Category Archives: Material History

Counting on the body: Reflections on Numeracy in Indian dyeing practices

By Annapurna Mamidipudi

‘I don’t know how to read, but I can count’ said Salim, ‘I was not much for school, my father put me on an old tractor when I was 12, and told me to go around in circles, till I had learned to drive’. Salim was a 20 something driver, the same age as me, when I met him in 1990. I –along with a few other socially minded engineers – was trying to decipher the recipes from a century old colonial account of dyeing using natural materials, and he was hired to drive me around the weaver villages we were visiting in rural Andhra Pradesh in South India.  The idea was to use these recipes to bring natural dyeing practices lost over the last century back into the practice of craftspeople, in order to enter newly emerging green markets and support their livelihoods.

‘Keep the temperature around 70 degrees’ specifies the recipe. Yes, I could measure the temperature and tell when it was 70 degrees; but how to maintain a constant one? Salim smoked incessantly, yet he could blow on an open wood fire under the dyebath to keep it at a steady 70 degrees for as long as it took to extract the colour –whether yellow, brown or red. I measured and jotted down notes from his experiments, attempting to standardise a recipe that would provide fast colour across the different dyehouses, in the different villages where craftspeople were being trained to re learn natural dyeing practices. But this was an important first lesson about the material life of numbers in dyeing –they came attached with fires, smoke, dye baths, and always required a willing body to maintain them.

Indigo dyed yarn production in a weaver co-operative dyehouse © Moody Chetanand

So my first recipe:

Material needed:

For one kg. of yarn, take  15%  in weight in dyematerial Katha [Acasia Katechu]

Copper Sulphate: Take 10 % of weight of dye material

First measure out the quantity of dye material…….

‘Weavers don’t read, why would you want to write down a recipe in English?’ Salim interrupts, with some curiosity. The recipe is a formula, I explain, and it has to hold fast wherever we use it, and whoever uses it. It can be in any language, its the numbers and reproducibility that make it technical. ‘My car is technical, but I don’t need a manual’ he jokes, even as he measures out quantities out aloud for me to write into the journal we keep of all the dye experiments. After using the recipe on the field in a series of training workshops for weavers, he makes an observation. ‘Change the recipe standard to 4.5 kg, not one kg, if you want a stardardised recipe’. I reply patiently, if they learn to calculate quantities using the standard of 1 kg, they can multiply it by 4.5 or any number they chose, that’s the whole point of a recipe. ‘But they only use the 4.5 kg standard, or multiples of it, so if you write those down in the recipe, they don’t need to learn how to calculate percentages’. He is right, I realise, all across the world of Indian cotton handloom weaving, the general measure that applies across all dyehouses, is the weight of one box of cotton yarn, the ‘peti’, standardised across all thicknesses or counts of yarn. I change the recipe; we now formulate all recipes with 4.5 kg as the base. I need a calculator to figure out how much copper sulphate we need for the recipe for Katha, each time, meanwhile, Salim is measuring it out by hand. ‘Sometimes the quality is not so good, you have to add a bit more’. The weavers agree, accuracy is about the outcome of colour, not so much the weight of material as input.

Sample of jottings from a dyehouse in Peddapuram in Andhra Pradesh © Moody Chetanand

Almost ten years later, Salim is a master dyer, and well on his way to acquiring the skill of dyeing Indigo, one of the most difficult colours to master. He is successful in the market, and has trained more than a hundred artisan groups, forming a large network of dyers. I continue to be the documenter of recipes, now trying to author a small booklet of recipes in the four South Indian vernacular languages, for craftspeople learning natural dye colours. ‘You tell colour by smell, put away the notebook’, he says. Yet, in Salim’s pocket is a strip of paper that can measure the pH value of a solution; ‘Checking the Indigo vat with a pH paper helps me to get a general idea of how alkaline the vat is, before I start using my nose,’ he says. He is meticulous in checking the vats every morning and evening. ‘Yellappa is a master, [the 80 year old Indigo dyer who taught Salim] he doesn’t need the paper’, he says, a little enviously, ‘he can count on his nose to tell him when the vat is ready’. We decide to leave out the recipe for Indigo from the booklet, learning to tell colour and alkalinity by smell has to be learned from the master, not with recipes.

Salim setting up the Indigo vats in his dyehouse © Moody Chetanand

Ten years on, it is 2012, and I am theorising innovation in craft practices, as part of my PhD study –analysing the practices of dyers as socio-technical expertise. I am assailed by the smell of fermenting Indigo, as I enter the well functioning Indigo dyehouse for an interview with Salim the master dyer. Salim is a tad more portly, and is surrounded by a bevy of young men and women dyeing Indigo. ‘Come to learn Indigo dyeing?’ he asks with a smile. I take out my laptop, ‘put your hand in’ he says instead, ‘and turn the yarn 50 times’. I wet the hank of cotton yarn, and sit down amongst the other dyers. Unpractised as I am, I lose count after 37, but Salim tells me when I can stop, he can see when the colour is right.  Do you keep count? I ask the girl sitting next to me, curiously. ‘I used to’ she says, ‘now my body knows how long it takes, so the numbers disappear from my mind’.

Indigo dyeing: Dyehouse of Salim © Moody Chetanand

I reflect later, on how to write the recipe for Salim’s Indigo, and who to write it for. The underlying chemical principles of the traditional fermentation Indigo vat have been written up extensively by scholars and scientists. The aim of my own analysis was to establish that Salim like many other master dyers before and after him has indeed mastered the principles of Indigo dyeing. How does one establish that, without explicating his knowledge in scientific terms? Yet, even if I were to explicate such a recipe, Salim himself would not use it. Rather, he engages his material knowledge of Indigo as he problem solves, or sets up a new vat, or uses new materials to bring forth a resplendent blue time after time.

Where then does the knowledge of the underlying principle reside in his practice? I do not yet have an answer. All I can speculate is that the knowledge of the principles governing Indigo are known by Salim much like the numbers themselves are known in the dyeing: when dyers learn to count on their bodies, the numbers on the piece of paper disappear. Much like a weft thread woven through the warp, sometimes visible on the surface of the fabric, and at other times stabilised below the threads, Salim’s knowledge too is always present, sometimes visible and enumerable, and at other times invisible and embodied.

Annapurna Mamidipudi was trained as an engineer in electronics and communications, in Manipal, in South India. She had set up and worked for over 15 years in an NGO that supported vulnerable craft livelihoods where before completing her doctoral thesis titled “Towards a theory of innovation for handloom weaving in India” in the University of Maastricht in 2016. She is currently a visiting post doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is a member of the NGO Timbaktu Collective’s executive committee, which works in the drought prone district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh to support women farmers and trustee of the Handloom Futures Trust, in Hyderabad.

Beauty and Global Trade in Margaret Baker’s Book

This is the second part of a two-part post by a former student of mine, who also happens to be an author of popular history.  Karen has written on fun things like fashion and Essex Girls in history. Her original, longer post is taken from a digital group project on Margaret Baker’s recipe book that was completed for my 2016-7 module, The Digital Recipe Book Project.

By Karen Bowman


The unlovely looking ambergris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In my last post, I examined themes of alchemy and beauty in Margaret Baker’s early modern recipe book.  Today I want to consider what her beauty recipes can tell us about England’s growing global connections in the late seventeenth century.  At first glance, the  list of ingredients in Baker’s recipes appear domestic. But those seemingly-simple household recipes had extensive connections to trade and empire. For those who could afford them, there were an increasing number of luxury ingredients available from around the world.

Through her beauty recipes, Baker was buying into the expansion of the luxury market. With a growing foothold in India via the East India Company, traders imported silks and spices. In turn, they sold these commodities onto grocers and apothecaries from whom Baker was able to purchase ingredients to make her perfumes.

I was alerted to her participation with empire through her use of luxury ingredients in her culinary recipes, such as wines and quantities of sugar in order to make “sugar cakes” (f.88). In her perfume, she included civet (musky smelling substance from anal glands from civets) and ambergris (waxy substance secreted from the intestines of sperm whales).

Civet and ambergris were regularly used in perfume manufacture. In the seventeenth century, the aromas of musk and spice most effectively covered body odour.  It would not be until the eighteenth century that alternative base notes would be used, allowing some perfumes to become increasingly more fragrant in conjunction with improvements in basic hygiene. Both ingredients continue to be used today, even with our vast range of scent choices.

We can see the use of civet in Baker’s recipe for perfumed gloves, as well (f.98). Spanish and Italian glovers settling in England in the sixteenth century had established the practice to sweeten the smell of leather, as the tanning process could leave an unpleasant scent. The most common fragrances were cinnamon or cloves, but the more expensive gloves were infused with musk, civet, ambergris and spirit of roses.

Seventeenth-century embroidered gloves. Credit: Metropolitan Museum.

The fact that Baker was perfuming her gloves is a significant social comment. By indicating in the first line of her recipe that damask rose water should used could signify to readers that her gloves were expensive, hinting at a level of wealth. Of course, it is equally plausible that her gloves were only made of linen. In that case, we can see an earlier connection to the Lady Croon’s pomatum that I discussed last week. In both cases their inclusion may point to Baker as a woman with social aspirations.

Baker’s instructions for perfuming gloves are similar to those found in seventeenth-century manuals, such as Sir Hugh Plat’s Delights For Ladies, which were considered part of a woman’s ‘secret knowledge’ (Rankin and Leong, 172). Plat provided instructions for perfuming up to eight pairs of kid-skin gloves at a time, proof that women knew how to redress the leather at home (Dugan, 150).

In a manuscript recipe book from 1685, Mary Doggett included instructions for perfuming gloves in the ‘spanish manner’. The gloves should be anointed until they ‘swim with amber [ambergris] and ‘drink up the ointment’–emphasizing the Spanish ingredients: ambergris, civit, and musk. Again echoing Baker’s recipe, Doggett suggested that the gloves should then be ‘Rowled up in fair paper very close so they do not lose their smell’ and next ‘layed 3 nights under the first bed quilt of the bed you lie on’ (Dugan,150).

Baker’s links with global trade rest with the transference of geographical, specialist, and domestic knowledge, as well as a household’s connections with foreign markets. The sourcing of ingredients resulted in the smells of luxury infusing the early modern kitchen (Dugan, 151).

It also gives us a social link to Baker via her gloves. Was she wealthy enough to afford expensive gloves that she would have wanted to keep scented? Or, was she simply buying into the early modern expansion of empire and perfuming cheaper gloves to give an impression of status? Whether the recipe was aspirational or reveling, Baker’s scented gloves were not just ornamental. The ingredients used in their perfuming highlight the ways in which recipes, global trade, and social status were tightly entwined.

The devil is in the details: turpentine varnish

Corrosion cast of bronchi and trachea, possibly from a rabbit, sheep, or dog, 1880-1890
Likely prepared by Harvard anatomist Samuel J. Mixter.
The Warren Anatomical Museum in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

By Marieke Hendriksen

One of the first things you learn when you do reconstruction research is that the tiniest detail can make a difference.

Recently, I wanted to prepare an injection wax for corrosion preparations according to a 1790 recipe. Corrosion preparations are anatomical preparations created by injecting an organ with a fluid coloured wax that hardens. The organ is then lowered into a container with a corrosive substance, such as a hydrochloric acid solution, which corrodes the tissue, leaving a negative image of the veins and arteries of the organ. These preparations were made from at least the mid-eighteenth century, but because of their fragility, very few remain. As they were supposedly difficult to make, corrosion preparations were not only a way of studying anatomy, but also a tool for self-fashioning and establishing one’s status as an anatomist.

I have tried to create an injected preparation in the past.[1]It was my first attempt at reconstruction research ever, and although it served me well at the time, now I do things differently.

Most importantly, I want to stay much closer to the original recipe if possible. When we made the injected preparations in 2012, we used modern substitutes for some historical ingredients for economic reasons, and we did not have the time to study every ingredient in detail, substituting those we could not find directly with something we thought would have pretty much the same effect.

The recipe I want to use, Thomas Pole’s 1790 instruction for making a corrosion preparation, calls for a coarse red wax, made from fifteen ounces of yellow bees wax, eight ounces of white resin, six ounces of turpentine varnish, and three ounces of vermillion or carmine red.[2]The wax, resin, and pigment are fairly straightforward.

What is turpentine varnish though? Back in 2012, we ended up using just turpentine rather than turpentine varnish, and although those injections were not meant to be corroded, we ran into numerous problems. For example, it turned out to be almost impossible to keep the wax and the organs at a temperature at which we could both handle it and have it fluid enough to inject. It made me wonder whether sticking with the original recipe could solve that problem, so I set out to recreate it.

This turned out to be more complicated than expected, as there is not one standard recipe for turpentine varnish. Eventually I found a Dutch recipe from 1832 listing a turpentine varnish to finish display cabinets for natural history collections.[3] The ingredients are a pound of oil of turpentine, 8 ‘loot’ (a loot being 1/32 Dutch pound) of white resin, four loot of Venice turpentine, and ½ loot of aloe or kolokwint. Raw larch turpentine has a high concentration of volatile oils that can be distilled. The fluid part is known as oil of turpentine, whereas the residue left in the retort is usually called resin, rosin, or colophony. Oil of turpentine is the essential oil that remains after distilling raw larch turpentine. Venice turpentine is a thick, viscous exudation from the Austrian larch tree, which is not used as a varnish on its own as it becomes dark and brittle when exposed to oxygen and light. Aloe vera is widely known; kolokwint (the Dutch name for Citrullus colocynthisor bitter apple) less so. It is a plant with yellow fruits that resemble small pumpkins, which are very bitter and poisonous. That quality might explain its presence in a recipe for a varnish that is meant to ward off insects. Powdered aloe is readily available from artist’s material suppliers, so I went with that.

The varnish after 10 hours in the sun. The Aloe is the clearly visible murkiness on the bottom. Photograph: author.

The preparation of the varnish was pretty straightforward: put all ingredients in a bottle, cover, and leave in the sun for a day. The only problem was that I had to wait a week for a sunny day. When it came, I put in the ingredients and just left the bottle out in the sun for a couple of hours, which allowed me to stir the ingredients together. The aloe however did not resolve properly, and just sits at the bottom of the jar. While this might not be much of a problem when the varnish is applied to a cabinet, it makes this particular turpentine varnish unsuitable for use in my injection wax. Next time, I will make another batch without aloe and use that instead.

Why do I recount this–admittedly not very exciting–story? It shows how difficult it can be to follow a historical recipe to the letter. It also shows how much you learn from reconstruction research, even if it does not always yield the results you’d like, or as fast as you’d like.

[1]Marieke Hendriksen, Elegant Anatomy, (Leiden: Brill 2015), pp. 1-9.

[2]Thomas Pole, The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C(London: Couchman & Fry, 1790), pp. 21-5, 122-42.

[3] S. de Grebber, Over de schadelijke huisinsekten, als de huisvliegen, wespen, muggen, weegluizen, vlooijen, luizen, motten, pels-, boek- en kruidkevers en wormen, hout-, blad- en schildluizen, plantmijten enz., met aanwijzing van voldoende en proefhoudende middelen, om dezelve geheel uit te roeijen, Volume 1,(Amsterdam, 1832), pp. 52-3.

A Feast of Rare Material

Elizabeth Ridolfo

Cookbooks, menus, culinary manuscripts, and ephemera have always been part of the collections at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. When we received a large donation of Canadian culinary material from the collection of retired Art Librarian and culinary historian Mary F. Williamson, we were immediately excited about its potential for teaching and outreach. The extensive and diverse collection spans more than 150 years and includes rare first editions of The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (the first English language cookbook to be compiled in Canada)[1] and La Cuisiniére Canadienne (the first French language cookbook to be written in Canada)[2], as well as an intriguing selection of culinary ephemera, early Canadian women’s periodicals, and community cookbooks from most of the Canadian provinces, including a number of Indigenous community cookbooks. Several events and a major exhibition were planned to highlight some of the treasures in the collection and to introduce it to its communities.

“Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada”, running from May 22 to August 17, 2018, will be one of the most collaborative exhibitions ever to take place at the Fisher Library, with academics, librarians, undergraduate, and graduate students working together to explore the topic. My co-curators Irina Mihalache, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information, and Nathalie Cooke, Professor and Associate Dean, McGill Library (Archives & Rare Collections) decided against a fully chronological structure, instead mixing chronology with a number of other themes and threads to explore culinary culture in Canada. Some of our primary goals were to amplify the voices and stories of women in Canadian culinary history and to explore who had agency and who did not in the creation of this shared culture. Since the exhibition is on campus at the University of Toronto and open to the public, we also hoped to convey the research value of the material and encourage the reading of cookbooks and culinary objects beyond their recipes, in order to develop a kind of “culinary objects literacy” in students and exhibition attendees.

Figure 1: a medicinal receipt from MSS 01121, Lucy Ronalds Harris Manuscript cookbook. London, Ontario, 18--? Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto
Figure 1: A medicinal receipt from MSS 01121, Lucy Ronalds Harris Manuscript cookbook. London, Ontario, 18–? Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

A range of materials highlight women’s changing roles and their interactions with one another and society as they negotiated their way further into the public sphere in Canada from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. In the upstairs gallery, an elixir made with Anvil dust from the culinary manuscript of Lucy Ronalds Harris of London, Ontario shows the lady of the house as family physician; an early Canadian Jewish community cookbook containing Christmas recipes hints at the complex process of negotiating cultural identity; an army of cooks testing recipes submitted by thousands of readers through national contests show women working collaboratively, opening a form of national dialogue and having their expertise recognized.

Figure 2 Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
Figure 2: Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

The downstairs gallery contains culinary objects and aims to be a more interactive space. Curated by Master of Museum Studies candidates Cassandra Curtis and Sadie MacDonald in conversation with the material in the main gallery, it focuses on flavours and appropriation, changing technology and domestic labour, and the resourcefulness required to handle the myriad expectations put on the homemaker during the period. The space also includes several interactive items to engage the other senses and bring attendees closer to the experiences of the kitchen.

As with any exhibition, especially one based on a new collection, there were many stories that we were not able to tell and items that could not be shown. Undergraduate and graduate students were asked to engage with some of the material not included in the exhibition as part of their course work and research, and they share these additional stories in oral histories, blog posts, and object stories which are presented on the exhibition blog and on iPads in the main gallery area during the exhibition. We hope that Mixed Messages and the accompanying catalogue and digital content provide a thoughtful introduction to the collection and that students and researchers are enticed to continue some of the conversations started in the exhibition.


[1] Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: a bibliography of Canadian cookbooks 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c 2008), xxi.

[2] Ibid., 86.