Category Archives: Modern

Dr. Chase

By Mandy Aftel

A peddlar, from the Italian Frontispiece of Alessio Piemontese.

In early America, settlers on an expanding frontier had to rely on their own skills and know-how. At the same time, itinerant peddlers made this self-reliance possible, by providing both materials that couldn’t be grown or made and practical information and instruction on cooking, medicine, and more. Even in Colonial times, aromatics peddler was a recognized profession, as distinct from, say, indigo peddler. “Usually a free-lance,” writes Richardson Wright in Hawkers and Walkers in Early America, “he managed to scrape together ten or twenty dollars, which was enough capital to set himself up in business, that is, fill his tin trunk with peppermint, bergamot, and wintergreen extracts and bitters.”[i] In that era, every settler was a distiller, and the bitters were in great demand to mix with homemade spirits. Aromatics were also used in food and all kinds of home remedies.

Peddling expanded with the frontier, and the peddler became a familiar figure there, his one or two small oblong tin trunks mounted on his back with a leather strap There were the general peddlers who hawked an assortment of useful “Yankee notions”—buttons, sewing thread, spoons, small hardware items, children’s books, and perfume. Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, left Yale to become a Yankee notions peddler before developing into a major figure of the transcendentalist movement.

Over time, a peculiarly American subculture grew up around this nomadic subculture that included not only peddlers but also medicine shows, carny folk, fortune tellers, dancing bears, minstrels, and all manner of “hawkers and walkers” who live on in our memory of what Greil Marcus has called the “Old Weird America.”

Credit: Collection Mandy Aftel.

One pivotal figure in that world was “Doctor” A. W. Chase. Born in 1817, he started out as a peddler of foodstuffs and medicines in Ohio and Michigan. For a while he traveled with the circus, collecting recipes—among them “Backwoods Preserves”, “Good Samaritan Liniment” and “Magnetic Ointment,” which Chase insisted was “really magnetic” though it contained only lard, raisins, and tobacco— from the same people he peddled to: housewives, settlers`, doctors, saloon keepers. A recipe for Toad Ointment, a remedy for strain and injury that he got from “an Old Physician who thought more of it than of any other prescription in his possession,” called for cooking live toads along with other ingredients. “Some persons might think it hard on toads,” wrote Chase, “but you couldn’t kill them quicker in any other way.”[ii]

Eventually, Chase settled in Ann Arbor, where he printed a pamphlet of the recipes he had collected, giving it the title Dr. Chase’s Recipes; or, Information for Everybody. This was a distinctly American Book of Secrets, and like the one published by his predecessor Alessio Piedmontese, it became a huge success, sold by peddlers much like himself to people who wanted a practical, all-purpose book to help them with all manner of daily problems. Over the next dozen years Chase continued to add to it and to reprint it, until, by its thirty-eighth edition, it contained more than six hundred recipes. It was translated into German, Dutch, and Norwegian, and sold all over the English-speaking world. Although he sold his rights to the book and the printing house he had established, he ultimately lost his fortune and was a pauper when he died in 1885. But his book lived on, selling about four million copies by 1915. According to William Eamon, “There were years when Dr. Chase’s Recipes sold second only to the Bible.”[iii]

Credit: Collection Mandy Aftel.

Some of Chase’s recipes were for things everyone needed— glue, ink, vinegar, ketchup—while others were specific to the needs of certain professions, from bakers to gunsmiths. He organized it not by chapter but by “departments”: “Saloon,” “What and How to Eat,” “How to Live Long,” “What to do Until the Doctor Comes,” “Sheep, Swine and Poultry,” and “Care of the Skin,” to name but a few. His disquisition on vinegar captures the flavor of can-do exhortation that made his book such an enduring hit:

Merchants and Grocers who retail vinegar should always have it made under their own eye, if possible, from the fact that so many unprincipled men enter into its manufacture, as it affords such a large profit. Remember this fact –that vinegar must have air as well as warmth, and especially is it necessary if you desire to make it in a short space of time. And if at any time it seems to be “Dying” as is usually called, add molasses, sugar, alcohol or cider—– whichever article you are making from, or prefer—– for vinegar is an industrious fellow; he will either work or die, and when he begins to die you may know has worked up all the material in his shop, and wants more.[iv]

Although experienced physicians regarded Chase as a charlatan, the medical remedies were the most popular aspect of his book. He recommends “soot coffee”– yes, made from “soot scraped from a chimney (that from stove pipes does not do),” steeped in water and mixed with sugar and cream, as a restorative for those suffering from ague, typhoid fever, jaundice, dyspepsia, and more. “Many persons will stick up their noses at these ‘Old Grandmother prescriptions,’ but I tell many ‘upstart Physicians’ that our grandmothers are carrying more information out of the world by their deaths than will ever be possessed by this class of ‘sniffers,’ and I really thank God, so do thousands of others, that He has enabled me, in this work, to reclaim such an amount of it for the benefit of the world.”[v]

[i] Richardson Wright, Hawkers and Walkers in Early America: Strolling Peddlers, Preachers, Lawyers, Doctors, Players, and Others from the Beginning to the Civil War (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1927) 56-57.

[ii] William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 359.

[iii] Ibid, 359.

[iv] A. W. Chase, Dr. Chase’s Recipes or Information for Everybody, revised ed. (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, 1903), 37.

[v] Ibid, 79. https://www.isurvey.soton.ac.uk/27877


Mandy Aftel is an artisan perfumer who has published on scent and flavour. She also has a small museum, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. (Details here.) The above excerpt is from her award-winning book, Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent (Penguin, 2014). You can purchase her books here.

Needhams: Global Connections in a Regional Cookbook

By Rachel Snell

According to an undated history of the Mount Desert Chapter of O.E.S., “a committee consisting of Sisters Helen Fernald, Ada Leland and Lillian Somes” was created in 1930 to “solicit recipes and to compile and publish a cookbook.” Their efforts produced the edition of Favorite Recipes analyzed in this article. This was the chapter’s second attempt at a cookbook. An earlier collection of recipes, also titled Favorite Recipes, appeared in 1903. Both editions and a 1980s reprint of the 1903 cookbook are available in the collections of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

In the late 1920s, members of the Mount Desert Chapter No. 20 of the Order of the Eastern Star compiled a cookbook of favorite recipes. During the peak of associational life (late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century), the Order of the Eastern Star was one of a number of social organizations that shaped civic life and sociability on Mount Desert Island.[i]

The recipes collected preserve the transition to an industrialized food system with ingredients representing local resources, nationally available commercial brands, and global networks comingling within the pages, sometimes even the same recipe. In the eyes of the outside world, Maine food culture revolves around local produce such as lobster, blueberries, or maple syrup. But this collection reveals the importance of global connections in the diets of early-twentieth-century Mainers.

A sense of local foodways emerges from the pages of this collection of recipes. Homey recipes like Brown Bread, Yankee Bean Soup, Halibut Loaf, and Mustard Pickles, provided the foundation for simple family suppers. Recipes for puddings, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, and pies that homemakers baked on Saturdays satisfied sweet tooths and served company throughout the coming week.

Among the staples of nineteenth-century foodways that appear in Favorite Recipes, a new type of cooking is also apparent. The influence of national, commercial brands is unmistakable in the ingredient lists. Approximately forty percent of the recipes contained within the book reference a commercialized name-brand product, such as Dunham’s Coconut, Karo Syrup, Dot Chocolate, or Quaker Oats, or ingredients that were made available by technological advances and national transportation networks. This included various canned products, tropical fruits, marshmallows, puffed rice, and peanut butter.

Among the sweets in the cookbook are Needhams, a chocolate-covered coconut candy. These are an oft-cited example of Maine ingenuity—the recipe calls for three small potatoes—and yet, ironically, their inclusion in the recipe book is perhaps an indication of a growing reliance on mass-produced food and global influences. It is half a package of shredded coconut that provides their iconic taste.

Recipe for Needhams, Favorite Recipes (c. 1930). Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

Despite their association with Maine, few outside the Pine Tree State are familiar with the confection. Yet, Needhams are symbolic of globalized food systems. The sugar, coconut, and chocolate that dominate the taste of a Needham (the potato is a tasteless filler ingredient) are all, of course, imported. Each of these essential baking ingredients became more accessible over the course of the nineteenth-century, even in Downeast Maine, due to advancements in cultivation, processing, transportation–and the exploitation of enslaved laborers. The candy’s namesake, Rev. George C. Needham, further represented the interconnected world of the nineteenth century.

Rev. George C. Needham. New England Historical Society.

Born in Ireland in 1840, at the age of ten Needham joined an English ship bound for South America. In his recounting, he was abused and abandoned by his shipmates he narrowly escaped becoming dinner for a band of cannibal Indians. After his escape, Needham journeyed back to England. As a young man, he was an itinerant evangelical preacher in England and Ireland. Immigrating to the United States in the late 1860s, Needham spent the rest of his life traveling the eastern United States, inclusing Maine, predicting the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ. After his sudden death in 1902, his obituary appeared in numerous eastern newspapers evidencing his influence and the extent of his travels.

Needhams, a chocolate-covered coconut candy. New England Historical Society.

The recipe for Needhams is just one example of the global connections in Favorite Recipes. Indeed, the cookbook paints a portrait of a community and its connections to the world by preserving a record of the food items available within a rural municipality along the Maine coast. Favorite Recipes offers a window into the eating habits of the early twentieth-century inhabitants of Mount Desert, Maine at a critical juncture when local and homemade eating habits slowly gave way to nationalized, globalized, and commercialized food choices.

For more information on Favorite Recipes or other materials related to the history of the Mount Desert Island region, visit the Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

[i] William J. Skocpol, “Fraternal Organization on Mount Desert Island,” Chebacco 9 (2008), 36-59.

Fairgoing Filipino Food in the Fifties

By R. Alexander Orquiza

In 1950, the cooking demonstrations at the California State Fair were a way to taste and see the globe. Americans were eager to show their newfound cosmopolitan tastes. World War II had ended. Many Americans firmly believed in Henry Luce’s “American Century.” But what do those food demonstrations in a Sacramento fairground say about the consumers who eagerly ate these foods?

California State Fair Agriculture Building, 1950. Image Credit: Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento Room.

A close examination of the Filipino recipes from California Cookery (1950), the official cookbook of the state fair, provides an interesting case. One can easily see an emerging American consumerism, the heavy hand of culinary adaptation, and a bit of historical amnesia in the presentation of Filipino food.

Coolerator Fridges, 1953. Image Credit: RetroLicious Ltd., Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.co.uk/retroliciousltd/

On a larger scale, these demonstrations promoted different international cuisines as a way of advertising the new appliances of the post-war American consumer society. In addition to Filipino cuisine, there were demonstrations of recipes from Norway, the Netherland, China, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Mexico thanks to “the cooperation of the consulates of several nations.” The Pioneer Appliance Company of San Francisco provided its “Coolerator” line of refrigerators, electric stoves, and freezers; the demonstration kitchens were lined with Armstrong Linoleum floors; and United Grocer of Sacramento stocked the shelves with imported goods and fresh California produce. Demonstrations thus simultaneously broadened the culinary mindset of attendees while directing consumers to buy the latest kitchen gear at their local store.

The recipes clearly catered to an American audience that was unfamiliar with Filipino food even after fifty-two years of American presence in the Philippines. Recipes used easy-to-find ingredients and presented a familiar three-course structure to entice Americans suspicious of trying Filipino food.

Demonstrators offered five recipes. Adobong Baboy (braised pork) was described in the official California State Fair cookbook as “the national dish of the Philippines” that was conveniently served either hot or cold. Its listed ingredients—pork, garlic pepper, salt, lemon, and water—were easy to find. They paired Adobong Baboy with ensaladang kamatis (tomato salad), a similarly easy-to-prepare dish of sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt. Served alongside white rice (kanin) and completed with one ripe banana (pang matamis) per person, the demonstration presented a clear message—anyone could make Filipino food.

However, a closer look at these dishes shows complexity beyond the simple consumer nirvana  of the fairgoers. The recipe for adobong baboy failed to use the essential ingredient of a Filipino adobo—vinegar, the ingredient that quickly pickles and preserves pork in the tropics—one of the reasons why the adobo cooking method became popular in the Philippines.

Chicken adobo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Moreover, the recipe failed to describe the multiple variations of adobo. Each region, each island (and there are over 7,000 islands in the Philippines) has its own adobo that differs according to vinegar, spices (bay leaves, annatto seeds, cloves, or turmeric), and the use of sugar or coconut milk. Similarly, ensaladang kamatis removed key ingredients— coconut vinegar, shrimp paste red onions, ginger, and pepper—that give a Filipino tomato salad its bite. Perhaps it was difficult to find coconut vinegar and shrimp paste in 1950s Sacramento; but the remaining ingredients were surely available. White rice, or kanin, was (and is) undoubtedly a staple of Filipino cooking; but Filipinos commonly line their rice pots with banana leaves to impart characteristic flavor. Finally, while a ripe banana is a great way to end a Filipino meal, the sliced fruit that most Filipinos end a meal with is mango.

One imagines that United Grocer had a hard time procuring mangoes, banana leaves, shrimp paste, and coconut vinegar in the 1950s. But these culinary adaptations are also indicative of how little Americans knew about the Philippines despite five decades of American colonial rule. The state fair demonstrations were more California than Philippines as recipes lacked indigenous ingredients and descriptions of their rich culinary historical backstories of trans-Pacific exchange and Hispanicization. “Exotic” Filipino food joined the other international cuisines that inspired the emerging American middle class to invest in new kitchen appliances. Yet those other countries did not have the same colonial relationship with the United States dating back to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Now that Filipino cuisine is the latest Southeast Asian food fad in the United States, it is easy to forget that introducing Americans to Filipino food at the California State Fair in 1950 inevitable meant compromises on ingredients, techniques, and dishes. Recreating Manila in Sacramento before the age of jet travel was always going to be a stretch. But the removal of the social and cultural histories behind dishes, particularly their connections to western imperialism, reflected a larger ignorance and amnesia to American empire in the Philippines. A deeper dive into Filipino food would inevitable reveal the dirtier, bloodier aspects of the American relationship with the Philippines. Filipino food, removed of its historical context, became yet another way to promote the new ethos of the post-war American consumer.

Mrs. Headman’s Preparations: Safeguarding Secrets in a Victorian Beauty Business

Jessica P. Clark

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the mid-nineteenth century saw a rise in commercial beauty products aimed at British consumers. A variety of new goods, expanding through the second half of the century, promised to enhance men and women’s complexions, hair, and bodies. But selling secret commercial compounds could be a tricky business given widespread mistrust of beauty products. For some Victorians, including medical commentators, secret compounds signaled potentially deleterious ingredients like mercury. But for others, these same recipes represented exciting opportunities to rid themselves of baldness, rashes, or other unsightly ailments. In this way, mysterious commercial beauty products could both deter and attract the Victorian public, as sources of bodily danger but also transformation.

"Women And Bonnets, England, 1860." From The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-e150-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
“Women And Bonnets, England, 1860.” From The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-e150-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Tensions around “secret” commercial recipes did not only shape consumer interest, but also the production practices of those behind the new beautifying goods. British beauty providers in London and beyond understood the power of beauty secrets as they vied for success in the potentially lucrative mid-century market. Commercial recipes were central to their economic livelihood, and many of them actively labored to protect their secrets. This included a small cohort of female beauty entrepreneurs working in London at the mid-nineteenth century, some of whom feature in my book project Beauty Brokers. For them, the possession of a distinct—and exclusive—beauty recipe could mean the difference between business success and failure.

Records suggest that beauty traders developed a number of strategies to protect their recipes from critics, but also  competitors. This could include legal measures against business rivals or the trademarking of product names and logos. But it could also entail more intimate, daily strategies in the management of shop space and employees, something that comes to the fore in the case of London-based trader Agnes Headman. From April 1850, Headman ran a profitable business as a “Hair Restorer and Advisor to Ladies on the State of their Hair” from No. 24 Savile Row. Visitors to the respectable commercial space consulted with Headman before having their hair treated and dressed by Headman’s main assistant, Esther Gaubert. According to the London Times, Headman “was [also] in the habit of performing certain processes on ladies’ hair,” which seems to suggest hair dyeing, a practice of questionable repute.[1]

Map showing shop locations of Agnes Headman (yellow star) and Esther Gaubert (blue marker). Map from Society for the Useful Diffusion of Knowledge (London: Edward Stanford, 1865), courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/n9j7q4
Map of Mayfair and Soho, showing shop locations of Agnes Headman (yellow star) and Esther Gaubert (blue marker). Map from Society for the Useful Diffusion of Knowledge (London: Edward Stanford, 1865), courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/n9j7q4

Although Headman offered hairdressing services, most of her profit came from the sale of “Mrs. Headman” products: at the Savile Row shop, through local agents, and via mail order. As this was the heart of her business, records reveal that she took special measures to protect her recipes from falling into the hands of others. For instance, despite her modest operations, Headman reportedly had a separate room at Savile Row devoted exclusively to production. There, she single-handedly made up—or “compounded,” as she dubbed it—her secret preparations, including “Darkening Fluid,” “Rejuvenescent Hair Cream,” and “Botanic Hair Wash and Curling Fluid.” To further protect her work, she strictly regulated access to the compounding room; the only other person granted admission was an illiterate charwoman, Mrs. Bass, who washed out bottles in a neighboring basin. When not in use, Headman kept the room locked to prevent other employees from discerning her methods. She even had her assistant Gaubert sign a binding agreement upon her hiring in 1853, which forbade her from investigating recipe ingredients or  methods of production. This did not stop Gaubert, however, who found herself in the Court of Chancery in 1858, accused of absconding with Headman’s “Book containing the secret recipes” and recreating them in her new business around the corner from Savile Row.[2]  This betrayal suggests that Headman’s precautionary measures were warranted, as someone trading in—and profiting from— the business of secrets.

Often characterized as dangerous by Victorian critics, commercial beauty recipes were in fact very lucrative, something clearly understood by Agnes Headman and other beauty traders. For businesspeople like Headman, secret beauty recipes were key to attracting customers and thus worthy of protective measures. But it was not only consumers who valued the mysteries of her trade. Headman’s own employees sought out her secrets, as they labored side-by-side in a small-scale commercial setting – conditions that, despite her attempts, made her recipes all the more vulnerable to discovery.

 

 

[1] “Vice-Chancellors’ Courts, April 30,” London Times 22982 (1 May 1858): 11.

[2] Ansell v. Ganbert A.39 (1858) UK National Archives, C15/444/A39 (Gaubert’s surname is misspelled in the records).