend things, make commonly needed items, etc. Very helpful to a housewife of that era I’m sure.” I had to read that again. Perhaps, I had misunderstood. Then, I read it a third time and a fourth. Was this praise? Or was it veiled sarcasm? And had she dismissed the methods, role of housewives, and chores as obsolete?
I couldn’t answer for Missy. But, I was painfully aware that the need for cleaning, mending, and making still existed. Even when Keith and I close our eyes, they don’t go away. In fact, when we ignore them, they really pile up. At least, unlike yesteryear, I don’t have to wash or make clothes by hand. Yet, I know how to do so. And this book offered suggestions to make such jobs easier.
Alas, we still judge both books and people by their covers. On the surface, my book’s wisdom appeared outdated and worthless. While its lessons had endured 2000 years of trial and error, its pages had deteriorated. And like a beloved grandparent, it talked differently. However, it was not obsolete. It still had much to offer to those willing to hunt for treasures, listen, and learn.
It’s true that Missy and I were from different generations. And we both lived in an ever-changing world. Yet, generation to generation, our basic human needs have remained the same; frozen in time. Even in the 21st century, Missy and I still needed water, food, shelter, clothing, and human contact. No, our futuristic electronics were not a basic need. And neither were our antique books. However, depending on how they’re used, both could help us meet our basic needs; today and tomorrow.
Maybe, my thoughts were old-fashioned and dreadful. Maybe, I was repulsive and obsolete, too. After all, I was fifty-years old. I’d been a housewife. I’d raised and home-schooled children, too. And I was still working as a homesteader, in the year 2017.
Meanwhile, Missy was in her thirties and playing computer games. In her spare time, she scoffed at yesteryear. And thoughts of basic life skills simply amused her. Maybe, others agreed and shared in her amusement. But, I didn’t. And the fading words now seemed foreboding and ominous:
“May it serve them well in their hour of need.”
 (BookBub, 2014)
 (John Alfred Langford, n.d.)
 (Dr. Annette Lamb & Indianapolis, n.d.)
 (The Newark Public Libray, n.d.)
 (Kowalczyk, n.d.)
 (Secor, 1999)
 (Ritterm, n.d.)