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Handfasting: a sort of trial marriage

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July 30, Monday — A good day to go camping. Conjunction of Mars and the moon. Neptune at opposition.

July 31, Tuesday — Cornerstone of the Philadelphia Mint (first U.S. government building) laid, 1792.

Aug. 1, Wednesday — Lammas Day (early harvest celebration). Begin logging today and tomorrow, and set posts or pour concrete.

Aug. 2, Thursday — Moon runs low. Frontiersman "Wild Bill" Hickok shot dead at saloon poker game, Deadwood, S.D., 1876.

Aug. 3, Friday — Conjunction of Neptune and the moon. Today and tomorrow are safer times to castrate animals.

Aug. 4, Saturday — Full green-corn moon. Conjunction of Uranus and the moon.

Aug. 5, Sunday — Moon at apogee. Cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty laid, Bedloe's Island, New York Harbor, 1884.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: What was "handfasting" as it related to marriage? Did it have anything to do with bundling? — H.G., Islip, N.Y.

Answer: Probably where there was bundling, there was no handfasting — for the two come from very different ideas of propriety.

Bundling involved the intended newlyweds sharing a bed, each swaddled in their own blankets, while they got to know one another. Bundling probably came out of the necessity for long-distance courting visits, where there was no proper guest-room for the fiance. The strict assumption was that the pair would sleep in the same bed but remain constantly and separately under wraps. Sometimes a curtain or bundling board was placed in between the two for extra "safeguards."

Handfasting was a sort of trial marriage. Sir Walter Scott explained it in his novel "The Monastery" when he wrote, "We bordermen . . . take our wives for a year and a day; that space gone by, each may choose another mate, or, at their pleasure, (they) may call the priest to marry them for life, and this we call handfasting."

Some called it hand-fastening, and it was not uncommon among the Romans and the Jews in early times. By some definitions, it took on more the demeanor of a marriage of convenience, such as when a man lost his wife to illness, and then handfasted with a household nurse or servant. If a more "suitable" mate came along, one more of his own social class, perhaps, he might disavow his marriage with his helpmate and remarry according to his wishes.

Ask the Old Farmer's Almanac: I have an old cookbook that calls for a "meat biscuit." What was that? — O.W., Toldeo, Ohio

Answer: A "meat biscuit" was the equivalent of what we now call a bouillon cube. Gail Borden patented it in 1850, after a friend's wife gave him the recipe. Borden would be considered a great jack-of-all-trades today, but he became well-known for his processes to evaporate and condense milk. Jeremiah Milbank was the financial backer for the Borden Milk Company, which opened its doors after Borden had patented evaporated milk in 1856. The evaporating plant opened in 1858. The Civil War was greatly responsible for the success of evaporated milk, which became widely known and appreciated for its value to the military. Besides his work as a dairyman, Borden also worked as a farmer, a newspaperman and as a surveyor in Mississippi and Texas. In addition to concentrating milk, he also developed processes for concentrating fruit juices and the "meat biscuit," which was credited with helping to open the western frontier in the United States because of its easy portability.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: Were the old lighthouses whitewashed, and if so, how did the whitewash stand up to salt water? — N.W., Lake Charles, La.

Answer: Many of the old lighthouses were whitewashed, yes, but I'm not sure you can say whitewash stands up well over time, whether there's salt water around or not. Generally speaking, any whitewashing was considered an annual chore, whether the application was on lighthouses, pasture fences, chicken coops, privy interiors or kitchen walls.

There was a "receipt" (recipe) for a "Durable Whitewash" that was adopted by the U.S. government especially for uses on lighthouses and keepers' dwellings. It called for 10 parts of freshly slaked lime, one-part hydraulic cement, and was mixed with salt water. (Whitewashes meant for chicken coops often included carbolic acid, as well, for combating pests like lice.)

Whitewash is essentially a liquid plaster and was often used as a sealant for mortar, stone and brick. In some parts of the country, it is still widely used as a preservative in rubble construction and for masonry walls and chimneys. As better paints became available, however, they replaced whitewash because they were easier to apply and lasted longer.

Whitewashes, for instance, can't contract and expand with the weather the way some paints can and have a tendency to become dingy and flaky over time.

Send your questions to: Ask the Almanac, The Old Farmer's Almanac, Main St., Dublin, NH 03444 Web site: www.almanac.com