National treasure: 18th-century potato growing manual

"A Garden of Potatoes, which, so that Beloved Latvians of Vidzeme no Longer Famish Terribly, is Put Forth by One of Their Loyal Fellows," is the title of a Latvian-language potato growing manual published in 1790.

Pauls Daija, a literature, folklore and art scientist at the University of Latvia, looks at the book in the Latvian Radio strand on six Latvian books from six centuries.

Lengthy titles and anonymity are characteristic for the 18th century. This book isn't anonymous though as it was penned by the Cēsis town doctor Francis Johann Zeckel and translated into Latvian by pastor Friedrich Daniel Wahr, who was one of the first to collect and summarize Latvian folk songs. The manual was published in Rīga.

Daija said it's one of the most interesting 18th-century books. It's an example of a new genre brought into Latvian books by the Enlightenment movement - that is, books containing practical advice. At 16 pages, it's very thin, but it has a lot to say.

It features detailed instructions on growing potatoes, and also describes the recent famine in Vidzeme, arguing that the food shortage is the reason to move from growing cereal crops to planting potatoes. 

The book concludes with verse dedicated to potatoes in a poem parodying Gotthard Friedrich Stender, one of the founders of Latvian letters. What's more, the book also has multiplication tables for people who want to know how many potatoes they'll get for their buck.

How could the prosaic potato inspire literature?

Potatoes were still considered a new and foreign crop in the 18th century. Farmers were slow to adopt them and so they had to be sold the notion that potatoes are a promising investment.

Potatoes were a major subject among other 18th-century manuals dedicated to farming techniques and new crops. 

Here's a piece of advice from the book for budding potato farmers:

"Shall the soil for potatoes be as fine and well-worked upon as much as the fertile soil allows, so that the tender sprouts can spread in the ground as far as possible."

The book will be on show at the National Library of Latvia exhibition "Book in Latvia", which will be opened August 29.

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