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Ask the Past

Pertinent and Impertinent Advice From Yesteryear

By Elizabeth Archibald

In 2013, historian Elizabeth P. Archibald, then a faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins, found something extraordinary in the George Peabody Library. Archibald had asked students to mine the library’s rare books collection for a class project and in the process, Archibald herself discovered a trove of self-help, health, and life advice dating as far back as 300 B.C. “It’s an interesting collection,” Archibald says today. “It’s like a time capsule with materials as early as Sumerian clay tablets. I realized that this material was too fabulous not to be reaching a wider audience.”

Archibald began posting the tips, instructions, and advice that she found in ancient and classic texts on a blog called Ask the Past. She pairs each sourced quote with her own witty observations. So when an expert in 1777 suggests you light gunpowder on fire to remove bedbugs from your mattress, Archibald notes: “Oh, you want to kill the bedbugs without exploding your bed and reducing your neighborhood to a smoking pile of debris? Then you have never had bedbugs.” Archibald compiled the most intriguing tips into a 2015 book, Ask the Past: Pertinent and Impertinent Advice From Yesteryear.

How to Kill Bedbugs, ca. 1777

“Spread Gun-powder, beaten small, about the crevices of your bedstead; fire it with a match, and keep the smoak in; do this for an hour or more; and keep the room close several hours.” —The Complete Vermin-Killer: A Valuable and Useful Companion for Families, in Town and Country

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Stephanie Von Reiswitz

How to Protect Against Disease, ca. 1470

“Anyone who can ride a bear the distance of nine paces without faltering will be immunized against nine kinds of sicknesses.” —The Distaff Gospel

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Stephanie Von Reiswitz

How to Lose Weight, ca. 1330

“They should eat foods of little nourishment, great bulk, and quick digestion, and often bathe before they eat. They should eat many vegetables with sharp vinegar dressings. Sleeping little and in a hard bed, frequent sex, and spending time in the sun and in warm houses all make a fat body become slender.” —Maino de’ Mainieri, Regimen sanitatis

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Stephanie Von Reiswitz

How to Give Up Wine, ca. 1658

“If you would refrain, and abhor Wine and strong drink ... let three or four live eels, put into the Wine, stay there till they die. Let one drink of this Wine, who is given to drunkenness, and he will loath Wine, and always hate it, and will never drink it again: or if he do, he will drink but little, and with much sobriety. Another way: wash a Tortois with Wine a good while, and give one of that wine to drink ... and you shall see a wonderful vertue.” —Natural Magick

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Stephanie Von Reiswitz

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