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Foodways and Fantasies in Nineteenth Century Personal Cookbooks

Advertisement, Mrs. Charles H.  Gibson's Maryland and Virginia Cook Book, 1894, archive.org.

Advertisement, Mrs. Charles H. Gibson’s Maryland and Virginia Cook Book, 1894, archive.org.

Old cookbooks, both published and handwritten, can offer a tempting glimpse into historic foodways. The H. Furlong Baldwin Library contains many classic Maryland cookbooks like The Queen of The Kitchen written in 1870 by the well-connected Mary Lloyd Tyson, and the more modest 1853 Domestic Cookery by Quaker homesteader Elizabeth Ellicott Lea.

There was an explosion of cookbook publication in the late half of the nineteenth century. The target audience of cookery books were middle and upper-class white women; the market fueled by many factors. Many women who had relied on an enslaved workforce found themselves or their daughters lacking certain kitchen skills. Some books such as Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen (Mrs. B.C. Howard, 1877) and Mrs. Charles H. Gibson’s Maryland And Virginia Cookbook (Mrs. C. H. Gibson, 1894) played into nostalgia for the antebellum era. Still others promoted a new interest in domestic science and nutrition. Over the course of the century, the role of many women changed from that of a “manager” of the kitchen, overseeing everything from bread-baking to home-brewing and animal slaughter, to a conscious consumer of those goods, and a steward of her family’s health and happiness.

Unfortunately, aspiring culinary historians quickly realize that cookbooks offer a limited view of actual eating habits, even of the middle-class. Many of these books are filled with untested and plagiarized recipes, often intended to broadcast more about the economic status of the recipe author than an actual reflection of the food they ate and served. Even the personal cookery books of the late 19th century are frequently filled with more newspaper clippings than family recipes (which home cooks might have had memorized and passed on orally).

Foodways researchers have attempted to fill in the gaps with travel journals, agricultural publications, and archaeology. What is left, then, to glean from the surviving scrapbooks housed in the MDHS Special Collections, not to mention the countless cookbooks published during the late nineteenth century?

A chaos of loose and pasted scraps in Mary Griffith (MS 1765) Book 1

A chaos of loose and pasted scraps in Mary Griffith’s cookbook, MS 1765, MdHS.

The cookery scrapbooks of Mary Black Griffith and Elizabeth Griffith Staats are overwhelming to say the least. We may not learn about the treasured traditions of the Griffith family, but we are granted a wonderful window into the leisure time of these middle-class Maryland women (The family likely resided in Kent or Cecil County at the time the books were compiled). The two scrapbooks contain handwritten recipes from friends and family, but the Griffiths also had access to several contemporary women’s magazines such as Good Housekeeping. Many recipes are clipped from newspapers. While some clippings are meticulously pasted into the scrapbooks, others form a chaotic bundle of aspirations of a lady with a sweet-tooth. It is hardly possible that she had the chance to test the hundreds of puddings, candies and cakes that caught her fancy.

When she did, they weren’t always a success. Several recipes are crossed out or disappointingly marked “no good.” It is true that untested recipes were circulated widely, but user error can’t be ruled out. One such “no good” recipe is for “Delicious Pound Cup Cakes.” A nearly identical recipe can be found in a 1900 Arm & Hammer recipe book. That version calls for a half teaspoon of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda and a teaspoon of cream of tartar. Black’s handwritten copy only lists a teaspoon of cream of tartar. Without the baking soda, the cakes will not rise. Hopefully Mrs. Griffith was not baking for company.

Failed incorrect recipe in Mary Griffith's cookbook, MS 1765, MdHS.

Failed incorrect recipe in Mary Griffith’s cookbook, MS 1765, MdHS.

Private cookery books were often compiled early on or in preparation for married life – before the realities of “household management” may have been fully realized. A young lady may have envisioned a life of tea and cakes with the ladies or impressive family dinners.

Perhaps the most touching example of a cookbook full of dreams and plans is the 1874 cookbook of Anna Hampton Shriver. The book contains a predictable array of handwritten recipes plus note-cards and newspaper clippings pasted in. Often attributed to family or friends, with a dozen credited to “Mamma,” Shriver saved recipes for cakes and desserts, preserves. A newspaper custard recipe promised to “receive hearty welcome from the housewife” – a role that Shriver may have been anticipating when she collected the recipes. In June of 1875 she married Dr. John W. Hawkins of Baltimore County. The fact that the young bride died only a month after marrying imparts the recipe book with a sense of a life never realized. A newspaper eulogy stated that “those who knew her well fondly looked forward to the pleasure she would contribute to the social circle she was about to enter.”

The three cookbooks of Margaret Ann Buck, wife of Baltimore carriage goods merchant Robert Buck Porter, comprise a fairly typical late nineteenth century recipe collection. Mrs. Porter collected over 270 recipes, many from newspapers, some from named friends or family. Of this collection, 65 were for cakes. Many of the recipes are redundant, suggesting that previous recipes had either not been tried or were not satisfactory.

The frequent recurrence of cakes and sweets in cookery scrapbooks is no coincidence. Developments in the eighteenth century had brought the price of sugar down from luxury to household necessity. The subsequent invention of baking powder – a revolutionary kitchen shortcut – plus new oven technology, coincided with the proliferation of published cookbooks and newspaper recipes. The idea that something new could be made from familiar ingredients proved a tempting one.

With a surge in consumerism in the late 1800s, companies soon realized that the rising popularity of cookbooks provided an opportunity to promote national branding. Sometimes they relied on trusted names, such as Rumford Baking Powder’s 1895 booklet featuring Baltimore Cooking School instructor Leida A. Willis. Other books promoted recipes to be used in conjunction with an array of exciting new household products.

Rumford Yeast Powder (Baking Powder) promotional cook-booklet, ca 1895, Author's Collection (also in MdHS collection)

Rumford Yeast Powder (Baking Powder) promotional cook-booklet, ca 1895, Author’s Collection (also in MdHS collection)

Recipes from the cookbook of Olivia Conkling, MS 2790, MdHS

Recipes from the cookbook of Olivia Conkling, MS 2790, MdHS

The collection of Olivia Conkling, daughter of a Baltimore banker, includes turn-of-the-century brochures for an electric waffle iron, bread machine, and chafing dish (a popular item for aspiring hostesses of the era).

Where a generation before would have been grateful to have unadulterated flour and a reliable oven to bake cakes in, Conkling and her peers could try out “Cocoanut Waffles” for breakfast and hope to later impress company with Lobster A La Newberg in the chafing dish. These brochures may have contained a few practical recipes, but they were selling the idea of a new and novel way of life and eating.

A June 2017 article published the Guardian website lamented the fast spread of recipes in the digital age. Author Bee Wilson noted that “recipes have become not a means to better cooking but a way of filling our heads with fantasy food.”

What historic cookery books may be revealing is that this impulse is far from new, and that ‘fantasy food’ had ways of making the rounds long before the internet. It can be initially disappointing to realize that historic cookbooks are not such a direct portal into the past, but when it comes to society and popular culture, fantasy can be as revealing as reality.

(Kara Harris)

Kara Harris explores the foodways and cooking traditions of Maryland through her own blog, Old Line Plate.

Sources and further reading

Conkling, Olivia, Cookbook, n.d., MS 2790, MdHS.

Griffith, Mary Black & Elizabeth Griffith Staats, Cookbooks, MS 1795, MdHS.

Howard, Mrs. Benjamin Chew. Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen. Baltimore: Turnbull brothers, 1873.

Lea, Elizabeth E. Domestic Cookery, useful receipts, and hints to young housekeepers. Baltimore: Cushings & Bailey, 1855.

Porter, Mrs. Robert Buck. Cookbooks, 1840-1870, MS 664, MdHS.

Tyson, M.L. The queen of the kitchen : a collection of old Maryland receipts for cooking. Baltimore: Lucas Brothers, 1870.

Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture, Megan J. Elias, University of Pennsylvania (2017)

Cake: A Slice of History, Alysa Levene, Pegasus Books (2016)

The Gilded Age Craze for the Chafing Dish, edwardianpromenade.com, Evangeline Holland (2017)

Social media and the great recipe explosion, theguardian.com, Bee Wilson (2017)

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