All posts by Sally Osborn

I am researching a PhD at Roehampton University in eighteenth-century domestic medicine, through the medium of manuscript recipe books.

The Vegetarian Society, Victorian style

By Sally Osborn

Inside a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century recipe book in the Herefordshire Record Office (G2/1030), I found a leaflet advertising the Vegetarian Society, which was founded in 1847. It carries the following rather earnest declaration:

The objects of the Society are, to induce habits of abstinence from the Flesh of Animals as Food, by the dissemination of information upon the subject, by means of tracts, essays, and lectures, proving the many advantages of a physical, intellectual, and moral character, resulting from Vegetarian habits of Diet; and thus, to secure, through the association, example, and efforts of its members, the adoption of a principle which will tend essentially to true civilisation, to universal brotherhood, and to the increase of human happiness generally.

Image credit: Pixabay.com
Image credit Pixabay.com

No ambition there, then! Unfortunately the recipes themselves are rather stodgy – no low carb to be seen – and miles away from the varied and enticing vegetarian food we are used to today.

Take a look and see if you fancy any of them:

Bread-crumb omelet

One pint of bread-crumbs, a large handful of chopped parsley, with a large slice of onion minced fine, and a teaspoonful of dried marjoram. Beat up two eggs, add a teaspoonful of milk, some nutmeg, pepper, and salt, and a piece of butter the size of an egg. Mix altogether, and bake in a slow oven till of a light brown colour. Turn out of dish and send to table immediately.

Yorkshire pudding

Flavour your batter with pot marjoram, lemon thyme, and sweet balm powdered, a little chopped parsley, and an onion minced fine. Bake in moderate oven; serve hot with gravy.

Macaroni pudding

Two ounces of macaroni; boil till tender, drain the water from it, and add half-a-pint of new milk, and half-an-ounce of parsley chopped fine. A teaspoonful of lemon thyme powdered, some lemon peel, pepper, salt, and dash of nutmeg. Put it in a well buttered dish, and bake twenty minutes. If wanted richer, beat up an egg in the milk.

Buttered onions

Take enough (rather small) onions to make a dish; let them all be of like size; peel them and throw them into a stew-pan of boiling water with some salt. Boil for five minutes; drain them, put them into a saucepan with a good thick piece of butter, a sprinkling of nutmeg, pepper, and salt; toss them about over a clear fire until they begin to brown; add a tablespoonful of mushroom ketchup, and a dessert-spoonful of sage, and marjoram and parsley. Do them gently for a quarter of an hour, and serve upon toast moistened in lemon-juice.

Mushroom pudding

One pint of mushrooms, half a pound of bread crumbs, and two ounces of butter. Put the butter in the bread crumbs, adding pepper and salt, and as much water as will moisten the bread; add the mushrooms cut in pieces; line a basin with paste, put in the mixture, cover with paste, tie a cloth over, and boil an hour and a-half. It is equally good baked.

Image credit: Pixabay.com
Image credit: Pixabay.com

Buttered eggs, or rumbled eggs

Break three eggs into a small stew pan, put a table-spoonful of milk and an ounce of fresh butter, add a salt-spoonful of salt and a little pepper. Set the stew pan over a moderate fire, and stir the eggs with a spoon, being careful to keep every particle in motion until it is set. Have ready a crisp piece of toast, pour the eggs upon it, and serve immediately. [This mode of dressing eggs secures that the white and the yolk shall be perfectly mixed. The white, which is so very nutritious, is insipid and unpalatable when the egg is simply boiled, fried, or poached.]

Potted lentils or haricots

Stew a teacupful of lentils in water with a morsel of butter, and some mushroom powder. Beat up to a smooth paste. When cold, add an equal quantity of fine brown bread crumbs, with seasoning of salt, mace and cayenne, and the size of a walnut of old cheese. Beat all together with two ounces of butter. Press firmly into pots. (Haricot beans may be used instead of lentils.) If it is to be kept long, hot butter must be poured on the top.

Baked potatoes with sage and onion

Peel as many potatoes as you require; put them in a pie dish, and a good sized onion, with half a teaspoonful of dried sage, two ounces of butter, and enough water to cover the bottom of the dish. Season with salt and pepper.

Barley soup

Soak four table-spoonful of Scotch barley in cold water for an hour. Put it in stewpan with about a pint of cold water. Set it on a moderate fire; let it stew gently, and add three good-sized onions, two small turnips, a carrot, and head of celery. Season to taste with salt and pepper. When quite soft, add a table-spoonful of mushroom ketchup.

Groat pudding

Pick and wash a half-pint of groats, and put them in a dish with a pint of water, a large onion chopped small, a little sage or marjoram, a good lump of butter, pepper and salt. The groats may be steeped thus for some hours before baking. Apples may be added, or substituted, for the onions and herbs. If substituted, use sugar instead of the seasoning. Bake in a moderate oven till the groats are tender.

Savoury pie

Pare several potatoes and two or three onions. Slice them, if large. Place these in a buttered pie-dish, in layers, with a little well steeped tapioca, pepper, salt, and powdered sage upon each, also mushroom powder, or fresh mushrooms if liked. Slices of cold bread omelet, or a few Brussells sprouts, may be inserted. Cover with a plain crust; one made of ordinary bread dough, with a very little butter, is preferable to anything heavy. Keep the bottom of the pie supplied with hot water while baking, or it will be without gravy.

Vegetarian gravy

This may be flavoured either with mushroom powder or browned onion, and coloured with a little chicory, the basis being made as plain melted butter, with less flour or thickening, and seasoned with pepper, salt, and mace, if approved.

There are some interesting seasonings there. The herby Yorkshire pudding looks worth trying and trendy chefs have rediscovered mushroom powder… But the potato pie with tapioca, bread pudding and a bread dough crust? You’d put on half a stone just looking at it.

This post was originally published at Eighteenth-century Recipes.

What is a recipe?

By Sally Osborn

Among the recipes for cakes and fritters, wines and pies, Lady Frances Hotham’s recipe book contains an entry that begins:

For little children’s lambswool shoes – Cast 17 stitches. Knit 1 row plain. Add a stitch at both ends every other row, till you have 23 stitches. Knit 1 row plain. Add a stitch at the end only, every other row till you have 28 stitches.1

Or consider this, from a book of ‘Medical receits for the human and animal species’, probably belonging to a Thomas Chambre:

Paper lamp – Cut a piece of paper into a circular form about the size of a crown piece; twist a wick in the center, & plate it in the manner of a smoak jack. Put this to float in a saucer of oil & water in a large bason, & it will burn all night.2

Can those be described as recipes? Certainly examples such as this are a world away from Jerry Stannard’s model of a recipe as a formula with four essential parts: purpose, ingredients, procedure/equipment, and application/administration.3 Or compare Anne Stobart’s recent suggestion that private and emotional frustration in medical matters can be revealed by the ‘not-recipes’ in recipe books.

While Stannard’s model does not fit the knitting pattern and lamp-making instructions, Stobart’s ‘not-recipes’ do not explain the wide array of non-medical instructional information either. Recipes, as it turns out, are difficult to define. Take, for example, these two from Cornwall, which could loosely be described as veterinary and household respectively:

To prevent lambs from being killed by foxes &c – Take of brimstone gun powder and train oil make an ointment rub behind the ears and tail.4

Fulminating powder – Niter 3 parts salt of tartar 2 parts and sulphur one part mix them togeather by powdring them one dram of this powder will make a report like a musquet.5

Compilers of other collections record information on topics as diverse as ‘How to make a pond by puddling’ and ’To know if a woman be with child’, as well as beauty preparations and gardening tips.6

The recipe as aide-mémoire. MS 1322. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.
The recipe as aide-mémoire. MS 1322. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Some entries in recipe collections are rather more like aides-mémoire, such as ‘Balsam of Chilie to be had in Black Fryers near the Kings Printing house. Dr Salmons Prescriptions over the Door’ or a ‘shorter receipt for the tooth ach’ – ‘If it be decayed, draw it out’.7 Then there is the fascinating (and sometimes self-evident) list of ‘Things bad for the sight’:

To study after meat, and wines, onions, leeks, lettice going after meat, winds, hot air, and cold air, drunkeness, and gluttony, much milk or cheese, looking on red or white things if bright, mustard, much sleep after meat, too much walking after meat, too much letting of blood, collworts, fire dust, much weeping, and over much watching.8

Part of 'A receipt for a person to make her husband love her'. MS 1320. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.
Part of ‘A receipt for a person to make her husband love her’. MS 1320. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

As well as the word ‘recipe/receipt’ being extended in application to a variety of topics, it was played with as a form, as discussed in this post by Anke Timmermann. Poetic recipes can be found in England too, such as the eighteen rhyming lines of ‘A poetical receipt to make a sack posset’.9

Recipes were also employed as metaphors, as in ‘A receipt for a person to make her husband love her’, part of which is reproduced here and which is considerably less sardonic than this ‘never failing receit to cure love’:

Take two ounces of the spirits of reason; three ounces of the powder of experience; five drams of juice of discretion; three ounces of the powder of good advice, and two spoonfulls of the cooling water of consideration; make it into pills and drink a little content after them: one dose cures the head of maggots and whimsies; then take another dose, and drink a little content and you will be restored to your right senses.10

We can compare this to the modern usage of phrases like ‘recipe for success’ or ‘recipe for disaster’.

By closely examining the contents of early modern recipe books, it becomes clear that it is not so straightforward after all to determine just what a recipe is. Recipes as a genre are malleable and adaptable–and these collections were working documents that acted as repositories for useful knowledge in a significant range of areas.


1. U/DDHO/19/3, Hull History Centre, 1816.
2. MS 7492, Wellcome Collection, late 18th century.
3. Jerry Stannard, “Rezeptliteratur as Fachliteratur”, in W. Eamon, Studies on Medieval ‘Fachliteratur’ (Brussels: OMIREL, 1982).
4. CA/B50/3, Cornwall Record Office, 1777.
5. Pocket book of John Belling, clockmaker of Bodmin, X949/1, Cornwall Record Office, 1737-51.
6. Commonplace book of John Sargent, Wilberforce 291, West Sussex Record Office, 1775; DD\X\FW, Somerset Archive, c.1751.
7. MS 1322, Wellcome Collection, 1660-1750; MS 1795, Wellcome Collection, 17-18th centuries.
8. Medical recipe book, Pares of Leicester and Hopwell Hall, D5336/2/26/9, Derbyshire Record Office, 18th century.
9. ’A collection of the best receits’, Katharine Palmer, MS 7976, Wellcome Collection, 1700–39.
10. MS 5509, Royal College of Physicians, 18th century.

The Food in History Conference

Editors’ note: This is our first report on the Anglo-American conference 2013. Rachel Rich’s post considers “The Politics of Food”.

By Sally Osborn

The 2013 Anglo-American conference, which took place in London on 11-13 July 2013, was a fascinating mix of periods, styles and types of food history and social history more generally, ranging from reconstructing historical loaves of bread to food and national identity, from chocolate and coffee to alcohol and milk, from gardens to therapeutic diets, feast to famine. This report is inevitably impressionistic, first because of the number of parallel panels, but also because of the absolute wealth of fascinating information. I’ve mainly focused on the ‘aha’ moments and what struck me as most interesting in the talks I attended.

Three of those papers considered institutional food. Ilaria Berti from Università degli Studi di Genova spoke on ‘Eat sparingly of all kinds of fruit’, discussing the differences between norm and praxis in British Army soldiers’ diets in the West Indies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There was a very high death rate and a significant incidence of illness, mainly reflecting a lack of fresh food in the diet and a high consumption of salted and preserved foods. Indeed, the government of the day actually asserted that salted meat was preferable to fresh. Scottish physician Andrew Halliday recommended increasing the consumption of fresh food from two days to four, advising that in addition to being less monotonous, more fresh food might increase discipline, since it would avoid the soldiers becoming obstinate and unmanageable due to an excess of salt.

Their unwelcome behaviour could also have been because the salt increased their thirst, therefore led to them drinking more – and the habit was to add brandy or rum to the water! In the event, the local government only followed the medical advice to provide fresh food daily when fever broke out or scurvy became common, but this move was frequently cancelled by the Treasury.

Oracle Workhouse, Reading
The entrance to the Oracle in Minister Street. Scanned from The Story of Reading (Countryside Books, 1802), p. 53. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, scanned by BaldBoris.

Susannah Ottaway from Carleton College considered ‘Food and the eighteenth-century workhouse’. Her question was whether the workhouse should be viewed as punitive or charitable – as a pauper Bastille or a pauper palace? In contrast to the prevailing impression of undernourishment, her investigation of the records reveals the relative generosity of food provision in such institutions. According to various dietaries, meat was consistently served at least three or four times a week, although in some areas it was traded off for cheese as an alternative protein. Bread was eaten twice a day, replaced sometimes by oatmeal in the north of England. Broth and beer were also frequently served, as well as milk in the north. Extra allowances included tobacco, tea and sugar, reflecting the humanisation of the workhorse.

In times of sickness food was increased, particularly cheese and sugar, and porter was distributed to women. Inmates were often part of food preparation or serving. Food deprivation was sometimes used as punishment, such as for refusing to work or bad behaviour. Food represented around 60-70% of overall workhouse expenditure, so these institutions were major purchasers in the area, and there was a significant degree of corruption and mismanagement. Furthermore, the generosity of provision has to be understood in light of the fact that the workhouse committee contained a large number of traders, who benefited from the purchasing, so in fact humane reasons were not necessarily paramount.

Jeremy Boulton from Newcastle University (who is working on the Pauper Lives project) built on this with an examination of the records of St Martin’s workhouse, one of the largest in Britain with between 400 and 900 inhabitants at various times. After calculating an estimate of calorific values, he claimed that the diet was at least adequate for life, but not enough for the hard work to which people would be subjected in the workhouse. The bulk of the calories came from bread, flour and peas, as well as beer or ale. Although comparison is difficult, he asserts that people would have been eating more or less the same foods as outside the institution, but the nutritional value obtained outside would have been higher. Tim Hitchcock pointed out that this situation might have reversed by the end of the eighteenth century, by which time wages had declined significantly; and that the workhouse might also have been a better place for women, because they tended not to eat as much food as males in a patriarchal household where food was short.

Inhabitants of the workhouse were given seasonal treats, but with the exception of Christmas/New Year these occurred in June or July when the intake was at its lowest. Tobacco was provided, although not at a level that would have been likely to match consumption outside, and would either have represented a pipeful for most adults or more for a smaller proportion of regular smokers. Lastly, the cash allowances and payments that were given in return for many tasks or when inmates had to leave for a day indicate that there was the possibility of a significant alternative economy in food and drink (particularly gin) smuggled in by ward nurses and returning inmates.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a dark green vegetable with rounded leaves attached to a long stem. From HealthAliciousNess.com. Image Credit: Masparasol, Wikimedia Commons.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a dark green vegetable with rounded leaves attached to a long stem. From HealthAliciousNess.com. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Masparasol.

There were of course many ways of making money from food. Rebecca Ford of University of Nottingham told us about ‘The watercress girl and the watercress garden: Cultural landscapes of watercress in the nineteenth century’. She took a view of food as a cultural object, in which produce, place and people intertwined. Watercress was widely available and could be easily gathered by individuals, both for their own consumption and for sale. The development of the railway network allowed cress growers to move further out of the city, and at the same time the street vendors grew in both number and visibility, certainly in London.

Watercress, washed and grown in pure water, came to symbolise the purity of the countryside, from which city dwellers were becoming increasingly divorced. The watercress girls featured frequently in morality tales, particularly as children looking after sick parents or taking the place of an absent father. The purity of the product gave female sellers – romanticised as poor but happy rustics – an erotic allure. The picture was filled with contradictions, however: they were virtuous and honest, but close to nature and perhaps unbounded by social conventions; their wares could be purified by water, but water itself can also be contaminating if it is not pure.

Virtue was also a concern for Bruna Gushurst-Moore of the University of Plymouth, who spoke on ‘Gardens, foods, medicines: Foods of the sickroom in nineteenth-century America’. She stressed the idea of familial responsibility and ‘every man his own doctor’, which applied from the garden to the sick room in the provision of both herbs and herbal remedies. Proper care was prudent, pure and reflective of propriety. Rather than reflecting a relationship between medical and moral – echoing Steven Shapin (whose keynote is considered in another post by Rachel Rich), who claimed that in doing what was good for you, you were doing what was good – in nineteenth-century America the reverse was true: moral righteousness consisted in physical fortitude and robustness. Right thinking and action not only led to physical health: both were seen as the same.

Health was closely associated with hearth and home, and the ability to provide one’s own food and medicine was seen as living industriously within God’s bounty. Furthermore, sickroom food was a critical component of the proper restoration of health. The ideal food was liquid, easily digested and nutrient dense, such as milk porridge, panada, egg nog or raw beef tea. While in professional medicine there was no association between the individual and virtue, thus the moral probity transferred from the person to the ingredients, the emphasis in the US remained on using ‘the weapons of our country’ and the importance of self-provision.

Replica Victorian kitchen
Replica of a Victorian Kitchen, Museum of Lincolnshire Life, 2011. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Green Lane.

Domestic virtues were also the concern of Rachel Rich of Leeds Metropolitan University, who took as her theme ‘Mealtimes and domesticity: Victorian women and the shape of the day’. Like Ken Albala (whose keynote is discussed in a second post on the conference), she views cookbooks and domestic advice manuals as literature rather than as evidence of practice. The focus of her research is timekeeping and the ways in which middle-class housewives are given advice on food but also time management. Time was a precious commodity that must not be wasted and timekeeping was a moral consideration. However, women’s time works in a slightly different fashion to factory-led time and is more fluid.

Meals created order in a day, moments of togetherness between work and leisure; they were used as timetabling devices and were a crucial factor in allowing sets of people to come together in a social network. Nevertheless, timekeeping devices at home were not often reliable, so synchronisation was not possible. Time was not only linear but there were multiple and overlapping temporalities, reflecting the various rhythms of household activities but also occasions like Christmas. A good housewife had to expect the unexpected and shield her husband from stress within the home stemming from the unpredictability of the outside world, but at the same time there was a tension between setting regular times for meals and having to be ready for everything. Dinner was the main event and the most stressful for the mistress of the house, as even household meals acted as dress rehearsals for the regular dinner parties that she was expected to hold. Almost all the domestic advice books stress the need to get up early, and their continual emphasis on punctuality implies that in fact people weren’t living up to the advice!

Finally, as food was a universally accessible luxury, it was affordable in some form to everyone and therefore was present at all significant events. Sarah Fox of the University of Manchester’s theme was ‘“The usual cheer”: The role of food in early modern childhood’. Food was used to celebrate the safe arrival of the infant as well as to medicate the mother. Alcohol was employed as well to wash or rub the newborn, lending religious overtones of being fortifying and life-giving to its practical astringency. In addition, there is plentiful evidence that women toasted the new arrival as well as men and christenings had a particular reputation for drunken behaviour. The new parents’ provision of alcohol for such occasions perpetuated their network of social obligations.

However, the food that featured most prominently in eighteenth-century birth celebrations was cake, specifically the ‘groaning cake’ prepared by the mother before her confinement. This was strongly associated with social customs like putting a piece of cake under your pillow to dream of your future husband, or that all attendees must partake to avoid bad luck. The sharing of food gifts symbolised the contract between the newborn and its community, but there was also a medicinal aspect – carraway, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg were used in cakes but also in remedies for the mother and infant.

The role of food in this kind of event was reflective of the female-associated culture of care rather than the male professional culture of cure, a uniting theme in many of these papers.

Eighteenth-century DIY

by Sally Osborn

Sometimes among the culinary, medical, veterinary, cosmetic and household recipes in manuscript books one comes across some that would fall under the category of DIY in modern terms. These can range from a recipe for a relatively simple product that we would now buy off the shelf, such as green paint (why it’s nearly always green I’m not sure, but it was a fashionable colour) or paint for garden walls. The more adventurous might go for roughcast (pebbledash) or ‘A colouring for the out side of buildings according to Mr Clarkes men’ (both in Add MS 29740, British Library).

However, other recipes smack of a ‘project’ such as might enthuse a modern DIYer. A different anonymous contributor to the manuscript containing the above two sets of instructions collected this detailed guidance for whitewashing:

Best drift sand washed quite clean, best new lime (stone lime if possible) well hair’d: a bushel of lime before it is slacked requires a bushel of sand; one coat laid on thin with a plasterers trowel and floated well as they come on. When it is dry, it must be washed with whatever colour is thought proper, and a little fine sand in the wash is the better: thin size is used at Sir Tho. Sebrights to slack the lime for the wash but not at Mr Brand’s.

Note 1. The length of the cradle for whitening the house is about 12 feet, and the breadth about 3 feet 6 inches, the rails about 3 feet high, to keep the men in; a set of pullies at each end to draw it up and down, this will hold three or four men to work in, and may be hung between two long ladders or poles bearing against the cornice, or from the top of the house.

2. The brick-work should be dashed well before the coat of plaister is laid on, and all projections should be leaded or slated.

3 The price is eight pence a yard-square, if all materials cradle &c are found and bought by the bricklayer, six pence if you bring them and find them yourself; and about three pence if you find all materials and the bricklayer only workmanship. NB. white wash and all is included in this calculation.

Or how about making your very own ice house? Very useful for those fashionable table centres and the new craze for ice cream. This is how you did it (Add MS 29435, British Library):

The well to be the shape of a cone inverted, to be at the top [missing] foot over 17 foot deep; a grate to be fixt 4 foot from the bottom to support the ice – a pump with a small tube to be fixt on the wall that is round the well, which wall ought to be 4 foot wide within the ice house: The wall to be made of loam or cob, & straw well mixt two foot thick & 3 foot high. The entrance should be a porch to the north 5 feet long & the breadth at pleasure with two doors. the roof to be thatch’d thick, the wall to be turf’d. The well to be lined with straw & when you fill it ram it all & heap it up in a point like a double cone

All you need is a garden big enough…