Recipes for the Inner Chamber: Vernacular Manufacturing in Early 20th Century China

By Eugenia Lean

In the 1910s, a curious print culture phenomenon appeared in China’s urban areas.  Journals such as the Ladies’ Journal (Funü zazhi) and Women’s World (Nüzi shijie) began to run columns and articles that provided recipes for manufacturing soap, hair tonic, perfume, and rouge at home.[i] They often explained the chemistry behind the manufacturing process and promoted the use of modern lab equipment and glassware to produce the desired items. The pieces deemed their detailed technical manufacturing information as highly appropriate for genteel women to apply in their inner chambers.

The cover of the January 1915 issue of Women’s World features a respectable woman who was the ideal reader of recipes for manufacturing cosmetics at home. Source: Chinese Collection of the Harvard-Yenching Library, Cambridge, Mass.

A typical example of the gendered portrayal of domestic manufacturing in these publications can be found in the piece titled, “An Exquisite Method for Manufacturing Hair Oil,” that appeared in first run of the Women’s World (1914–1915) column, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” (hereafter, “The Warehouse”), and its companion piece that appeared in the February issue. As the editor noted in the February entry, the first article had elicited much interest and a woman reader by the name of Mme. Xi Meng had already sent in a request for more tips (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 3). The February issue included a recipe for hair tonic, which listed its ingredients in both Chinese and Latin:[ii]

  • 純粹硫酸                                                      Acidum Sulphruicum [sic]
  • 檸檬油                                                          Oleum Limonis
  • 精製植物油即前節製原料法中自製之油
  • 玫瑰精                                                          Spiritus Rosae
  • 硼砂                                                              Borax
  • 橙花水                                                          Aqua Aurantii Florum
  • 酒精                                                              Spiritus
  • 洋紅細粉亦須自製
  • 丁香油                                                          Nelkeuöl [sic]
  • 肉桂油                                                          Oleum Cinnamomi
  • 橙皮油                                                          Oleum Aurantii Corticis
  • 屈里設林                                                      Glycerin
  • 白米澱粉即本節製法中自製之水磨粉
  • 白檀油                                                          Oleum Santali

(Chen Diexian 1915, vol. 2 [February], 4)

Many of the items could be purchased in Shanghai’s pharmacies, but since spiritus rosae was particularly expensive, the editor wanted to make its recipe readily available. The recipe instructed:

Extract the fragrance of fresh flowers, and attach it onto something solid, so that it lasts and does not disappear. There are many ways of doing this. One can use a method for suction; the method for squeezing, the method for steaming, the method for soaking. None of these are as ideal as the method for absorption. To make spiritus rosae, use the method for absorption (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 6).

What followed was a highly detailed and technical description of how to achieve this method at home. The tools, instruments, and materials needed include bottles, tubes, alcohol burners, hydraulic acid [sic], and no less than five pounds of marble.

China had a long history of manufacturing cosmetics at home. The knowledge behind this domestic production tended not to be written in recipes, but was embodied and passed down from generation to generation. Domestic producers would thus not have been likely consumers of these printed recipes.

As urban consumption of makeup and toiletry items grew in the 1910s, manufacturing such items at home would also seem less pressing. To understand why these pieces appeared when they did — and who was consuming them and why, it is worthwhile to consider what was unprecedented about them.

Appearing in China’s burgeoning mass media, new-style columns like “The Warehouse” made certain skills public, presented them in new terms for new purposes, and made them readily available for a far greater reading and practicing audience than ever before. The new epistemological frame within which the knowledge was presented (chemistry and physics) and the material accoutrement (lab equipment and modern glassware) stipulated as necessary also attracted readers.

The application of these recipes would have required considerable investment in resources and time. Chemistry knowledge was necessary and some called for considerable lab equipment. The instructions to manufacture the spiritus rosae ingredient for hair oil, for example, listed the following items as necessary:

Alcohol Burner—1; Alcohol—2 lbs; Glass tube of 2 centimeter diameter—½ stem; Long-necked glass funnel—1; Double-opening bottle—1; Washing ‘gas’ bottle—1; Wide-mouth bottle that holds 1 lb—1; Wide-mouth bottle that holds 5 lbs—1; Marble—5 lbs; Hydrochloric acid—1 lb (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 4).

Given the nascent state of China’s glassware industry, chemical apparatuses were often imports and available for purchase at a cost at exclusive scientific-appliance stores such as Shanghai’s China Educational Supply Association. Once producers procured the ingredients and equipment, they then had to follow detailed instructions.

To achieve the method of absorption, practitioners were instructed to drill holes into stoppers that were to plug the glass bottles; the holes had to be large enough for a glass tube and funnel to be inserted; the glass tube then had to be bent. Instructions on how exactly to use an alcohol burner to heat the glass and mold it to the appropriate shape were provided.

Visual of lab equipment needed for a recipe on how to manufacture spiritus rosae, an ingredient for hair oil, in “The Warehouse” column in the Women’s World. Source: Tianxuwosheng 1915, 5.

While genteel women were the supposed readers of these recipes (and those with the curiosity, means and knowledge to apply these recipes could have done so), participants in the reading community of these recipes included men. Male consumers of these pieces included connoisseurs of technology, dabblers in chemistry, young students and budding industrialists.

It was far from automatic for the well-educated, male or female, to turn toward production and manufacturing as the literati had long felt a severe distaste for hands-on engagement with things for subsistence or commercial purposes. Yet, by 1915, there was a growing sense that this was necessary. The persistence of internecine warfare and imperialist aggression dashed the initial hopes of the 1911 republican revolution. With the chaos of republican politics threatening national strength many of China’s lettered men and women started to explore new regimes of knowledge and experiment with new social and occupational roles, including those of the once taboo realms of industry, manufacturing and commerce.

It was in this context that these recipes helped cleanse the hands-on work in industry and manufacturing of its negative connotations. These “how-to” pieces became sites where experiential engagement with chemistry and manufacturing was promoted as crucial in strengthening China, as well as a sign of good taste and bearing. They became part of the arsenal of strategies available for readers navigating their new cosmopolitan identities in a post-civil-service-examination arena of urban playgrounds and industrial centres. By appreciating these pieces with a sense of refined curiosity or in a posture of playful leisure, readers could define their sense of exclusivity based on notions of production that were tasteful and authentic in terms of their scientific, domestic, and noncommercial nature.

The domestic realm as a site of production also served as a metaphor for the larger marketplace in treaty ports that existed beyond the reach of the state. There, scientific, commercial, and manufacturing knowledge increasingly displaced moral knowledge and statecraft as the preferred epistemological foundations for a competitive nation.

Just a few years later, a strong reaction rose against presenting chemical experimentation and manufacturing as a dilettantish endeavor appropriate for genteel women. With the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Sai Xiansheng, or “Mr. Science,” would emerge as part of the slogan “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy,” and science was, along with democracy, promoted as the foundation of a powerful nation. The portrait of the genteel woman engaging in leisurely production of cosmetics at home became emblematic of a “traditional” culture that had long fettered China’s modernization.

These recipes have been long overlooked by historians as insignificant as a result. Yet, they deserve to be reconsidered. Though they vanished quickly from the pages of China’s urban periodicals, they were historically significant. They were indicative of a period before science and manufacturing had been formalized in China and when efforts to learn and do industrial production was “vernacular,” occurring in ad hoc, informal and curious places (Lean 2020).


 

[i] Articles in the Ladies’ Journal include Ling Ruizhu, “A brief explanation of the methods to make cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.1 (Jan 1915): 15-18; Hui Xia, “Method for Making Rouge,” Funü zazhi 1.3 (March 1915): 15-16; Shen Ruiqing, “Method for Manufacturing Cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.5 (May 1915): 18-25. In 1915, Women’s World featured a new column from January to May, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” that ran recipes and instruction on manufacturing cosmetics every month.

[ii] These ingredients are better known as sulfuric acid, oil of lemon, the essence of roses (i.e., the scent of roses), borax or hydrated sodium borate, orange flower water, alcohol, oil of cloves, oil of cinnamon, oil of orange peel, and sugar alcohol, rice starch and oil of sandal wood. A couple of ingredients are not listed in Latin. Glycerin is English and Nelkeuöl, which is misspelled in the article, and should be spelled Nelkenöl, is the German word for oil of cloves. The first ingredient, sulfuric acid, is also glossed and spelled incorrectly as “Acidum Sulphruicum.” The foreign-language rendering of several of the ingredients helped establish that sense of cosmopolitanism. Yet, mistakes were present and speak to the complex nature of the translation process and the diverse linguistic circuits these recipes traversed.

References

Lean, Eugenia. Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in the Making of a Cosmetics Empire, 1900-1940. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Tianxuwosheng. “Huazhuangpin zhizao ku.” Nüzi shijie 2 (February 1915): 3.

British? Or European?: George III’s dinner table and the taste of the nation, 1788-1801

By Rachel Rich and Lisa Smith

James Gillray, ‘Temperance enjoying a frugal meal’, 28 July 1792. Image credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

If we are what we eat, and the king is the father of the nation, then George III’s menus must have something to tell us about who the British people were at the end of the eighteenth century, as Britain moved from early modernity to modernity. As patriotism in the face of perceived French aggression gave way to a new sense of nationalism and national identity, it is revealing that the British persisted in giving their most elegant menu items French names and even French flavours.

Thanks to a grant from the British Academy (as part of their ‘Tackling the UK’s International Challenges’ scheme), we are–along with Adam Crymble–digitizing and analysing the royal household’s menus for each day when they were in residence at Kew Palace between 1788 and 1801. Doing this allows us to understand what was served each day, how it was served, and what kinds of ingredients were necessary to keep the kitchens going, and to keep the nation’s first family on their feet.

It is quickly apparent that the royal family’s meals were dependent on a number of networks. At Kew, food was prepared in one building, then carried to multiple buildings (the princesses, guests, and King, for example, all resided in different houses) and multiple dining rooms (even the main building had separate tables for the king, queen, equerries, etc.) around Kew. Kinship and friendship networks were at work providing local game and produce through the tradition of giving gifts of food.

Britain’s naval and imperial position in the world is well-documented in the menus, with numerous spices and condiments listed as staples of the grocery and oilery lists that had to be approved by the Board of Green Cloth. Britain’s place in Europe, even while France went through its revolution and war was declared, remained firm with French, German, Dutch and Italian dishes appearing frequently at their majesties’ table. As these overlapping and interlocking networks and trade routes suggest, to understand British identity is also to understand that Britain was a part of Europe, even as the metropole of an Empire that had yet to reach the height of its global power.

Writing about the late nineteenth century, April Bullock has argued that recipes were sources of cosmopolitanism, a way for aspiring middle-class men and women to experience the exoticism of abroad from the comfort of their own table. A century earlier, this kind of dining-chair travel was only available to the elite, and George III’s menus might, indeed, be representative of the ways in which people sought to recreate earlier experiences—of travel and adventure, or of the comfort they had known elsewhere—on a daily basis in the domestic realm. The question, though, is what the elite desire for foreign flavours in the domestic dining room actually meant. Does an ethnically German and proudly British King, for example, eat Dutch ‘Metworst’ and Italian ‘macarony’ because he is British or because he is foreign? And if Kew was the royal family’s retreat from the glare of public life, did the food they eat there reflect their real tastes or the fashion of the moment? 

Our diets are one of the areas that most quickly reveal how complex the construction of identity is. What we say about ourselves is one thing, but what we put into our bodies in another; our choices are bound by social and historical forces we seldom consider. It is far easier to assess other people’s choices. In the late eighteenth-century, one’s diet was treated as a symbol for personal qualities and morality. James Gillray, for example, regularly conflated nation, food, and identity in his political cartoons, as in ‘Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’ (1792) where the King’s personal stinginess was extrapolated onto the national stage. 

The wonderful Georgian Papers Project has just launched an interesting exhibition on The Eighteenth Century’s Most Prominent Mental Health Patient, George III. When we think of the health of Georgian monarchs, George III’s case is often the first thing that comes to mind–and rightly so, given how evocative it is! However, as our project will show, the royal household’s menus and food accounts can offer other insights into the daily lives of the royal household members, particularly in terms of their health, diet, cultural choices, seasonality and supply, and personal relationships.

Although sources such as the ordinary royal menus have often been overlooked, whether owing to the difficulty of interpreting them or to their ordinary domestic nature, they are–quite literally–accounts of national importance.  After all, what the king chose to eat (or not) shaped the culture and politics of the emerging British nation.

Worst Housewarming Ever

By Lisa Smith

The Editorial Team debated whether or not to join the digital #ClimateStrike. The team was divided: should we make a political stand at all? In the end, we compromised. Rather than shut down the site temporarily, we decided to have a banner supporting #ClimateStrike week (September 20-27) and a blog post to explain our position.

To pick up on a theme of ‘hospitality’ that is so often a part of the history of food, I chose a banner for the week that suggests a big party–but one that has gone very badly wrong. What can we do to be better guests?  There is no Planet B for us to move onto for our next party once we trash this one.

Although we don’t often directly address it, many of us who work on recipes came to it through an interest in the natural world. What knowledge about plants’ medicinal properties have been lost over time as we became detached from our environments? How have modern agricultural practices reshaped what foods we can taste, and how we taste them? How can historical practices inform a need for agricultural sustainability?

Take, for example, work by Ryan Kashanipour that highlights the overlapping relationship between body, society, and nature. Or by Carla Nappi that describes the ways in which recipes encapsulate medical ingredients, embodiment, and time flows. For pre-modern Europeans, stewardship of the earth even had a religious imperative, as Marieke Hendriksen has argued. Religion was not the only reason, though; seasonality framed day-to-day experience. Our issue on seasonality from May 2017 has a range of posts that consider how seasons and availability affected foods, medicines, and artisanal crafts. I wonder how recipes of the future will be shaped by a hotter climate, fewer seasons, more deadly weather, and rapid change.

I will not hark back to the good old days (always bad historical practice), but we might consider how we can restore a sense of our human bodies and cultures as being part of nature rather than separate from it–or, masters of it. (Carolyn Merchant’s analysis in The Death of Nature seems more pressing than ever.) The work of some contributors offers, perhaps, more hope.  Anne Stobart’s work, for example, encourages us to look around more carefully at plants in our daily life.   Zara Anishanslin has a useful exercise for thinking about how things we use everyday have a global history: everything is connected. Sharing food helps to build cultural bridges and to build a sense of international community, as Megan Daigle describes. And one of our contributors, David Shields, is bringing back old crops, which expands our culinary AND agricultural possibilities.

If you want to know more about the climate crisis, I encourage you to read coverage in The Guardian. A good starting point is today’s article on “The Climate Crisis in Ten Charts”.

There is, of course, no easy answer. But one starting point might be to think more about our interconnected world, whether we are looking at the relationships among humans, animals, and nature, or across geographical regions. It is only by acting together that we can stop the housewarming guests from completely wrecking our home!

Recipes for Waste Reduction

Kesia Kvill

Fig. 1. "Waste Not - Want Not," 1914-1918. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2894436
Fig. 1. “Waste Not – Want Not,” 1914-1918. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-706, MIKAN no. 2894436

In June of 1917, the Canadian Government introduced the Office of the Food Controller under the direction of Conservative Ontario politician and businessman, W.J. Hanna. The introduction of Food Controller during the First World War was part of Canada’s recognition that they were one of the main sources for food staples to Great Britain.

One of the Office of the Food Controller’s main goals was to educate the public on how to reduce their use of essential foodstuffs like beef, bacon, and wheat, that were high in energy source and easily shipped overseas. The government encouraged women to voluntarily free up these essential food products by changing their food consumption and diets. The Food Controller encouraged the use of less popular cereal grains and flours, cheaper cuts of meat, and larger amounts of fresh and persevered local produce. Kitchen managers were also encouraged to free up food for the Allies by reducing their food waste.

As part of their educational efforts, the Office of the Food Controller published a variety of pamphlets that explained the importance of food control through careful meal planning and thoughtful waste reduction. While these pamphlets did not include specific recipes, they clearly emphasized the threat of food waste and encouraged Canadian women to alter their families’ eating habits from the extravagant diets that had been a feature of the pre-war era.

Fig. 2. "Waste Means Defeat," 1914-1918. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-710, MIKAN no. 3667237
Fig. 2. “Waste Means Defeat,” 1914-1918. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-710, MIKAN no. 3667237

The “Waste Not – Want Not” section in the government-published Food Service: A Handbook for Speakers called food waste in a time of war a crime. It professed that Canadians wasted at least $50,000,000 in food every year and warned women to guard against “waste in the kitchen and pantry” and in the dining-room. They suggest that instead of throwing bones into the garbage that that “every scrap of marrow” should be boiled out and made into soup. As a handbook for speakers, the suggestions for waste reduction made in Food Service focused on using the facts to demonstrate the importance of food control to the war effort.

War Meals, another Food Controller published pamphlet, aimed to provide more practical suggestions for saving beef, bacon, wheat, and flour through waste reduction. This publication suggests that careful planning and meal preparation “will enable a housekeeper to make her food purchases go as far as possible.” Several suggestions for meals were made, with attention paid to the type of work performed by men and what they should eat and the age of children. To feed a family of five (with children’s ages ranging from 3-12) for a week it was suggested that the woman of the house plan for meals with 10 lbs meat/substitute, 20lbs cereal product, 20lbs potatoes, 28lbs of veggies and fruit, 3lbs of fat, 14 quarts milk. This, it was noted, would fulfill the family’s nutritional needs, but left no room for “the waste of anything usable.”

Fig. 3. "Sign the Food Service Pledge," 1914-1918. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-719, MIKAN no. 3667246
Fig. 3. “Sign the Food Service Pledge,” 1914-1918. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-719, MIKAN no. 3667246

The government suggestions in War Meals include ideas for conserving wheat, like diluting wheat flour with other grains, potatoes, and cooked breakfast cereal. War Meals provided some ideas on reducing food waste by preventing food spoilage and through transforming one food product into another. Bread, it was noted, could be saved by cutting no more than needed and drying it thoroughly to save from mould if it could not be finished. Leftover cooked breakfast cereal could be added into batters and doughs, and leftover bread could be made into “new bread, cake or puddings.” Cooks were encouraged to waste no ham and salt pork (used as a bacon substitute), as “even the rind and bones … [could be conserved] for the flavour” they provided to other dishes. Locally grown vegetables and fruits could be preserved to prevent their spoilage and to lengthen their enjoyment into the winter months.

The Office of the Food Controller knew that its primary audience was women and that their work as kitchen managers was essential to reducing food waste. Throughout their literature, it acknowledged the pride that women took in providing plentiful and varied diets for their families. The Food Controller’s appeal asked that the “foolish notion that carefulness in serving food without waste is ‘stinginess’” be abandoned in the name of duty and common sense. The Office reinforced the expertise of women by suggesting that cooks use and modify their favourite recipes; their “ingenuity will devise many ways of saving” important foodstuffs for the Allies. By recognizing the importance of women to the food situation, the government was simultaneously reinforcing gendered boundaries of work while also encouraging women to participate fully in the war effort as citizens.