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.

The Early Modern Matter of Fecal Medicines

Whilst perusing some seventeenth century recipes for medicines I stumbled across a few curious ingredients. Granted, many of the ingredients found in Johanna St. John’s recipe book – aside from now common herbs and spices like cinnamon or saffron – might look odd to the modern eye. Some of the ingredients that struck me were spermaceti (sperm whale fat); the sole of an old but clean shoe, burnt to ashes; a crab’s eyes, and the black tips of its claws.

As I read I couldn’t help but assume that the addition of spices, or the use of wine, sugar, and brandy might have best served to make some of the recipes more palatable. But then something caught my eye that all the cinnamon, saffron, and distillation could not possibly conceal. To put it lightly, it was, well, poo. Precisely, for smallpox, “a sheep’s dung, cleane picked”. Clearly you would want to make sure you were getting pure, uncontaminated crap. The recipe goes on to instruct the user to mix a handful of the stuff into a pint of white wine, “mash it well” and after leaving it to stand a full night, to serve a spoonful or two at a time. But wait, there’s more! A note tucked into the margin recommends this smelly recipe for gout and jaundice. Fecal wine, if you will: good for what ails you.

Manure. Credit: Petr Kratochvil

In the mid-seventeenth century Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1652) heavily criticized the Royal College of Physician’s required inventory for Culpeper and his fellow apothecaries. In his work, which translated the tome on medicine to English from Latin for the first time during the English Interregnum, Culpeper wrote this of a section featuring “living creatures” and “their excrements”: “alack! alack! the king is dead, and the College of Physicians want power to impose the turds upon men” (Culpeper, 52). Culpeper was right, it seemed many were holding onto ideas about fecal medicine. However, while most insisted that ordure altered by the art that was physick was medicinal, some practitioners had more radical ideas about the uses of feces and medicine.

Culpeper’s Pharmarcopoeia, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Paracelsus was an enthusiastic alchemist, whose writings from the mid sixteenth century blasted Galenic based humoral models that were then commonly taught at European universities. Historian Philip Ball explains that Paracelsus’ particular alchemy “was concerned not with gold making, but with medicines” (Ball, 164). The Swiss magus claimed that regular doctors forced “worthless, bookish remedies” on the sick  “by following ancient methods” strictly for gain (Ball, 165). Paracelsus claimed to have found an alternative to the medicines of the ancients by experimentation, which left him with the conclusion that alchemical processes could render the virtues of nature by separation: “a parting of the detritus and waste of mundane reality from the vital healing forces of nature” (Ball, 165).

Line engraving of Paracelsus, Wellcome Library no.7594i. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And he just loved manure, as you may have guessed by now. Paracelsus was convinced by his alchemical experimentation that “‘decay is the beginning of all birth’ – and of all health, for ‘that which prevents putrefaction also will prevent health'” (Ball, 205). This is how Sir Robert Boyle, eminent scientist of the Royal Society would come to recommend human excrement, dried into powder, and blown into the eyes as a treatment for cataracts (Sugg, 152).*

During the period of the English Civil War, the writings of Paracelsus polarized the medical community, and Ball argues that as civil war approached, Paracelsians formed line with Parliamentarians while Galenic minded scholars went with the Royals (Ball, 358). Historian Richard Sugg explains,  “Paracelsianism flourished during the Civil War and Interregnum, congenial to many of those who – like Culpeper – practised iconoclasm at various levels” (Sugg, 39). Despite congeniality in iconoclasm, Culpeper wasn’t having the dung. Unfortunately for him, however, the divergent views of medicine both found their respective reasons to prescribe crappy remedies, with Paracelsians and Galenics promoting poop for years to come (Sugg, 163-168).

*Boyle’s manuscript reads: “Take Paracelsus’s Zebethum Occidentale (viz. Human Dung)”. Boyle explains that his recipes are classed by letter: “whereof A, is the Mark of a Remedy of the highest classes of these”. The recipe for cataracts was marked with an ‘A’.

Works Cited:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Boyle, Robert. Medicinal Experiments 5th edition. 1712. Gale DocNumber: CW10708275

Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmarcopoeia Londinensis, or The London Dispensatory. 1652.

Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2011.

‘Crost by mistake’: Scribbling in early modern recipe books

By Elaine Leong

As anyone familiar with early modern recipe collections well knows, recipe compilers liked to cross things out.  One compiler, Lady Anne Fanshawe, particularly springs to mind.  Her notebook is filled with pages of recipes which she has crossed out with a large ‘X’.  Take a look at the following page from her notebook.

Wellcome Library, Western Manuscript MS 71113, p. 10.

Here, it seems out of the four recipes laboriously copied by her scribe Joseph Avery, only one survived the attack of Anne’s pen. Anne Fanshawe was, of course, not the only recipe compiler who had this habit of <ahem> defacing recipe books.  Other contemporary recipe book owners also happily crossed away.  Elizabeth Okeover, for example, also indulged in the practice.  Take a look at this page from her book…

Wellcome Library, Western MS 3712, Recipe Book associated with Elizabeth Okeover, fol. 6v.

Interestingly, while Anne gives us few hints of why she so brutally crossed out all those recipes in her book, Elizabeth was kind enough to let us know why she crosses out recipes.  At the bottom of a crossed-out recipe on page 4, Elizabeth writes ‘Right ritt and an approved & good Salve but crost by mistake’.

So, for Elizabeth, the crossing-out of recipes was reserved for information, which was erroneously transcribed, and/or know-how which did not meet her approval.  These were not the only reasons that led Elizabeth to scribble out information, she also crossed out duplicate recipes as she explains in this little tidbit on a loose bit of paper: ‘Some Reseits in this Book by mistakes was writ twice over; So one of each is crost But this harder yellow Salve Should not have bine Crost’. With no rubber/erasers, Tipp-Ex/whiteout or delete buttons to hand, crossing-out, for early modern recipe users, was a way of information management.

For many of you, my mention of Tipp-Ex may bring back school-day memories and that other helpful tool the ink eradicator.  I, for one, have not used either deletion/correction tool for at least a decade which brings me to the point of how we as 21st century recipe collectors/users now manage our stores of household information.  My mother-in-law, an avid home-cook, manages her cookbooks with a system of external indices (lists of selected recipes awaiting trial), post-its and meticulous annotations.  Flipping through her archive of Gourmet or Bon Appetit, one finds little penciled notes in her neat cursive hand next to tried and tested recipes.  A diligent and conscientious note-taker, she records not only the date and occasion the dish was served but also whether it garnered the approval of her dinner guests.  Disappointing dishes are marked as such or with more descriptive criticisms such as ‘too bland’ or ‘too sweet’.  In none of her 30-year run of the main American cooking magazines or her shelves full of cookbooks can one find a completely crossed-out recipe.  As a modern reader, trained by public libraries on the evils of book defacement, she simply couldn’t bring herself to reject recipes with the same flourish as Anne Fanshawe and Elizabeth Okeover did hundreds of years ago. How we read and use recipe books is not only intrinsically tied to how we value books as material objects but also to how we were trained to read.

My mother-in-law, if she will forgive me for disclosing this, came of age in the 50s when printed cookbooks, magazines and newspapers served as the main way of circulating recipes publicly.  For our generation, dare I say it, paper is slowly giving way to digital media.  We now search for, learn about and discuss recipes on blogs, social networking sites and twitter.  There is no longer a need to cross-out unwanted information or to wait for the Tipp-Ex to dry, we merely have to press the delete button.  It is all so simple for us but if Anne Fanshawe and Elizabeth Okeover left historians a trail of crossings-out to reconstruct their narratives, what are we leaving future historians?