Mapping Women’s Social and Cultural Influences: An Exercise in Historical GIS

By Rachel A. Snell

Winterthur Library, Doc 47, Mrs. E.A. Phelp's recipe book
Winterthur Library, Doc 47, Mrs. E.A. Phelp’s recipe book

Dear Lizzie, You are quite welcome to the recipe & I wish you success in making the cake. I will come & see your cousin as soon as possible. Yours in such haste, Anne[1]

The above note accompanied a recipe for Hallowell Cake tucked into a recipe book kept by Mrs. E.A. Phelps of Canandaigau, Ontario County, New York. Manuscript recipe books from the nineteenth century overflow with examples of women’s social networks including notes marking the exchange of recipes like the example above, but also references to printed cookbooks, newspapers, churches, and social contacts.

In Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks they Wrote, Janet Theopano argued, “women’s cookbooks can be maps of the social and cultural worlds they inhabit.”[2] Cookbooks record not only what women cooked, but also their reading material, purchases, spirituality, and social networks. Occasionally, manuscript cookbooks contain enough information that the researcher can use GIS techniques to literally map these connections.  An extraordinary example of a manuscript cookbook from the Winterthur Museum and Library recently presented just that opportunity.

The inscription in the Rappe Family recipe book attributes the book to Grandmother Rappe. Dates recorded with some recipes as well as newspapers listed as sources for recipes suggest Grandmother Rappe complied the cookbook between 1810 and 1840. It consists of recipes for food and medicine as well as hints for housekeeping and gardening. A variety of categories are represented including cakes, puddings, preserving food, keeping cheese, creating a vegetable chimney ornament, various dyes, several recipes of tomato ketchup, advice to make cows come home, and remedies for common injuries as well as diseases like cholera and dysentery.

In most respects, the Rappe Family recipe book is typical for the period. Uniquely, the volume has an unusually precise record of recipe sources. Whoever compiled the Rappe Family recipe book included a source for nearly two-thirds of the recipes contained in the book. These sources include printed cookbooks, newspapers, almanacs, and individuals. Furthermore, for many individuals their location is recorded with the recipe. This inclusion of locations allows the researcher to create a GIS map of recipe sources, thus allowing us to view spatially Grandmother Rappe’s network: the connections and influences that shaped her cookbook and, by extension, her everyday life. As I start exploring GIS as a tool to better understand women’s networks, what follows is a description of my process thus far and some research questions I’m currently investigating.

Printed materials constitute a major source for the work; about half the attributed recipes were copied from newspapers or almanacs (marked in blue on the map). The Rappe Family recipe book references newspapers and almanacs published throughout the Mid-Atlantic including New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. A handful of recipes originated from newspapers published in Indiana and Virginia. The state of Ohio, unsurprisingly, is the best represented with The Ohio Repository contributing sixty recipes largely devoted to remedies, preserving food, and household hints. Published in Canton, Ohio under varying names from 1815 to the present, the domination of the local paper is unsurprising. While the recipes from The Ohio Repository are sprinkled throughout the text, suggesting it was consulted on a regular basis, the recipes from other newspapers appear in clusters such as six recipes from The Hagerstown Almanac (published in Hagerstown, Maryland) recorded successively in the volume.  This clustering suggests these publications were not regularly available and perhaps shared amongst friends forcing the cookbook compiler to transcribe the desired recipes in one sitting.

Winterthur Library, Doc. 512, Rappe Family Recipe Book
Winterthur Library, Doc. 512, Rappe Family Recipe Book

Other printed sources include two cookbooks printed in Vermont and Massachusetts (marked in red on the map). The first, New England Cookery, is a pirated edition of Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery published in Montpelier, Vermont in 1808. The second is Lydia Maria Child’s classic work, The Frugal American Housewife first published in 1829. Like the non-local newspapers, the recipes copied from these two printed works appear in clusters. Again, it is likely the compiler borrowed these cookbooks from a friend or neighbor.

Winterthur Library, Doc. 512, Rappe Family Recipe Book
Winterthur Library, Doc. 512, Rappe Family Recipe Book

Finally, the remaining attributed recipes are from individuals. A portion of these individuals are identified in the cookbook by their name and location, suggesting the compiler of the recipes had contacts within the state of Ohio in Akron, Newark, Sandusky, Columbus and Dover and with persons residing in Pennsylvania and Virginia (marked in purple on the map). My hunch is that the individuals lacking locations, the majority of the individuals appearing in the cookbook, were the compiler’s close friends and neighbors.

Once again, cookbooks prove to be powerful tools for better understanding the lives of ordinary women. When mapped, these sources reveal the far-flung nature of Grandmother Rappe’s connections and influences. Of particular note and deserving of more research, is the greater significance of newspapers and almanacs as sources of recipes and domestic advice.  What prompted women to create manuscript recipe books? Does the compilation of the Rappe Family recipe book reveal something about the availability of printed cookbooks in early nineteenth-century Ohio? Did collecting recipes from newspapers and friends provide a low-cost means for women to create personalized recipe books?

 


[1] Mrs. E.A. Phelps, Cookbook [1800?-1899?] Doc. 47 Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera. Winterthur Library, Winterthur, DE 19735.

[2] Janet Theophano, Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks they Wrote, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 13.

The map for this post was created using arcGIS.com and can also be viewed here.

 


3 thoughts on “Mapping Women’s Social and Cultural Influences: An Exercise in Historical GIS”

  1. What a wonderful article. I work for a custom cookbook publisher and we see so much family and community history in cookbooks. As we move more into the digital age these cookbooks may preserve information that may otherwise be lost and provide our future generations a better view of their history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *