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Victorian Recipes and Public History: My Visit to the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

By: Michelle DiMeo

As an active academic scholar who recently started working for a cultural institution, I’ve become increasingly interested in how the sources I use for professional historical research can be recast for a wider public audience. Recipe books tend to be an easy genre for public history and outreach: off hand, I can think of more public books than scholarly books about historical recipes. That said, not all of these are done well, and I particularly appreciate public histories that include thoughtful reflection on the original historical context, and those which can integrate museum and library collections to provide a more complete look at how the texts were actually used.

An event I recently attended at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion – a 17-room Victorian mansion in Philadelphia –  offered a creative, interactive way for guests to learn about historical recipes. Upstairs Downstairs Celebration was the opening event for the Mansion’s new interpretive tour focusing on the challenges and enjoyments of Victorian women across all socio-economic levels. Recipes were not the focus of the event, but were instead integrated into a much larger program. Guests entered the Mansion and were taken into an elaborate dining room, where we were invited to choose a pin featuring a Victorian woman’s portrait. Everyone from suffragists to recipe book writers, and from prostitutes to medical doctors, were represented. (As a medical humanist, it seemed appropriate that I chose Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive an MD, though I did seriously consider Philadelphian Eliza Leslie, who wrote nine cookbooks between 1827 and 1857!) Connected to the dining room was the well-preserved nineteenth-century kitchen, where the imposing black iron stove and over-sized kitchen utensils caught my eye before spotting the free champagne and Victorian finger-foods on the table. Guests wandered between the kitchen and dining room, exploring historical artifacts and textual reproductions that served as good conversation-starters.

Victorian Stove, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion
Victorian Stove – Image courtesy of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

Becky Diamond, author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, was available to answer questions and share interesting facts about the objects the guests viewed. In the kitchen, we could smell the rosewater and fresh nutmeg that Diamond used in the jumbles she baked, which we would later be given as a parting gift (along with her modernized version of the Victorian recipe, adapted from Mrs. Goodfellow’s original). Diamond has recently begun experimenting with the recipes she studies, and she was able to explain the changes in oven temperature, egg size, and available resources today versus the late-nineteenth century. The dining room also contained engaging reproductions of Victorian household guidance books. Who can resist smiling at Mrs. Henderson’s suggestions for a 7-course breakfast party (which, she argued,  were “very fashionable, being less expensive than dinners, and just as satisfactory to guests”) or Mrs. Beeton’s  suggested Bill of Fare for a picnic of 40 people? Of course, reading prescriptive texts in isolation does not give us a completely accurate account of what many Victorian women were actually doing or how they were adapting the guidelines. As such, I appreciated seeing that the Executive Director of the Mansion, Diane Richardson, provided some critical commentary and supplementary images, including an 1881 invitation to a lunch party that Philadelphia socialite Minnie Campbell Wilson (neé Harris) saved in her scrapbook, and a photo of a smaller dinner picnic that was held in the woods of New Jersey in 1888.

Victorian Picnic
Dinner Picnic in New Jersey woods, 1888.  The Library Company of Philadelphia

As I began this post by saying, the event was not explicitly about recipes, and I think this is what I liked most about it. Guests were lured in by a range of other activities broadly related to the history of Victorian women, including the opportunity to do a self-guided tour of the Mansion. We then gathered in the parlor to hear Cordelia Frances Biddle offer an overview of the social and political challenges faced by nineteenth-century American women and to watch actress Megan Edelman read Susan B. Anthony’s Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States (which Anthony read on July 4, 1876 on the front steps of Independence Hall , Philadelphia). This kick-off event, and the guided tours that will continue on the first Friday evening of every month, will primarily appeal to those with an interest in women’s history and the history of Philadelphia, but it would also interest history-lovers more broadly.

Victorian lunch party invitation
Lunch party invitation, 1881. The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Most people will not attend the Upstairs Downstairs tour to learn specifically about American culinary history, but they will walk away knowing a bit more about it. For me, this was a good example of how a niche sub-field I study as an academic can be intelligently worked into a broader public history event – one providing enough information to encourage critical reflection and engagement with material culture, but not too much information to alienate or overwhelm the non-specialist.

Thank you to Diane Richardson, Becky Diamond and Nicole Joniec for sharing their research materials with me and answering my questions.

Just who is this Johanna St. John?!?

By Elaine Leong

This week I have the honour of giving a talk at Lydiard House and Park near Swindon.  Until the beginning of the 20th century, Lydiard House and Park was the country estate of the St. John family.  Regular readers of this blog are, of course, already familiar with Johanna St. John and her late-seventeenth century recipe book.

Wellcome Western MS 4338. Image from Wellcome Library, London.

In the fall of 2012, Lisa Smith’s students at the University of Saskatchewan spent part of their semester transcribing Johanna’s book.  You might recall reading some of their blog posts in December. Over the last year or so, Lydiard House and Park’s archivist, Sophie Cummings, and her team of volunteers have also been hard at work transcribing Johanna’s book and in bringing Johanna’s medical activities to a modern audience through a play staged by a youth theatre group, family education events and evening talks.  At this point, you might well ask, who is this Johanna St. John and why does she merit so much attention?

Anon., Portrait of Lady Johanna St. John circa 1690, Image from Lydiard House and Park.

Johanna St. John, or Lady J as she is nicknamed by the Lydiard group, was the eldest daughter Oliver St. John, a prominent Parliamentarian and supporter of Oliver Cromwell. Johanna (1631-1705) married her distant cousin Sir Walter St. John, MP for Wootton Bassett and Wiltshire.  Their grandson, Henry the first Viscount Bolingbroke was a well-known politician, diplomatist and author.  During their marriage, Sir Walter and Lady Johanna divided their time between their mansion in Battersea and their country estate, Lydiard House near Swindon.  Remarkably, an extensive set of correspondence between Johanna and her Lydiard steward Thomas Hardyman has survived. These letters indicate that Lydiard Park, far from being simply a summer home for the St. Johns, supplied them with all sorts of foodstuffs from fruits, herbs and flowers grown in the gardens to cheeses, butter and poultry from the nearby farms.

Johanna’s letters are a fascinating read and provide a rare glimpse into the housewifely concerns of a late seventeenth-century gentlewoman. They paint a picture of an active household manager who expressed great interest and concern in various foodstuffs and homemade products (from butter to cheese to beer to distilled medicines) produced at Lydiard.  Not one to shy away from micromanagement, Johanna instructed Hardyman when to start fattening the turkeys and geese for Christmas feasts, berated him when he dared to send up unripe cheeses and gave him precise barley malt to hogshead ratios for the brewing of beer.  Most interestingly, the correspondence also reveals that Johanna was in the habit of sending recipes gathered from her London acquaintances to be made up at Lydiard Park where she relied on a team of expert distillers and herb gatherers. Johanna’s detailed instructions, including specific directions to contact local experts for particular ingredients, give a clear picture of how one gentlewoman can ‘make’ medicines via ‘remote control’.

An image of a woman distilling taking from the frontispiece of J.S., ‘The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities’ (London, 1691).

When taken together, Johanna’s recipe book and letters reveal both complex networks of contemporary lay medical knowledge amongst family members and paints a vivid picture of medical activities in an early modern English country house. Our collective transcription of Johanna’s book renders the work electronically searchable and (very soon) widely available.  We hope that it goes one step towards analyzing and acknowledging the complex set of activities taken on by early modern housewives and, in Johanna’s case, her large crew of ‘helpers’.

Because she is worth it

By Laurence Totelin

Recently, I started experimenting with Greek, Roman and Byzantine recipes for pharmacological and cosmetic concoctions. My most adventurous attempt so far was recreating the ‘soap used by the Patrician Pelagia’, a recipe preserved in the writings of Aetius of Amida (sixth century CE):

Soap the Patrician [i.e. noble] Pelagia used to make her face shine: Gallic soap, 6 ounces; starch, 1½ ounce; white lead, 1½ ounce; mastic, ½ ounce; deer marrow, 1 ounce; white native sodium carbonate, 4 pastilles; white wax, 3 ounces. Soak the soap beforehand in water in a small jar for five days, changing the rain water every day and filtering the soap. After that, on the sixth day, put the soap in a new cooking pot with the rain water; place on coals, on a low heat, until the soap has melted. Then sprinkle with the wax and the marrow, and when they are dissolved, take the frying pan and stir well with a spittle and sprinkle the mastic and the starch, ground beforehand. Then add the white lead (ground beforehand in some water) in a small dish and beat up with the hand vigorously. Then place in a new jar and use generously. [Aetius 8.6]

My re-creation of Pelagia's soap. Note the snow-whiteness
My re-creation of Pelagia’s soap. Note the snow-whiteness

I have recounted my experiments with this foundation face-cream on my blog ‘concocting history. Here I would like to focus on the attribution to the Patrician Pelagia. Ancient medical authors often claimed someone famous had used their preparations, and in the case of gynaecological remedies and cosmetics, they sometimes called upon the authority of women. Among these women, one can mention Cleopatra (the name of the most famous queen of antiquity) and Thais (the name of a famous courtesan). Of course it is possible that Queen Cleopatra and the courtesan Thais endorsed cosmetic products, but I think it is more likely their names were chosen for their connotations: sexual appeal, luxury, pleasure…

So what about our Patrician Pelagia? Was Aetius referring to a historical character, a noble Pelagia, or was he calling upon the connotations attached to that name. And what might those connotations have been? ‘Pelagia’ was the name of various Saints, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the – perhaps fictional – Pelagia the Harlot, who started her life as a famous ‘actress’ from Antioch, and converted to Christianity under the influence of the bishop Nonnus. The story of her life, written in the fifth century, became extremely popular. (See here for a translation).

Now, beauty, ornaments and smell play an important role in that story.[1] When Nonnus first encountered the prostitute Pelagia, she was going through the streets of Antioch, sat on a donkey, covered in pearls and gold (but nothing else), and ‘as she went past, the air was filled with the sweet scent of musk and other perfumes.’ The sight and scent of the harlot led the poor Nonnus into temptation, for which he repented through prayer. The night of the following Sunday, Nonnus had a dream in which a dove covered in filth passed by the altar during Mass, its ‘stink so strong as to be difficult to bear’. After Mass, the dream went on, Nonnus plunged the dove in a pool in front of the church. It came out ‘as white as snow’. That dream spurred Nonnus to give the most inspiring sermon in Church that day and, as it happened, Pelagia the harlot was in attendance. Awed by the power of the bishop’s words, she converted–and went on to lead a life of repentance, disguised as the eunuch Pelagius.

Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v
Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v

Thus Pelagia goes from a journey from  over-sexualised, artificial beauty redolent of perfumes masking the stink of filth to resplendent, gender-neutral, god-inspired beauty. Interestingly, one striking feature of Pelagia’s soap is its snow-whiteness, which may perhaps have recalled Nonnus’ white dove. It also has no added scent: its odour is that of tallow soap, which may appear unpleasant to the unaccustomed modern nose, but is by no means overpowering. Finally, this concoction contains none of the luxurious, exotic ingredients that so commonly feature in ancient recipes. This simple, bland-smelling, snow-white preparation may perhaps have brought to mind the tale of the repentant courtesan.

It may seem odd to use the name of Saint to advertise a cosmetic product, but the name ‘Pelagia’ would have lent the recipe the right balance of ‘naughtiness’ and ‘sanctity’. A product whose name evoked a repentant harlot would have been a ‘safe’ choice for an honourable, Christian woman who still wanted to look her best. After all, she was worth it!

[1] I wish to thank my former student, Caroline Musgrove, for drawing my attention to this fact.

A Recipe for Trouble, or Criminal Chemistry

By Lisa Smith

It’s the tenth anniversary of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, a wonderful online resource that I frequently use for teaching and research. As one might expect, there is lots of medical history to be found in the court records. The expertise of physicians, surgeons, midwives and apothecaries was increasingly drawn on to describe injuries and deaths over this period. What may be more surprising is that recipes occasionally play a starring role in London’s criminal underworld. Previously at The Recipes Project, we’ve blogged about recipes being used for social or cultural currency, but today, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you an intriguing tale of a recipe for economic gain.

On 4 May 1698, F.P. of St. Giles-in-the-Fields stood trial for “washing and diminishing” two guineas (gold pieces worth approximately twenty shillings) “with a sort of poisonous Liquor” in order to commit fraud. The first witness recounted meeting the prisoner at a Pall Mall coffee-house where “they had some Discourse relating to the Mathematicks”. Naturally, the conversation turned to recipes and the witness told F.P. that “he had an excellent Receipt to make good Vineger”, which he would sell to F.P. for his servant. F.P. declined to purchase the recipe, but invited the witness to visit him, which he did.

During the visit, F.P. told the witness that “he knew of an excellent Liquor that would diminish Guineas 15 or 20 d. each, without defacing the Characters”. The problem was getting the guineas in the first place. Perhaps, F.P. suggested, “if they had a Banker to furnish them with Guineas” then they could wash up to five hundred pieces in a day.

William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The witness visited the Duke of Schomberg, a military man, who advised the witness to find a willing banker. A banker found, the first witness set up a meeting with F.P. in St. James’s Park. The banker provided F.P. with two guineas “to make an Experiment”, which took place at a room on Dean Steet. The process entailed first weighing the coins, then putting them into water over the fire and stirring them “a pretty while” along with unidentified “Druggs”. The chemicals must have been rather expensive, as F.P. insisted that the banker would need to provide four-hundred guineas per day, or “it would not be worth his while”. The coins were weighed again afterwards to show the difference. The banker at this point complained that the coins have been too diminished (about four shillings each), but “the Prisoner condescended they should only be diminished to the value of 18 d. each, for the more easy covering the Cheat”.  F.P. further noted that only one of the coins might go undetected. Indeed, the coins were weighed at trial and there was a weight difference, with one coin “4 s. too light, and the other 3 s. 6.”

At this point, F.P. may have realised that trouble was not far behind.  The first witness reported that F.P. “designed suddenly to go to France, when he would leave ’em the Secret for their pains, they allowing him 30 l. per Month, which they were to remit thither; but in the mean time all the Profit while he staid here should be his own”. The witnesses did not take him up on his offer, but instead “delivered” the diminished coins to the Duke who in turn showed them to the King. The King sent the guineas to the Secretary of State, William Vernon, who ordered the prisoner’s arrest.  The stakes were high, with—as the banker put it—F.P.’s “Secret being enough to ruin the Nation”.

The prisoner did try defend himself, claiming that it was one of the witnesses who had tried the experiment. Although he called several character witnesses, it seemed he had few friends, as some of them “said he had been guilty of endeavouring to suborn Witnesses to swear falsly against one Camelle” on one occasion. In any case, there was clear evidence that the whole idea had been his in the first place: “the Names of the Druggs to be used being writ in one of the Evidences Pocket books by the Prisoner’s own Hand, which he owned in Court”. F.P. was found guilty of High Treason, punishable by death.

A curious story overall, and one very much of its time. Two men talking at a coffee-house about mathematics and recipes? How very urban Enlightenment. Secrets to be shared, for a cost? Typical of the early modern tension between public and private secret knowledge. A desire to use chemicals to make gold? Well, it’s not quite the Philosopher’s Stone that seventeenth-century alchemists continued to seek, but certainly much more practical. Condemned by a written recipe? Should have left it in the oral realm instead of trying to organise his knowledge…

The case of F.P. does show, however, the importance of recipes. He was in possession of one that worked and threatened to undermine no less than royal authority. But all that knowledge came to nothing. In the end, it was just a recipe for trouble.