Skip to Content

The Writings of Richards

August 15, 2007

Eager to share her scientific knowledge, Ellen Swallow Richards wrote about an astonishingly wide range of subjects. The titles of even a small sample of her books and papers reveal the breadth of her expertise: “The Urgent Need for Sanitary Education in the Public Schools”; Euthenics, the Science of Controllable Environment: A Plea for Better Living Conditions as a First Step toward Higher Human Efficiency; “Carbon Dioxide as a Measure of Efficiency in Ventilation”; The Art of Right Living; The Dietary Computer; and “The Potable Waters of Mexico.”

Richards wrote Food Materials and Their Adulterations (1st edition, 1886) to enable housekeepers to be informed consumers when they purchased food products. Her book included some “simple tests” housewives could perform to determine whether the products had been adulterated. Here are some excerpts from that book:

The importance of good food to bodily–and economic–health:

“The prosperity of a nation depends upon the health and the morals of its citizens; and the health and the morals of a people depend mainly upon the food they eat, and the homes they live in.

Strong men and women cannot be ‘raised’ on insufficient food. Good-tempered, temperate, highly moral men cannot be expected from a race which eats badly cooked food, irritating to the digestive organs and unsatisfying to the appetite. Wholesome and palatable food is the first step in good morals, and is conducive to ability in business, skill in trade, and healthy tone in literature.”

A test for adulterated cream of tartar:

“In some portions of the country ground gypsum–at perhaps a cent a pound–is sold for cream of tartar at ten cents a quarter of a pound; now this fraud can be detected by any one who knows that cream of tartar is soluble in hot water, while gypsum is not. A cupful of boiling water poured upon half a teaspoonful of good cream of tartar will dissolve it almost instantly, giving a nearly transparent liquid.”

How to make a good pot of tea (and minimize the effect of tannins):

“The important constitutent of tea is an alkaloid called theine. It is present in varying proportions, from one to four per cent. The theine is supposed to be in combination with tannin, which is the most abundant soluble substance in tea, usually from sixteen to twenty-seven per cent. To the tannin is due the constipating effect of tea. The longer the tea leaves are steeped, the more tannin the solution contains. Regard for the lining of one’s stomach would lead one to avoid all steeped teas. The infusion should be prepared immediately before drinking.

The odor and flavor of tea are due to an essential oil which is present in very small quantity, and which is developed during the roasting and drying. For a good tea, the volatile oil must not escape. To make a good pot of tea, scald out the pot with boiling hot soft water, place the tea in it as soon as possible, pour over it the boiling water, and close the pot immediately: allow it to stand in a hot place for a few minutes, but do not let it boil.”

Testing for adulterations of tea:

“When tea was ten dollars a pound there was great temptation to mix other leaves with the genuine, or even to substitute them entirely; also to add to the weight by iron filings, etc., or sand gummed on plumbago and soapstone; the exhausted leaves were also used…The addition of mineral matter may be detected by burning a weighed quantity–one gram or more–in a platinum dish, and weighing the ash. Good tea gives from five to seven per cent of ash. If the leaves are exhausted, the per cent will be less. To ascertain the strength of the tea an infusion is the best test. If the decoction is very high-colored, the tea has probably been doctored. If there is not much extract, the leaves have been exhausted. The surest test of this is the specific gravity of the solution; but even this is a delicate test, since the specific gravity of a solution of two hundred grains of tea in two thousand grains of water is from 1.012 to 1.014, while that of exhausted leaves is 1.003 to 1.0057. Good tea should yield twenty-six per cent, and often as much as thirty-six percent, of its weight to boiling water.”

In The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers (1882), Richards devoted a chapter to Dust Mixtures, in which she extolled the virtues of ammonia in the section about grease and dust:

“The chemical group of ‘alkali metals’ comprises six substances: Ammonium, Caesium, Lithium, Potassium, Rubidium and Sodium…the hydrate of Ammonium (NH4)OH, is known as ‘Volatile Alkali,’ the hydrates of Potassium, Koh, and Sodium, NaOH, as ‘Caustic Alkalies.’ With these three alkalies and their compounds and these alone, are we concerned in housekeeping. The volatile alkali, Ammonia, is now prepared in quantity and price such that every housekeeper may become acquainted with its use. It does not often occur in soaps but it is valuable for use in all cleansing operations–the kitchen, the laundry, the bath, the washing of woolens, and in other cases where its property of evaporation, without leaving any residue to attack the fabric or to attract anything from the air, is invaluable.”

Richards then went on to recommend what to use (i.e., kerosene, turpentine, etc.) to clean specific surfaces–such as wood, painted surfaces, a piano–describing in each case how best to do it.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.