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Tips of ‘infinite value’ for Portsmouth Ladies

Attention women of good character! When dining in public, always sip your soup from the side of the spoon, not the front. Never bite directly into a slice of bread. Always hold the bread in your left hand and break off small pieces with your right hand. Be sure to sit firmly in your chair and avoid tipping back, drumming on the table, or any other uncouth behavior.

These are a few rules of infinite value from The Ladies Handbook and Household Assistant. The little green book was published in 1886 by the Universalist Church Society on Pleasant Street in Portsmouth. Its an odd compendium of religious and dining etiquette, recipes and local advertising designed for young Christian women.

No self-respecting young lady, the guide warns, should be seen in the company of an unmarried man who does not attend church regularly. After a lesson in how to write and exchange proper letters, the guide leaves no doubt as to how dinner guests must dress. Men should wear a black dress-coat, a black vest, black trousers, a white necktie and patent leather boots.

Ladies should wear a dinner dress of silk or other rich material of the finest make with a long train. The handbook adds: A white fan and white kid gloves are also among the requisites essential for the occasion.

At the table

Following a lesson in punctuality and how to arrive and mingle at a dinner party, the 1886 church guide offers a litany of rules. Many are familiar. Your napkin goes in your lap, for example. It is not a bib. A polite lady cuts her food with a knife and conveys it to her mouth with a fork. Drink from your cup, never your saucer. Never eat chicken with your fingers. Dont dip your bread in the gravy. Never pick your teeth, talk with your mouth full or monopolize the conversation.

Victorian etiquette was all about not making a scene. Ladies, according to the guide, should never apologize to a waiter when asking for something. If youre still hungry, do not ask for seconds unless they are offered. And strangely, Never take notice of accidents.

The Ladies Handbook further details rules for eating breakfast, having tea, working or shopping at the church fair, going to church, participating in a wedding, and attending a funeral. Why are such rules important? The guide is explicit. Because the church is the institution upon which rests the entire fabric of society.

The lost Universalist

Formed in 1777, the Universalist Society built its first meetinghouse on Vaughan Street. That 1784 building was later adapted into a theater known as the Cameneum. The theater devolved into a livery and stable that burned. It is now the Worth parking lot.

And if youre looking for the Universalist Church on Pleasant Street, its gone too. The beautiful wooden structure, just a block down the hill from Court Street, burned in 1896, 10 years after the publication of the Ladies Handbook.

The following year, in 1897, the Universalist congregation built another church on the Pleasant Street site. This one was made of brick. But half a century later, in 1947, it too was consumed by fire. The site is now the Parrot Street Parking Lot.

A Universalist, by definition, believed that all religions worship the same God, but in different ways. No church had an exclusive path to salvation, they claimed, and everyone was headed to heaven. Universalists believed in one essential truth. What is true is the same for every culture, every nation, and every religion. In the mid-20th century the local congregation joined with the South Church on State Street to form the Unitarian-Universalist Church.

Mass production

If the Ladies Handbook sounds quite uptight for a remarkably liberal church true that. A little online research proves that the book was a clever marketing tool by an unidentified entrepreneur. Copies of nearly identical books were published in behalf of a variety of New England churches from Methodist to Episcopal. The title and body of the book are the same in every case, with local information and ads dropped in. A number of copies have been reproduced online.

The Portsmouth advertisers are familiar from other female-targeted publications including Sarah Haven Fosters Portsmouth Guide and the short-lived womans newspaper June Leaves. Frenchs Dry Goods offered hosiery, underwear, gloves, corsets and ribbons. The book includes local vendors of stoves, hats, shoes, sewing machines, confections, picture frames, pianos, stationery, insurance, an ash sifter, and patent medicines. In 1886 the Boston 99 Cent Store was located on Market Street. Josiah F. Adads, the local Undertaker and Practical Embalmer also took out a full page ad.

The clever entrepreneur also promoted a number of anchor advertisers. Ads for Freeman ONeil church pews appear in a number of the church guides in different towns. Another anchor ad offers Compound Oxygen Treatments by two doctors in Philadelphia. When inhaled, the ad claims, the heart has imparted to it new vitality that cures everything from hayfever, dyspepsia and asthma to headaches, rheumatism and nervous disorders. Another full page ad for Celery Compound Cures guarantees scientific relief from diseases of the kidneys, liver, stomach, and bowels.

In the kitchen

Is the word lady still appropriate in the 21st century? Depends on who uses it and what message is being communicated. A lady, according to the dictionary, is a woman of high social position or economic status. She is a woman who is refined, polite, and well-spoken, the female equivalent of a gentleman. So the word comes freighted with cultural and social stereotypes.

Political correctness aside, the final two-thirds of The Ladies Handbook are all about food. Its really a cookbook wrapped in an etiquette manual. From pea soup to pickled oysters, the Victorian recipes are brief. Your ancestors diet was short on salad and heavy on eggs, bread and baked goods. They ate a lot of liver, mutton and tripe.

Here are the entire instructions for Pineapple Pie: A grated pineapple, its weight in Sugar, 1/2 its weight in butter, one cup of cream, and 5 eggs, beaten separately. Cream the butter, sugar, and yolks until very light; then add the cream, pineapple, and whites. Bake with one crust. Eat cold.

There are recipes for orange pudding, suet pudding, snow pudding, cottage pudding, wedding pudding, Delmont putting, and The Queen of Puddings.

The book includes a number of blank pages for notes. This Portsmouth copy is filled with scribbled recipes by what appears to be a very young hand. The volume wraps up with a few cooking and canning tips. There are brief instructions for making your own furniture polish, cologne water, washing liquid, lemon extract, silver polish, hair gloss, and tooth powder. And in case all you refined ladies were wondering, theres a special tip on how to brighten your zinc bathtub.

Copyright 2019 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinsons history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and his weekly photo blog runs each Thursday. He is the author of a dozen history books on topics including the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders, Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. He is currently working on an illustrated hardcover history of the Music Hall and can be reached at dennis@myseacoastnh.com.