Formula Books, The Treasure Chest of Free DIY, Self Reliance Information You Need to Know About

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While I’m inclined to ignore the holidays for the most part, I have a gift for you. Christmas can be downright disturbing in it’s materialism and focus on over consumption. Well, my gift to you is a knife in the corrupted festering heart of that particular Santa of commerce, a downloadable treasure trove of DIY information from a very different time, from a time when DIY was a necessary way of life and not an internet niche. The very fact that we call someone a do-it-yourselfer, indicates that those people are novel in an age where products for almost anything can be bought ready made.

This is about formula books, a phenomenon from the past that would now be a quaint piece of history to most if they even knew about them at all, but which the self reliant minded, and technologically curious, can find immensely helpful and fascinating. I think the reason that these great books are no longer common, is that they were a product of a different time. Cue history fable…

Once upon a time, there were no letters. No, not letters as in I wrote you a letter, I mean the characters that make up words. Ideas spread verbally were slow and limited in range, and culture and community knowledge existed on a smaller scale, with much less homogeneity between geographic groups. Then people invented writing, which gradually grew in scale. At first, few knew how to read and books were only produced as one offs or had to be copied by handwriting and illustrating. Then printing began, followed by more efficient printing, and eventually by more people learning to read. In that era, previous to transmittable media such as radio and television, printed books and periodicals were what allowed ideas and information to be spread broadly. Books were popular enough, but so were periodicals. Periodicals were the way that groups of people with similar interests or professions interacted in their niches with others around a country, or even between continents. It may seem painfully slow in this age of internet forums, instant news and comment threads, but aside from in person meetings, that was what was available. Editorials and reader interaction via letters to the editors were an extremely important mechanism of communication and evolution of understanding among these niche groups. Some of those periodicals were not sent out very often, but it provided a place for readers of similar interest to write in and offer experience or tips and recipes. Being an inveterate researcher of antique information, I have gleaned a lot of knowledge from these periodicals. So there is one piece of our context, and here is the next...

Going back far enough, circumstances determined that people made a lot of stuff from scratch. Not just individuals, but professionals. Most pharmacy items were probably compounded by the pharmacist, not purchased pre-made. Real compounding pharmacies are the exception now, and most just buy finished products and re-package them. Artists mixed most of their own paints, sometimes from the raw minerals, preparing specialty oils, etc. The supermarkets, hardware stores and drug stores with miles of diverse products would drop the jaws of someone in the 19th century. Professionals used books and periodicals for information on how to formulate items for their trades, and average people often compounded raw materials to make what they needed.

I think it’s likely that these two circumstances eventually lead to the phenomenon of formula books. I imagine that at some point, some enterprising individual went through and compiled a bunch of these general formulas and tips from various sources or from their own periodical, and printed them in a book. Many of these collections were compiled and printed well into the 20th century. Some are intended more for the home market, others more for practical “shop dudes”, technical entrepreneurs and inventors. Others were specific to an industry or interest.

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Imagine in a time where your access to a store might even be limited, and when you did go to a store, the products were also limited and expensive. Even raw materials might need to be special ordered from an in-store catalogue or the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, and waited on for weeks. A book like this could prove extremely valuable to have around the house to compile these and common household materials to useful ends. Now it seems that problems are practically invented to sell products. These books are also full of general tips for daily household, farm and shop life.

Keep in mind when perusing these offerings, that whomever printed the book you are reading didn’t actually try all that stuff out! Many of these would be untested recipes from essentially random sources. Just because K.W. Micklemaus from blington New Jersey wrote into a periodical once and sounded like he knew his business when it comes to lubricating an old watch with rattlesnake oil, doesn’t mean he was right. These recipes should be read with a very critical mindset. Another thing you will notice is that they use a lot of toxic stuff. Lead and Benzine were staples, and many other toxic substances. Some of these can be substituted and some cannot, but the recipe may still give you some ideas on making something of your own devising.

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There will also be a lot of materials that you have never heard of. Further, you may not know which form of the material is referred to, or which name a material refers to. For instance, it is difficult to determine for sure what is meant by Plumbago, which seems to usually refer to graphite can be confused with Galena, a lead ore which looks similar. The name Plumbago is derived from the word for lead and many recipes will call for “black lead” when they mean powdered graphite. but which one is called for in your stove polish recipe? I’ve had this exact problem when trying to figure out if the recipes for stove blacking I’ve been looking at are referring to lead or graphite. According to Wikipedia, some guy actually invented the term graphite, now the dominant term, in order to avoid confusion caused by the terms black lead and plumbago.

An example of ambiguity regarding the different forms of substances would be lime. Lime is often called for in recipes, but it is rarely specified whether the reference is to lime putty, which was once very common, or dry lime hydrate. They have similar properties, but would be measured out very differently. Usually if quicklime is called for it will be called either quicklime, freshly burned lime, or maybe lime shells. Freshly slaked lime probably refers to lime putty, but it could conceivably refer to dry hydrate. Having been interested in this sort of archaic information, I have a glossary in my brain of quite a few of these terms, but like learning botany and all it’s specific terminology, newcomers will spend a fair amount of time looking up unfamiliar terms and trying to sleuth out what is actually meant by them. I used to have to do that secondary research in other old books in my collection, but now we have the internet which makes it much easier.

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It’s worth keeping an eye out for these in print. I was introduced to them a long time back when some practical artist friends Scott McGrath, Todd Barriclow and Spring Maxfield busted out a copy as if they were showing me some holy book. It was a big enough deal that I still remember the event lol. More like they were unlocking the door to a technical candy store. You can read most of the old formula books online for free and I’ve set up a file where you can download them. You can also always find the links by going to With modern search functions, it is easy to find what you are looking for in them... well, sometimes. These books are in PDF form, which is imperfect. When converting a very old book from scans and PDF’s to plain text like kindle’s mobi or to epub, the print character recognition software often misinterprets many letters or runs the characters together into compound words. So, the search functions may or may not find what you are looking for regardless of the digital format. Sometimes (possibly even often, although I’m loathe to admit it :) I find myself looking for the search function while reading an actual book or piece of paper! Search is absolutely awesome as a tool. Most books, especially older ones, have terrible indexes if they have any at all. But, in spite of the lack of a search function, sitting down with an old, yellowed copy of The Scientific American Encyclopedia of Receipts, Notes and Queries is an entirely different experience than skimming through photos of it on an ipad. Unless you go out and search for these books though, you won’t just run into many of them. I just did some quick searching and it looks like ebay is probably the best place to look for them and maybe check out Etsy too. Some were printed later in the century, but they gradually fell out of popularity. There is still a niche of weirdos like me (and I hazard to guess you too :) that will find them fascinating and useful. I own physical copies of Henleys, The Scientific American Cylopedia of etc, etc…, Standard Book of Formulas, Techno-Chemical Receipt book and The Materials of the Artist. Those were collected randomly at bookstores and flea markets over the past 25 years. All but the last are in this digital collection I put together. I’m sure there are more, but these are the ones I could find, some of which I’ve barely looked at. Also, keep in mind that there are many, many more niche books of this sort for specific trades. For instance, there are a boatload of old pharmacy compounding books and many painters books.

Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, so we are on the right side of that equation now, yay! Last night was the coldest night so far, and here the teeth of winter are really just starting to bite. A couple of days ago I ran through all the formula books looking for stove blacking recipes as I make moves to restore a rusty woodstove I’m trying to get installed. Now I just have to figure out if they mean graphite or lead when they say plumbago! Best wishes to you and yours in this new year and heartfelt thanks to all the people that have supported me from sharing content, to comments, to the thank you notes I receive from complete strangers almost every week, and for the much needed financial support. Things have been very difficult lately to put it mildly, and my ability to produce good content is at a low ebb. I’d like to report that I expect that to improve, but my hope for resolving the chronic health issues that I’m severely hobbled by is also at a low ebb, and unfortunately, I think justifiably so. My plan remains the same though, to continue at whatever pace I can, the work I set out to do from early in my life, which is essentially the pursuit and dissemination of practical knowledge and practical philosophy with a focus on self reliance and archaic skills that I believe still have relevance. Formula books have been exceedingly useful in that pursuit and I hope they are to you as well. <3

And here is a plug for Wow, what a fantastic resource this is. I’ve used google books for a lot of my research of this type in the past, but has become my go to resource for digging up old books and information. They are a non-profit with the goal of creating universal access to information, including books and periodicals, photos, film and audio. They are in a fund raising drive right now and have a 2 x matching grant. Try it out for a subject you are interested in. The books and periodicals available have generally run out their copyright protection, which I believe is defined by the life of the author, plus 50 years, so the great majority of it is from long ago, which is just what I’m usually looking for. I recently used it to do research on the medicinal uses of turpentine and found a huge number of references going as far back as the 1600’s. So cool!

Here is an example a text search of the entire archive for the term blacksmithing this is using the search text function. The search titles field will turn up fewer results.

By using the lower search field, you can search within a book or periodical.

Well, I either just enabled you to go down endless impractical rabbit holes full of endless wheel spinning information, or offered you the most amazing tool to further your personal development. Which one it will be is probably largely up to you :) Just remember that book learning is only really very useful as part of a trinity composed of INFORMATION, EXPERIENCE and CONTEMPLATION. I might add communication in there as #4, but that is sort of covered by both contemplation and information. In a very real way, information is not knowledge.


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Posted on December 24, 2018 and filed under Books, Homesteading, Self Reliance.