Old-Fashioned Recipes, New-Fashioned Kitchens: Technology and Women’s Recipe Collecting in the Nineteenth Century

By Rachel A. Snell

When I first started exploring nineteenth-century manuscript cookbooks, I was astonished by the prevalence of recipes for cake in these sources. I expected cookery in the past to be more practical, concerned primarily with preserving, providing calories, and making do with what was available. Printed cookbooks, such as those authored by Lydia Maria Child, Sarah J. Hale, Catharine E. Beecher, and others, that emphasized frugality, efficiency, and thrift supported my assumptions. Early in my research process, I struggled to reconcile what I perceived as the inconsistency between thrift and efficiency obsessed printed cookbooks with manuscript collections nearly entirely devoted to cakes, puddings, cookies, and other baked goods. Now, hundreds of cookbooks later, I’m prepared to offer three explanations for the prevalence of cake recipes in the manuscript cookbooks I study: evolving technology, new ingredients, and shifting social expectations that are indicative of changes in women’s work and roles over the course of the nineteenth century. In this post, I’d like touch upon the technological innovations that influenced women’s recipe collecting.

Frontispiece showing two women working in a kitchen. Mrs. E.A. Howland, The American Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book (Cincinnati: H.W. Derby & Co., 1845)
Frontispiece showing two women working in a kitchen. Mrs. E.A. Howland, The American Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book (Cincinnati: H.W. Derby & Co., 1845). Library of Congress.

Kitchens changed dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century, as figures 1 and 2 demonstrate. Until the 1850s, most women cooked over an open hearth as generations of cooks before them. Ruth Schwartz Cowan described the cookstove as “the single most important domestic symbol of the nineteenth century” and there is no denying the adoption of the cookstove transformed how women prepared dinner and what was served.[1] Cookstoves expanded the repertoire of the cook to allow baking, boiling, roasting, and other cooking techniques to occur simultaneously. No longer did the amount of wood and time necessary to adequately heat a brick oven limit baking to once or twice a week. Women could, if they desired, bake something for dessert every day. Further, the dry, relatively constant heat produced by the cookstove reacted well with chemical leaveners allowing for the creation of layered cakes and other elaborate desserts.

“Prang's aids for object teaching--The kitchen” (Boston : L. Prang & Co., c1874). Lithograph. Library of Congress.
“Prang’s aids for object teaching–The kitchen” (Boston : L. Prang & Co., c1874). Lithograph. Library of Congress.

Long before Fannie Farmer advocated level cup measures, cookbook authors recommended the standardization of measures within individual kitchens. Using the same coffee cup for measuring ingredients, even it wasn’t exactly the same volume as the cup used by one’s neighbor, improved results and was more economical. By the mid-nineteenth century, women could purchase vessels specifically manufactured for measuring ingredients, like the objects pictured in figure 3. Over time, the recipes in manuscript and printed cookbook adapted to new methods of measuring as pounds of flour were replaced by cups and a piece of butter the size of a walnut by a tablespoon.

Metal Measures, Late 19th Century. Michigan State University Library.
Metal Measures, Late 19th Century. Michigan State University Library.

As women increasingly worked alone in the kitchen with husbands leaving the home for work and children occupied by school and play, a wide variety of laborsaving devices appeared on the market to help ease their labor. The mechanized eggbeater, first patented in 1856, made the task of beating eggs for cake recipes considerably easier. Before the invention of the eggbeater, eggs were frequently beat using a whisk assembled from tree branches and preparing the whites and yolks for a sponge cake might require hours and great endurance. Cookbook author, Eliza Leslie, described the procedure for properly beating eggs in The Lady’s Receipt-Book,

“Persons who do not know the right way, complain much of the fatigue of beating eggs, and therefore leave off too soon. There will be no fatigue, if they are beaten with the proper stroke, and with wooden rods, and in a shallow, flat-bottomed earthen pan  . . . In beating them do not move your elbow, but keep it close to your side.”[2]

Prior to the availability and widespread use of commercial chemical leaveners, properly beaten eggs were essential to the creation of light, airy cakes. The ability of the mechanized eggbeater to produce five rotations of the wire blades with one rotation of the handle significantly eased the labor associated with preparing cakes. This innovation coupled with chemical leaveners and the improved quality of raw ingredients, would literally take cakes to new heights.

Eggbeaters, Late 19th Century. Michigan State University Library.
Eggbeaters, Late 19th Century. Michigan State University Library.

Thus, evolving technology altered the rhythm of women’s baking habits and eased the labor associated with the production of baked goods. Recipes from the 1850s onward reveal the influence of new technology and changing ingredients as cookbook authors reconfigured old-fashioned recipes to new-fashioned kitchens. This was part of the reason cooking schools became popular in the late nineteenth century and women shared recipes amongst their social circle or submitted recipe requests to the “Home Department” of their local newspaper: the fundamentals of cooking and baking has changed significantly and very quickly. A woman’s early training, the recipes she learned from her mother, and the recipes she collected in a manuscript cookbook as a young bride were increasingly obsolete. As women experimented and perfected recipes in the new system, it was natural to share and collect.

This blog post is excerpted from a talk given by the author at the Maine Historical Society August 12, 2014.


[1] Ruth Schwartz Cowan, A Social History of American Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 194.

[2] Eliza Leslie, The Lady’s Receipt Book (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1847), 193.


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