If Comstock House was haunted, I expect it would be the ghost of Mattie Oates. This was first and foremost her home; she was clearly the client that architect Brainerd Jones’ had to please, even though husband James Wyatt wrote the checks (his main concern was “there will not be a parlor in the whole house and there will not be a room in which I can’t smoke,” he repeatedly said). Yet of all the 20th century owners, she had the shortest time to enjoy living here – just nine years, with about a third of her tenure confined as a invalid.
Such little of her remains aside from the house itself. She left no immediate family. We have a blurry picture of her in a group photo of the Saturday Afternoon Club. She once said she wanted Virginia creeper to “run in profusion over the trees,” and the vine still climbs the great oak behind her old home. The only physical artifact is her nearly worn-to-dust copy of the Jewel Cook Book, which we found on a bookshelf in the study (interestingly, none of the Comstocks recalled seeing it before).
Even her presence in that book is tenuous; her name is softly written on an endpage, and there are pencilled notes on a single recipe for drawn butter. Other than that, it appears the book was rarely used, except a dog-eared page for apple dumplings and a recipe for corn muffins torn from a San Francisco (?) newspaper. The book falls open to the page on making pancakes. All basic stuff that suggests the kitchen was somewhat uncharted territory for Mrs. Oates. Which makes it even more surprising to find an item in the April 25, 1909 Press Democrat “Society Gossip” column that she gave a presentation to the Saturday Afternoon Club on “Economics of Modern Cookery.” As the first section of the Jewel Cook Book discusses how to shop wisely and prepare meals economically, it’s a safe bet that these very pages were used to prepare her speech.
Aside from the remarkable fact that a 120-year-old personal book of hers has even survived, it’s not unusual to discover she had such a volume. Probably every home in Victorian America had a copy of this book or another like it; they were often given as wedding presents to new brides (not in this case however; the Jewel Cook Book was published in 1890, and Mattie and Wyatt married in 1881). These books showed you how to prepare hearty grub for the hard-working family, and also served as a reference on how to take care of your household. They offered recipes for gravy and how to remove gravy stains; how to cure bacon and how to cure a headache.
The Jewel Cook Book – or more properly, “Jewel Cook Book: A Compendium of Useful Information Pertaining to Every Branch of Domestic Economy. A Manual for Every Household, Also a Book of Knowledge and Guide to Rapid Wealth” – is a bit more interesting than other housekeeping/cookbooks from that era.* One of the three co-authors was chemist, and there is a lengthy section with recipes for cure-alls, ointments, perfume, toothpaste and whatnot. But what really gave the Jewel Cook Book added value was its section on how to make all kinds of brewed and distilled liquor.
The book also offers many examples of hilariously bad advice. Douse your family in kerosene as a mosquito repellent (“the odor is not noticed after a few minutes, and children especially are much relieved by its use”). If someone is struck by lightning, “shower with cold water for two hours; if the patient does not show signs of life, put salt in the water, and continue to shower an hour longer.” And then there’s the contradictory instructions about treating a bite from a rabid animal: “The only safe remedy in case of a bite from a dog suspected of madness is to burn out the wound thoroughly with red-hot iron,” the authors suggest on page 272. Then in the “Book of Knowledge” section, it’s stated “Spirits of Hartshorn is said to be a certain remedy for the bite of a mad dog…an old friend and physician tried it in cases of Hydrophobia and always with success.”
Alas, the book is not specific about its “Guide to Rapid Wealth,” unless that was a wink towards the section on cooking up moonshine. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would get rich quick by peddling homemade cosmetics or writing ink. Yet they did offer one interesting idea for a home business – I wonder why it never caught on?
New Method of Embalming–Mix together five pounds dry sulphate of alumine, one quart of warm water, and one hundred grains of arsenious acid. Inject three or four quarts of this mixture into all the vessels of the human body. This applies as well to all animals, birds, fishes, &c. This process supersedes the old and revolting mode, and has been introduced into the great anatomical schools of Paris.
|* Victorian American housekeeping/cookbooks are hard to find today, despite the immense numbers that were sold. These books were printed on cheap paper and poorly bound; with regular use, it’s likely most fell apart in the lifetime of their original owners. A digital copy of the Jewel Cook Book is available for online reading via Utah State University, but I am unable to find another paper copy for sale anywhere. This 1890 book is not to be confused with the “Jewel Cook Book Containing Choice Cooking Recipes” published in 1900 by a stove company or “Jewel Cook Book: Recipes for Good Eating” published in 1940 by the Jewel Tea Co.