All posts by Lisa Smith

A historian of gender and medicine in eighteenth-century France and England, Lisa Smith (Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex) has published widely on leaky bodies, pain, fertility, and the household. She is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”. In addition to developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence, she is a co-investigator on a crowd-sourcing recipes transcription project. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog and Wonders & Marvels and tweets as @historybeagle.

The (Near) Magic of Digital Access to Manuscript Cookbooks

By Stephen Schmidt

MCS LOGO 2C FNLA conference panel on American cheese-making has just wrapped up, and someone in the audience stands and asks a question: “Can anyone tell me when in the nineteenth-century American recipes for chowder began to call for milk?” The question is not a total non sequitur because milk figured in the panel discussion (of course) and one of the panelists happens to be a writer of American cookbooks. Still, there is no reason to suppose that any of the panelists would have an answer to this question, and apparently none do. After a brief interval of blank staring and paper shuffling, one of the panelists suggests, “Perhaps you should look in nineteenth-century manuscript cookbooks.”

I have been witness to many exchanges like this over the past twenty-five years. Among culinary historians, cookbook authors, and food writers, manuscript cookbooks are widely viewed as holy-grail-level documents, bearing vital information that can be found nowhere else, including in printed cookbooks. And on some topics, including chowder, manuscript cookbooks are indeed illuminating.

But, in truth, few people actually use these documents, even those who, like our hypothetical panelist, send others in pursuit of them. Researchers often do not live near a library that has manuscript cookbooks. Or their library may have a trove of these documents but may not have catalogued them. Or their library may have cataloged its manuscript cookbooks so perfunctorily or erroneously—after all, library cataloguers are not culinary historians, so these documents are opaque to them—that a researcher must wade through stacks of irrelevant material before hitting pay dirt. In the end, most researchers don’t bother.

Page from “Gemel Book of Recipes : manuscript, circa 1660-1700,” New York Academy of Medicine. Curse on bottom of page: Jean Gembel [Gemel] her book / I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her.
Page from “Gemel Book of Recipes : manuscript, circa 1660-1700,” New York Academy of Medicine. Curse on bottom of page: Jean Gembel [Gemel] her book / I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her.
One historic site curator told me that, in her ten years on the job, not a single person had even inquired about the site’s collection of ten manuscript cookbooks, much less asked to see one of them. Hers was the usual Catch-22. On the one hand, the WorldCat record of the site’s manuscripts was incomplete and vague, almost indecipherable: it would entice no one. On the other, why should the curator expend precious time and effort fixing the record when no one seems to be interested in the books?

The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey was created to facilitate access to manuscript cookbooks and thereby increase their use. Its core feature is a database that—someday—will contain all (okay, most) of the pre-1865 English language manuscript cookbooks held by U. S. libraries, historical sites and societies, and other public institutions. Users can search the database either by holding institution or by the time of composition and the place of origin of manuscripts. (Many English-language manuscripts in U. S. repositories are English, not American.)

When users click on a manuscript that, to judge from its title, seems to be in their field of interest, they are brought to a page that provides a summary of the manuscript and a link to the library online catalog record (assuming there is one). With any luck, the manuscript will be viewable online—if it is, this is indicated on the search page—and the library record will provide a link to a digital version.

Obviously, this initiative is only possible digitally, but digital can’t do everything. If our database is to work optimally, the titles we assign to manuscripts must be descriptive and our summaries of manuscripts must be not only descriptive, but also accurate and–ideally–a pleasure to read.

However, we can only read those manuscripts that either are held in New York City (where we are based) or are viewable online—and obviously, due to time and budget constraints, we can only read a very few of these. For the most part, we must cobble our titles and summaries from library catalog records. And so we run again into the wall that digital was supposed to breach: the library records are sketchy or nonexistent.

A particular bugaboo is proving to be the many cookbooks buried in family papers, which, if they appear in library records at all (and many do not), are typically listed simply as “cookbook” or “receipt book,” with no author, no date, and certainly no summary given. Sometimes we can query the library for help. But sometimes, unfortunately, querying is not realistic, as in the case of a collection that I recently encountered, which comprised an astonishing 19,200 items in forty-nine boxes. The record listed “recipe books” among these items, but I doubt that anyone will ever see them, since the record did not include a finding aid.

In the end, I do not doubt the value of our project. For one thing, I am learning that we can solve many thorny cataloguing problems simply by becoming more nimble quick-readers of manuscripts and more skilled cataloguers. (Big surprise—there is a learning curve!) Still, I have adjusted expectations. Digital capability is heady. It allows us to count zillions of things, see similarities among these things, find relatedness between all these things; it allows us to create nifty categories and tidily organize these zillions of things in them. But digital cannot generate the things themselves, at least not all of them. This is so obvious a truism that we don’t even say it. And yet, amid our excitement, we sometimes forget.

An intriguing invitation

This in from the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, happily coinciding with The Recipes Project‘s Digital Humanities month…

winche sample pageA seventeenth-century recipe book. Twelve hours. 208 pages. And transcribers from around the world.

Our goal? Using the Folger Shakespeare Library’s online transcription platform, we’ll collaboratively produce a searchable transcription of Rebeckah Winche’s recipe book in twelve hours.

On 7 October, please join the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC) for our first annual Transcribathon. We will have transcription groups working at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the University of Essex, the University of Akron, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Texas Arlington, with other individuals joining in virtually throughout the day.

Along the way, participants will virtually meet scholars from around the world, have the opportunity to participate in a series of transcription sprints, and emerge from the day with a line for their CV—all from their own home, classroom, or office! NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY – we’ll walk you through the coding and offer pointers on the handwriting.

Even if you don’t want to transcribe, you can still join the fun in other ways.

For more information see here. To join us, email Lisa Smith (

The Digital Humanities Turn

By Lisa Smith

The digital humanities are everywhere in the academic world these days. And although we don’t talk much about it, it’s something that underpins our own editorial interest in The Recipes Project. Part of the rationale for starting the blog was to bring together a community of people interested in recipes, both academic and non-academic. So far, we have had over seventy contributors from around the world and, so far in 2015, about 140,000 unique readers.

Siege of Paris Menu [in English]. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
What’s on the menu this month? Fortunately, our offerings are better than those of he Siege of Paris, 1870-1. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
It’s an exciting month here at The Recipes Project, as we are officially relaunching our blog. You may have noticed the new site theme, but there are even more substantial changes. Please check out our new thematic series pages, where we round up all of the special series. Under the Credits tab, we also now highlight the work of our student contributors.

If you’re interested in the history of The Recipes Project, take a look at the Flashback section, which resurrects much of the material of Elaine Leong’s 2010 Remedies, Recipes and Receipts website.

We’re also excited to announce our new Zotero group, which is a handy way of keeping track of manscript and print recipe books in the archives and our recipe-related reading lists. If you want to contribute your own bibliographies, we’d love to have you join our Zotero group.

It’s as good a time as any to remind you about our Facebook page and Twitter feed—both of which we use to share tasty tidbits from around the web.

To celebrate our relaunch (and my own new job as Lecturer in Digital History at the University of Essex), we’ve decided to focus on the digital humanities this month. Posts include Hillary Nunn reviewing the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon from a recipe-history perspective; Katherine Allen discussing the problems of setting up database categories; Chelsea Clark explaining the rationale for her updates to The Recipes Project website; Stephen Schmidt introducting the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey; and Kathleen Walker-Miekle unveiling (for us, anyway) the Digital Antidotarium.

Of course, there will be some non-digital posts, too… with Marieke Hendriksen on using iron in cookery; Aileen Das on non-surgical methods of removing arrowheads; and—a treat for Halloween–Andrew Sneddon on a remedy for demonic possession!

Thanks to student assistants Chelsea Clark, Julia Jaegle, and Erin Spinney for their help in getting the site ready for relaunch. And thank you so much to all our contributors and readers for making our online community such a success.

Recording Dr. Sloane’s Medical Advice

By Lisa Smith

In the hunt for good health, early modern sick people often recorded the prescriptions given to them by doctors, particularly if the remedy was useful or came from a famous source. Sir Hans Sloane was one of the best known physicians in early eighteenth-century London–as well as a collector and natural philosopher, whose correspondence is being put online here. Sloane himself collected recipe books in search of knowledge, but his patients also sometimes recorded his medical advice for later reference. The Arscott Family’s book of “Physical Receipts”, c. 1730-1776 (Wellcome Library, London, MS 981), for example, contains three recipes attributed to Sloane, which provides snippets of information about his medical practice.

Mid-eighteenth century chocolate cups, one of which can be traced to Sloane's collections. Image credit: British Museum.
Mid-eighteenth century chocolate cups, one of which can be traced to Sloane’s collections. Image credit: British Museum.

Although Sloane was best known for his botanical expertise and promotion of treatments such as Peruvian Bark or chocolate, the Arscott family recipes show a mixture of chemical, animal and herbal remedies. The treatment for worms (f. 129), for example, combined a mixture of elixir proprietatis and spirit. salis dulcis in either white wine or tea. Together, these aimed to sweeten the blood, strengthen the nerves and fortify the stomach.

The pleurisy remedy (f. 156) included pennyroyal water, white wine and “2 small Balls of a sound stone horse”—or, dung from a horse that still had its testicles. This was to be steeped for an hour, then strained. (Apparently this weakened the taste of the dung.) This delicious liquor would keep for three days. Are you tempted? Because the dose was a “large Chocolate Dish fasting in the morning and at 4 in the Afternoon”. “If the Stomach will bear it” (and whose wouldn’t?), the patient was to take the remedy for four to six days in a row. In this remedy, the dung was the most powerful ingredient, as it was considered a sudorific (causing sweat) and resolvent (reducing inflammation) that would aid asthma, colic, inflamed lungs, and pleurisies.

Heister, Operation for cataract and eye instruments, 1757 Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Sloane’s remedy would have been preferable to being couched for a cataract. Heister, Operation for cataract and eye instruments, 1757. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane, of course, was especially known for his eye remedy, which he made public knowledge in 1745 when he published An Account of a most efficacious medicine for soreness, weakness, and several other distempers of the eyes. But how close to the published remedy was the Arscott version? Fortunately, the most detailed of the three recipes is “Sr Hans Sloane’s Direction for my Aunt Walroud in ye Year 1730–when she perceiv’d a Cataract growing in one of her Eyes” (ff.79-80).

Although there are measurements and preparation details, just like a recipe, it was also a summary of Sloane’s successful medical advice to Mrs Walroud. Of course, what early modern patients deemed success in a treatment differs from our modern concept. For Mrs Walroud, it was enough that after she started the treatment at the age of 67, her eyes did not get any worse for ten years and “she could write & read tolerably well”. When she died at the age of 83, she still had some of her sight.

The Arscott instructions begin by recommending that the sufferer have nine ounces of blood taken from the arm and a blister applied behind the ears. Next, take a conserve of rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam (ground human skull mixed with various herbs), eyebright, millipedes, fennel seed and peony syrup. Last, the patient was to drink a julap (medicine mixed with alcohol) of black cherry water, fennel water, compound peony water, compound spirit of lavender, sal volat oleos and sugar. Mrs Walroud took both twice daily and kept a “perpetual Blister between her shoulders”.

One crucial difference between Sloane’s published remedy and the Arscott one is that no mention is made in Mrs Walroud’s treatment of using an ointment made of tutty (oxide of zinc), lapis haematites, aloes, prepared pearl and viper’s grease. Three possibilities for the ointment’s absence occur to me.

  • The Arscott family may have simply assumed that the listed directions were intended to accompany the purchase of Sloane’s ointment and didn’t specify something so obvious.
  • The reference to using the ointment was lost when the instructions had been passed between family members.
  • Or, Sloane did not always prescribe the ointment.

The remaining directions, though, do have overlaps. In his Account, Sloane prescribed drinking a medicine that also contained rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam and eyebright—though he included more ingredients: betony, sage, wild valerian root and castor. This was to be followed by a tea (rather than julap) with drops of compound spirit of lavender and sal volat oleos. In this case, it was the Arscott version that included extra ingredients.

The type of bleeding in the Account was also slightly different than Mrs Walroud’s, with the recommendation that six ounces of blood be taken either from the temples using leeches or by cupping at the shoulders. Sloane’s eye remedy was supposed to be useful for many types of problems, he did not prescribe it exactly the same each time. Variations were possible, according to the patient and the problem.

The Arscott recipes suggest not only what advice from Sloane the family had found most useful, but what sorts of remedies Sloane might prescribe to his patients. But whatever Mrs Walroud’s rave review, the next time I suffer from eye strain at the computer, I won’t be reaching for Sloane’s drink with pulvis ad guttetam and millipedes in a hurry.


An earlier version of this post first appeared at The Sloane Letters Blog.