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A Historical Look at Life Hacks

Books Full of "Tips and Tricks" from the Past

By William Shelton • May 22, 2022

Tips, tricks, and shortcuts to improving the quality of life have been a unique form of snake oil peddled for centuries. While it may be the current trend to call them life hacks, this is just the most recent sheep hide draped over a very old wolf. Indeed, it was a common custom among many cultures for families to compile such books of medicinal methods, cooking "receipts," clothes making techniques, guidance for animal husbandry, and pass them down for ages, with each new generation contributing, or revising its contents. Such was the 'life book of success' for that particular family.

The Long Hidden Friend is an excellent example of an early American life hack book. Self-published in 1820, it contains traditional European folk-magical formulas for a wide range of spells, simple rituals, charms, talismans, bindings, prayers, benedictions, magical folk-healing, recipes and remedies for humans and animals as well as various non-magical "tips" for matters of rural and domestic life. This book is permeated with a strong belief that with holy words alone one could heal and dispel malevolent magic.

The Foxfire series of books began in 1966 by Eliot Wiggington and his students as a project at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Georgia, collecting rural folk ways, with the first volume being published six years later in 1972. These books contain faith healing, weather signs, recipes, home building, tools and skills, animal butchering, and moonshining. Foxfire is an essential survival guide to Appalachian living. Even today they have merit for those wishing to live "off the grid" and develop small homestead farms, raise their own food, and reduce the carbon footprint of their family. Not only that, they are a highly entertaining read offering many insights to a regional way of life which has all but disappeared, with a healthy dose of Americana.

Books which contain tips for anti-aging are legion and reflect the modern iteration of Ponce de Leon's quest for a source of eternal youth. The self-penned guide for successful living, including holding the hands of time at bay, has long been popular in the entertainment industry. In Joan Crawford's book outlining her complicated and elaborate way of life, the regular rolling of an empty Pepsi bottle under the arches of her feet were the secret to movie-star posture. The actress Gywneth Paltrow has carved a niche for herself in the field of natural solutions for beauty treatment. No list of celebrities who have contributed to this peculiar cottage industry of life hacks for the rich and famous would be complete without mentioning the Kardashian menage. Each member of that family seems to have cornered the market in a different way, proving that within the same household opinions on the subject may vary. However, none would compare to the daily regimen of Elizabeth Bathory, had she chosen to go on the 16th century speaking circuit to promote her methods. Daily baths in the blood of maidens was her "hack" (pun intended) for preserving eternal beauty.

Like the modern dark web, in earlier times existed such books which provided guidance for furtive and murky purpose. This type of book, though not all of them were for malign purposes, is called a grimoire. The British philologist and Assyriologist, Dr. Irving Finkel, believes that the earliest form of grimoire was made on cuneiform tablets in the ancient city of Uruk between the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The Testament of Solomon is another early book offering magical guidance. Even though it is attributed to King Solomon, it is more likely a Greek or Egyptian text. More recently, the author Zora Neale Hurston recorded many of the "hoodoo" spells, charms, and superstitions which added flavor to daily existence in the 1920s and 1930s.

The modern cookbook craze is another form of life hacks compiled and shared for the edification of others. No longer are these books just a simple roll call of recipes. In every case they include tips for decorating the table, selecting fabrics, silver, and flowers for entertaining, be the book geared for high brow entertaining or low. Cookbooks for busy people, as well as those who are intimidated by the thought of boiling water, are readily available on the market, and it goes without saying that the recipes are accompanied by unsolicited life lessons. For the truly ambitions, many have blogged their way through the cannon of haute cuisine. The Gallery of Regrettable Food is a wonderful tongue-in-cheek take on cookbooks, all of which have at least one stinker of a recipe included within their pages.

From hog-killing, log rolling, syrup making, spell casting, fine dining, and keeping your skin movie-star perfect, there is a life hack book on the market to meet your needs.

Read more by William Shelton

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