“What good is a household hint if you can’t remember it?” Minneapolis housewife Mary Ellen Pinkham asked herself as she faced the bulging card files of home remedies that she and her mother, Pearl Higginbotham, had collected over the years. The solution, they decided, was to assemble some 750 hints—many simple one-liners like “Thaw frozen fish in milk for fresh-caught flavor” and “Hairspray removes ink and lipstick from fabric”—and privately publish the collection under the title The Best of Helpful Hints: Fast-Easy-Fun Ways of Solving Household Problems. “We had a first printing of 50,000 in October 1976,” Mary Ellen recalls. “You learn to sell real fast when you’ve got 50,000 copies lying round the basement.” Word-of-mouth recommendations quickly emptied the cellar. That first edition eventually sold 500,000 copies. Last month Warner Books brought out a revised and expanded edition, Mary Ellen’s Best of Helpful Hints, for $3.95, with a first run of 100,000. Pink-ham ‘s husband, Sherman, 53, former PR for the Minnesota Vikings, now helps his mother-in-law run a local store dealing in tubs, whirlpools and Jacuzzi equipment called Pearl Baths. Before setting out on a national book promotion tour, Mary Ellen, 32, talked with Barbara Kleban for PEOPLE.
One of your unexpected recommendations is to put pantyhose in the freezer. Why?
They last longer if when they are new you wet them thoroughly, wring out gently, place in a plastic bag and toss in the freezer. Once frozen, you thaw them out in the bathtub and then hang them up to dry. Don’t ask me why or what the chemical reaction is. All I know is that it works.
How about paintbrushes?
If you’re painting and you get an invitation to lunch, just wrap your brush in aluminum foil and place it in the freezer. Let it defrost for an hour before resuming the job. I’ve got a whole freezer full of paintbrushes.
If your candlesticks are coated with wax, freeze them for an hour or so. Then the wax will peel off in a jiffy with no damage to the silver. Incidentally, candles will burn more slowly and evenly with a minimum of dripping if you place them in a freezer for several hours before lighting them.
What is the most common household problem?
Carpet stains—whether a mistake by Fido, a spilled drink or muddy boots.
First, what about mud?
Sprinkle salt on damp mud spots. Give the salt at least 15 minutes to soak up the mud, then vacuum away.
How do you tackle other stains?
If they’re fresh, shaving cream is an instant spot remover. Wash with water or club soda. For older stains, combine two tablespoons of detergent with three tablespoons of vinegar and one quart of warm water. Work into the stain and blot as dry as possible with paper towels. Begin at the outer edge and blot toward the center. Never rub, and never apply any spot remover until you’ve blotted thoroughly.
What about burns and scratches?
For a small cigarette burn, try rubbing mayonnaise into the burn. Let it set for a while, then wipe it off with a soft cloth. For a scratch on a walnut surface, break a walnut or pecan in half and rub the scratch with the raw side. Make sure to rub with the grain of the wood.
What do you think are some of your more unusual hints?
If you get a bee or wasp in your house, forget the insecticide. Reach for the hair spray. Two squirts stiffens their wings and they’re immobilized. A dab of lemon juice works wonders with skin blemishes. And cottage cheese stored upside down will last twice as long. It becomes airtight.
How about getting things unstuck?
If you can’t get the catsup out of the bottle, insert a drinking straw, push it to the bottom of the bottle, then remove. Enough air will be admitted to start an even flow. If you want to remove cornsilk from an ear of corn, dampen a paper towel or terry cloth and brush downward. Every strand should come off. To open clams or oysters more easily, first wash them with cold water, then place them in a plastic bag and put them in the freezer for an hour. And if your ballpoint pen becomes clogged with ink and fuzz, insert it in the filter portion of a cigarette. Just a few quick turns and it’s ready to use.
How can you eliminate unpleasant odors?
For a nice scent in the bathroom, place a fabric-softener sheet in the wastepaper basket. To have a fresh-smelling house for just pennies, put a few drops of wintergreen oil—it’s available at drug stores—on a cotton ball and hide out of sight in each room. It will last for months. A little vanilla poured on a piece of cotton and placed in the refrigerator will eliminate odors too. While cooking vegetables like cabbage or broccoli that give off strong smells, simmer a small pan of vinegar on top of the stove. And you’ll shed less tears while chopping onions if you cut the root end of the onion off last.
What about that old problem, ring around the collar?
I’ll give you three hints. One, brush hair shampoo into the soiled shirt collar. Shampoo is made to dissolve body oils. Or mark the collar heavily with chalk, which absorbs oils. Once the oil is removed, the dirt will come off easily. Or you can apply a paste of vinegar and baking soda. Rub in and wash as usual. This will also remove mildew.
What’s the most frequently recommended substance in your book?
Vinegar. Vinegar does practically everything—including enhance beauty. Brunettes and redheads will sparkle if they add several tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to their final rinse. Also, when you spray a solution of vinegar and water on your face, it restores the natural pH-balance.
Any other beauty hints?
Yes. Miracle Whip (not mayonnaise) is an absolutely marvelous dead skin remover. Another cheap but terrific facial scrub is oatmeal and water. Make a paste, apply it to your face and allow it to dry until it feels tight. Then scrub it off vigorously. This sloughs off dead skin and gets rid of blackheads.
What about vinegar in cooking?
Add a tablespoon of white or distilled vinegar to cooking water and, presto, it’s a meat tenderizer. And if you want to freshen up an old hen, soak it in vinegar for several hours before cooking. It will taste like a spring chicken.
What’s a problem that looks difficult but is really quite simple to solve?
Chewing gum in your child’s hair. Don’t reach for the scissors. Freeze the gum with an ice cube. Then you can peel it off easily. Or you can massage the gum with a dab of peanut butter which loosens the gum. Remove with facial tissue.
What are the chief sources of your hints?
Some of the most interesting ones come from inmates in prison. They’re real good, because convicts don’t have too many resources.
Toothpaste. Those guys stick pinups on their walls with toothpaste. I love to recommend toothpaste, because it’s always there.
Suppose you run out of toothpaste?
What’s a good substitute for your teeth?
Strawberries. In fact, my advice to President Carter is to keep those beautiful teeth white by mashing a strawberry on them and brushing vigorously. It removes yellowing and stains.
Why are such helpful hints so popular with people?
It’s not just saving money or, more important, time. It’s the satisfaction of being able to do or fix something yourself that either seemed impossible or would cost a lot. That’s why I try very hard to recommend stuff that’s already in the home. But the real thrill is the discovery: Hey, it works!
What was the most memorable moment since your book came out?
When I learned from Warner Books that they expected their big titles for 1979 would be Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline, William Buckley’s Stained Glass, Nixon’s Memoirs—and Mary Ellen’s Best of Helpful Hints. I practically fell on the floor.
What is the biggest myth about housekeeping?
That it can be fun. Women! Cleaners of the world! Housekeeping is NOT fun! But it has to be done, so you might as well do it the fast, easy way.
Do you have a hint for the housewife who detests housework, no matter what?
Yes. Hire a maid. And give her a copy of my book.