Got a double boiler, magnesium carbonate, and time on your hands? Sick of getting ripped off by The Man, with his exorbitant prices for hemorrhoid ointment? Ever wanted to make your own ant poison?
No? Me neither. But during the Depression, penny-scrounging was desperate enough that Harry Bennett’s Practical Everyday Chemistry (1934) could assert, “There is no reason in the world why you shouldn’t make your own tooth-paste, shaving cream, hair tonic, mouthwash, ink, paste, sun-tan-oil, weed-killer, paint remover, or any of a thousand other homely articles . . . “
Well, there is a reason. Having a life, say, or an aversion to chemical burns. But as reprinted and retitled by Feral House, Two Thousand Formulas has a geeky charm, perfect for one-sided conversations with your spouse: “Did you know airplane propeller glue contains blood? That you can make hair wash out of kerosene? That . . . hey, where are you going?”
The real revelation is how even in “simpler” days, household products were an impenetrable combination of chemicals. While some cleansers remain recognizable, other items—Mimeograph Moistening Compound, or “Airship Fabric Dope”—emit the pleasant solvent whiff of a bygone era.
Want to make your own brake linings? How about fireworks? They’re here. And for the car wrecks and explosions that follow, Bennett thoughtfully includes fire extinguishers. Fill old lightbulbs with retardant fluid, seal with wax, then hurl when needed: “Fire extinguishing ‘bombs’ of this type may be put in convenient places about the laboratory.” And if your DIY turns to DIE, your widow will find a great recipe for embalming fluid.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 21, 2004