The Special Collections and Archives Research Center recently acquired an edition of Sir Hugh Plat’s The Jewel House of Art and Nature, published in London in 1653.
This collection of “diverse new and conceited Experiments” compiles recipes, household hints, and practical directions on an impressive variety of useful topics, including: “how to write a letter secretly,” “how to walk safely upon a high scaffold with danger of falling,” “to dry gun-powder without danger of fire,” “to help a Chimnie that is on fire presently,” “to prevent drunkenesse,” and “to help Venison that is tainted.” Mixed in among these trinkets are short treatises on “the Art of Memory,” “the Art of Molding and Casting,” a philosophical treatise on soil and marl, and even alchemical experiments. Intended to appeal to an audience as diverse as its contents, the book contains advices useful to travelers, farmers, housewives, soldiers, cooks, merchants, apothecaries, builders, distillers, and brewers, or indeed anyone who had “either wit, or will, to apply them.”
Plat frequently credits the source of his knowledge on these topics. Usually personal acquaintances, these range from seamen who shared various pieces of useful knowledge learned overseas, to clerics and barbers, to laborers and tradesmen.
Plat’s eclectic compilation provides a fascinating glimpse of the daily needs, desires, and concerns of people living and working in the mid-seventeenth century. It has an important place in the history of science, as it reflects what Deborah Harkness has called “vernacular science”—developments in engineering, chemistry, nutrition, medicine, botany, agricultural science, and physics as achieved by the common people as they experimented and progressed within these areas. The Jewel House of Art and Nature joins other examples of this democratic genre in our rare book collections dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries.