History from
the Bottom Up

Let Them Eat Jiggly Soup

Screen Shot 2014 09 06 at 7.43.12 AM 450x337 Let Them Eat Jiggly SoupBack in the early nineteenth century, with populations in cities swelling, feeding the poor cheaply in poorhouses and public hospitals became a growing concern.

In her fascinating book, Gulp, Mary Roach describes the efforts of a French chemist named Jean d’Arcet, Jr., who in 1817 came up with a method for extracting gelatin from bones. I’m not sure why this was such a complicated undertaking—anyone who has ever boiled up a turkey carcass after the Thanksgiving meal would see that the resulting broth, if allowed to cool, gets all jiggly and gelatinous. But d’Arcet seems to have figured out how to reduce his “extract of bones” down to pure, concentrated gelatin.

He peddled his glop to public hospitals and poor houses, claiming that two ounces of his gelatin was equal in nutrition to three pounds of meat.

So gelatin soup became standard fare in places that fed the poor for the next twenty years, despite “criticisms and complaints.”[1] It wasn’t until 1831 that a group of physicians decided to test the gelatin soup against traditional bouillon. They found it “more distasteful, more putrescible, less digestible, less nutritious”[2] in comparison.

But not much was done, aside from forming a “Gelatin Commission.” As Roach so brilliantly puts it, “The French Academy of Sciences sprang into inaction.”[3]

It took ten more years for the Gelatin Commission to declare the gelatin soup ineffective. This after feeding it to dogs and finding the soup excited “an intolerable distaste to a degree which renders starvation preferable.”[4]


Mary Roach, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, New York: WW Norton, 2013
Dawson, Percy M. A Biography of François Magendie. Brooklyn: Albert T. Huntington, 1908

[1] Dawson, 33
[2] Dawson, 33
[3] Roach, 85
[4] Dawson, 34-5

Fetching Names

In case you’ve recently acquired a new dog, and are wondering what to name it, look no further than the early fifteenth-century manuscript called The Master of Game. Appended at the end is a list of suitable names for your hunting dog. Here are some suggestions:
Another medieval manuscript suggests Huiiau, which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, and Blessiau, which would invite the inevitable snide rejoinder “But I didn’t sneeze.” … Read more

Links and Connections

For today’s post, I’m punting you to two different websites. The first is Melissa Stewart’s, where yesterday she posted a lovely review of Bugged. Here’s the link.

Having Melissa put her stamp of approval on one’s book is (practically) tantamount to getting on Oprah. She is a fantastic writer, and she knows children’s nonfiction books like no one else. Here’s the cover of her recent book, Feathers: Not Just for Flying:

And here’s Melissa’s latest  book, Perfect Pairs, glowingly reviewed by Elizabeth Bird of the NYPL. It’ s about pairing fiction and nonfiction books … Read more

Beauty Tips

Library of Congress LC-USZ62-102221

I got sidetracked in my research again. But you, Dear Reader, will be the beneficiary, because I stumbled upon a book from 1910, written by one Margaret Mixter, entitled Health and Beauty Hints, that is filled with sensible advice. Take fitness. Turns out we’ve been going about it all wrong. What, according to Ms. Mixter, is the best exercise to develop “a round, pretty figure?” Why, housework.

Yes, that’s right. Put away your running shoes. Roll up your yoga … Read more



This past weekend I traveled to Toronto. I went there for two reasons: to see the exhibit called “Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century” at the Bata Shoe Museum, and to meet my friend Y.S. Lee.I first heard about Ying’s books on Twitter several years ago, and after reading them, loved them so much I fan-girl friended her on Facebook. We’ve been e-friends ever since, but had never met in person. We toured the … Read more

Baby Carriers

In the first part of the nineteenth century, it was fashionable to dress babies in long petticoats to protect them from drafts. Voluminous clothing might also help keep a child from slipping out of its mother’s or nursemaid’s arms. According to Elizabeth Ewing in her History of Children’s Costume, the first modern baby carriage in America was introduced in 1848 by Charles Burton, but it was soon banned for being a nuisance to pedestrians. He had more success opening a factory … Read more

Tough to Swallow

A few days ago my writer friend, Erin Dionne, posted this status update:

Erin is a fantastic writer, incidentally. You should read her new book, if you haven’t yet.

She followed up with

(Loree Burns is another writer friend, who has written several nonfiction books about insects. If you don’t yet have them, you should run out and buy all of her books immediately.)

Erin’s post sparked a lively conversation in … Read more

Poisonous Powders

Livre d’heures de Jean de Montauban – Bibliothèque des Champs Libres

One of my favorite memories from childhood was opening a new box of crayons. I marveled at the beautiful hues. When I was older and took painting classes, I never lost that feeling of awe at the brilliant, saturated colors that came right out of the paint tube. But five hundred years ago, painters didn’t have the luxury of buying their paints from the art supply store. They had to mix their … Read more

Greetings to All

As I may or may not have mentioned in my last blog post, one of the best–but also most perilous–things about doing research is that it’s so easy to get sidetracked. While looking for images for my book proposal, I spent a lot of time that I don’t really have to spare looking at Victorian/early twentieth century greeting cards on various archives (British Museum, Library of Congress, and New York Public Library). They’re fascinating.

The penny post was introduced in Britain in 1840, and that meant a lot of people could afford … Read more

Research Diversions

By Roger from Derby, UK Preserved Chemists shop in Derby Silk Mill via Wikimedia

I have a new favorite publication. During my recent week of research in New York City, I spent many happy hours poring over nineteenth century copies of The British Medical Journal. I found it so diverting—literally—that it was difficult to stay focused on my area of research. It’s written in a very approachable, conversational style, well, for a medical journal—with lots … Read more

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