Category Archives: Teaching

First Monday Library Chat: Folger Shakespeare Library

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC has one of the most significant collections of English Renaissance books and manuscripts in the world. Today I am talking with Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts.

As Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger, you oversee approximately 60,000 manuscripts, with the wide range of sources. What are some of your institutional priorities for the manuscript collection at this time?

Our institutional priorities are two-fold: grow the collection, and continue to make it more accessible.

To that end, our goal is to acquire manuscripts that provide a window into society in early modern England, and beyond that, any manuscript, typescript, or other unpublished item that relates to Shakespeare up to the present day. Before we purchase a manuscript, we always ask ourselves: What is its current or future research value? How does it relate to other manuscripts, books, and visual materials in the collection? Our collection development policy for manuscripts provides further detail.

Katherine Packer, fl. 1639 A book of very good medicines
MS V.a.387 – Katherine Packer, fl. 1639
A book of very good medicines

Accessibility involves every division at the Folger. Conservators regularly stabilize, mend, and conserve manuscripts so that readers can access them and the public can see them in exhibitions. Our Photography and Digital Imaging department adds new images of manuscripts to our digital image database on a weekly basis. Our Acquisitions department makes new acquisitions available as quickly as humanly possible. Our rare materials cataloger, Nadia Seiler, does a great job of describing manuscripts in Hamnet (our catalog) and in our finding aids database. Beyond that, we highlight manuscripts on a regular basis in our research blog, The Collation, and through other social media. Directors of Folger Institute seminars are always encouraged to use manuscripts in their classes, and in general, we talk about them whenever we are given the opportunity!

Congratulations on your IMLS grant for Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO)!  Can you give us a project overview and an update on where you’re at now?

Thank you — we were so excited and honored to receive the grant! EMMO is a project to transcribe all of our early modern English manuscripts and make them available in a searchable database alongside digital images and catalog records for each item. They will be keyword searchable, but also searchable by many other categories. A brief overview of EMMO can be found on the Folger’s research blog, The Collation. Of course, EMMO will include transcriptions of all of our receipt books, which we hope will really push research forward in a variety of ways.

We are still in the very early stages of the grant — hiring a project manager, two project paleographers, assessing the needs of our users, and talking to potential partners about software development.

Last month, I interviewed Jen Wolfe of the University of Iowa’s DIY History about crowdsourcing manuscript transcriptions. By comparison, the Folger is taking a more hands-on approach to crowdsourcing. I suppose this is partly because secretary hand can be very difficult to read, but can you talk a bit more about your thoughts on the training and standards required for transcribing?

I love DIY History, and I hope that our crowdsourcing platform is as successful! Our biggest challenge is figuring out a way to get the right manuscripts to the right transcribers. The majority of our early modern manuscripts are written in English secretary hand, which requires training in order to learn how to read accurately. There are plenty of good online paleography tutorials out there; in particular, the ones at Cambridge, the National Archives (UK), Scottish Handwriting, and a new one connected to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. English paleography is also taught at a number of places, including the Folger, the Huntington Library, and University of Virginia’s Rare Book School.

For EMMO, we are thinking about developing some sort of game with different levels–each time you get to a higher level, more manuscripts of increasing difficulty are made available to you to transcribe. Obviously, the number of “citizen humanists” we attract will be smaller than most crowdsourcing projects because of the special skills involved, but we believe that if people are interested, they can learn and contribute. And we’ll provide a simple set of guidelines for making semi-diplomatic transcriptions.

We would LOVE if the readers of this blog would volunteer to share transcriptions with us (partial ones are okay) in whatever form they have, or incorporate transcription into their coursework, or become some of our crowdsourcing superheroes! We will let people know via our research blog and social media when we are ready for crowdsourcers, but feel free to contact me before then if you have transcriptions that are ready to go.

Could you tell us about the scope of the Folger’s collection of recipe books? Are you still collecting in this area?

I just did an advanced search in our catalog, Hamnet, for the form/genre term “Cookbooks” and material type “Manuscript” and got 74 hits. I did another search with the form/genre term “Medical Formularies” and material type “Manuscript” and got 114 hits. Obviously, many of our recipe books have both genre terms attached to their records, but that gives you a rough estimate: over one hundred medical and culinary recipe books, ranging in date from ca. 1550 to ca. 1800.

We acquire a few recipe books every year — they are a big strength of our collection and one that is important for us to grow. They provide such a wide variety of research opportunities.

Cookery and medicinal recipes, ca. 1675-ca. 1750
MS V.a.429 – Cookery and medicinal recipes, ca. 1675-ca. 1750

Several years ago, Adam Matthews produced a fantastic microfilm collection of Folger manuscript recipe books, for which blog editor Elaine Leong wrote the introduction. Now that online digitization is more common than microfilm, are you considering updating this?

The microfilm collection is a great way for people to access our recipe books, and I often point people to Elaine’s helpful introduction to it online. It includes 89 recipe books, but we have acquired many others since then so it is no longer complete. Our long-term strategy for EMMO is to digitize and transcribe the entire early modern portion of the manuscript collection, so at some point, users will be able to see and read everything in one place. Here’s a link to the recipe book images currently in our digital image database.

 Choyce receits collected of the book of Receits, of the lady Vere Wilkinson, 1673/74
MS V.a.612 –
Choyce receits collected of the book of Receits, of the lady Vere Wilkinson, 1673/74

How do recipe books feature in some of your public programming events?

Rebecca Laroche curated a great exhibition at the Folger in 2011 called “Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, and Science”, which included many of our recipe books. She teamed up with the Smithsonian to create a video on the science of the syrup of violets.

Another recent exhibition, in 2009, also featured recipe books with recipes for sleep: “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”.

We welcome ideas for other ways to feature recipe books. The EMMO transcriptions will certainly provide many more opportunities to share their contents!

Thanks so much for the interesting interview, Heather! If you’re interested in featuring a library on the First Monday Library Chat, please email Michelle DiMeo .

The Countess of Kent’s Powder: A Seventeenth-Century “Cure-all”

By Michelle DiMeo and Joanna Warren

Michelle DiMeo teaches “Social History of Medicine in Early Modern Europe” at Lehigh University: an upper-level History course cross-listed with Lehigh’s interdisciplinary Health, Medicine and Society program. Students learn basic paleography, and the class works together to transcribe seventeenth-century medical recipes and situate them within their contemporary intellectual context. The following post is an edited version of a research paper written by Joanna Warren (class of 2015), a double major in Biology and International Relations with a minor in Health, Medicine and Society.

“Cure-all” medical remedies were popular in the early modern period, with one of the most popular being “The Countess of Kent’s Powder: good against all malignant and Pestilent diseases, French pox, Small Pox, Measles, Plague, Pestilence, malignant or Scarlet Fevers, (and) good against Melancholy”.  It was first published in A Choice Manuall, or Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chyrurgery (1653), a collection of household medicinal recipes attributed to Elizabeth Grey (1581-1651), Countess of Kent, and compiled by the book’s editor, William Jarvis, a “professor of phisick”. Lady Kent was well-educated and known for her collection of medical recipes and knowledge. A Choice Manuall was published two years after her death, and the 22nd (and last) edition was published in 1726, indicating its mass popularity.[1]

Portrait of the Countess of Kent
Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent; Courtesy of the British Museum

The Countess of Kent’s Powder is lengthy, with as many as 7 to 15 ingredients (depending on the version), many being rare, expensive or exotic. A vast number of these ingredients are similar to that of Gascon’s Powder (also known as Gascoigne’s Powder and pulvis ex chelis cancrorum compositus), another popular remedy also located in A Choice Manuall. The main ingredient in both is “crabs’ eyes”: small stones composed chiefly of lime found in the stomach of crayfish that were powdered and used as an absorbent and antacid.  Like Gascon’s powder, Lady Kent’s remedy also contained powdered pearls to strengthen the heart; white corral to cure bloody fluxes; hartshorne to resist poison, pestilence and rhymes; and saffron to defend against frenzies and weakness of sight.  However, Lady Kent’s remedy also added ambergris from sperm whales (believed to strengthen nerves and the brain) and bezoar stones – solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer – believed to detect and cure poisoning. The most unique addition, lapis contra yarvam, the contrayerva root, was imported from Peru and served as a counter-poison.[2]

A Choice Manual title page
A Choice Manual, 1659 edition. Courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

After the publication of A Choice Manuall, diverse versions of the Countess of Kent’s Powder began appearing in print and manuscript. In the second half of the seventeenth-century, England’s increased exposure to foreign influences also led to more exotic ingredients being experimented with. Examples of these variations are highlighted in several books, such as in Bridget Hyde’s and Sir Thomas Osborne’s manuscripts: lapis contra yarvam and other ingredients were replaced with imports of ivory, flesh of vipers, and unicorn horn.[3] Unicorn horn, usually a powdered rhinoceros horn, was thought to actually come from the mythical creature and had longstanding associations of detecting, preventing and countering the effects of poison; strengthening the heart; relieving headaches; resisting the plague and pestilence; expelling measles and small pox; and curing falling sickness in children. Johanna Saint John’s recipe book contains a complicated version of the remedy that originated with Dr. Thomas Willis, the famous chemical physician. Interestingly, Dr. Willis’ version adds an ounce of antimony – its powerful purgative and emetic properties appealed to alchemists, apothecaries, and other medical practitioners. These select variations highlight that the remedy was not stagnant, but was adapted to fit various medical philosophies.

Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 138r. Dr. Willis's version of the powder
Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 138r.
Dr. Willis’s version of the powder

The remedy remained popular for about 75 years, as judged by multiple versions of it in print and manuscript, and comments from contemporaries who tried it. Sir William Temple, Baronet esteemed, “Of all Cordialls, I esteem my Lady Kent’s Powder the best, the most innocent, and the most universal.”[4] In a letter dated July 9th, 1712, Charlotte Elizabeth, Duchesse d’Orléans declared, “My lady Kent’s powder is an excellent thing, and not by any means to be despised.”[5] However, little is heard about it in the second half of the eighteenth century, and by 1849 Eliza Cook used Kent’s remedy as an example of the “absurd ‘carmins’ of quackery”, commenting that in remedies like this “we find no end of curious and extravagent preparations, the really useful components of which are masked in a crowd of unnecessary ones”.[6]

Though the Countess of Kent’s Powder has long dwindled out of existence, it is an important case study for tracing changing beliefs in therapeutic medicine for almost 200 years. Each ingredient was chosen for its curative or restorative properties and highlights the early modern desire to find a “wonder drug” that could do everything. It is also one of the first printed medical remedies to build off the celebrity status of a recently deceased female practitioner.


[1] John Considine, “Elizabeth Grey.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Oct. 2006; Laura Lunger Knoppers, Politicizing Domesticity from Henrietta Maria to Milton’s Eve (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011), p. 105; Deborah Taylor-Pearce, “Elizabeth Talbot Grey’s Recipes for “Gascon’s Powder.Communicating by Design, 21 May 2013.

[2] All medical definitions are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary or “The ‘Cecil’ Glossary of Materia Medica and Medical Terminology.” Royal Holloway, University of London : Department of History, 2010.

[3] Wellcome Library MS 2990, fol. 109v; Wellcome Library MS 3724, fol. 78r.

[4] William Temple, The Works of Sir William Temple, Baronet. (London, 1750), p. 287.

[5] Charlotte-Elizabeth Orleans, Life and Letters of Charlotte Elizabeth: Princess Palatine and Mother of Philippe d’Orléans, Regent of France 1652-1722(N.p.: Chapman and Hall, 1889), p. 205.

[6] Eliza Cook, Eliza Cook’s Journal, Vols. 1-2 (London: J.O. Clarke, 1849), p. 412.

First Monday Library Chat: University of Iowa’s DIY History

Welcome back! Today I’m speaking with Jen Wolfe, Digital Scholarship Librarian at the University of Iowa, and one of the key organizers of DIY History – a UI Library initiative to crowdsource transcriptions of their digitized special collections.

DIY History includes several manuscript collections, from Civil War diaries to transcontinental railroad letters. What was the impulse behind the creation of DIY History? How did you decide on which collections to include?

In 2011, the UI Libraries had just finished a two-year scanning initiative of Civil War manuscripts to mark the sesquicentennial. While brainstorming ways to publicize the digital collection, our head of Special Collections mentioned a recent conference session he had seen on transcription crowdsourcing. We decided to try it out as an experiment, and it was so successful, we’ve pretty much reshaped most of our scanning and digital library workflows, along with a good chunk of our Special Collections acquisitions budget, around crowdsourcing.

When choosing a collection to add to DIY History, we look for materials in our holdings that are: (a) handwritten; (b) historically significant; (c) interesting ; and (d) extensive. It also helps when items are old enough that we don’t have to worry about copyright or donor privacy issues.

DIY History, the University of Iowa’s transcription crowdsourcing site
DIY History, the University of Iowa’s transcription crowdsourcing site

Of course I’m most interested in the Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks collection, which spans the US and Europe from the 1600s through 1960s. Why did your project team decide to include these historical recipe books?

Once volunteers completed transcriptions for all the material in our Civil War Diaries and Letters project, we closed down the site and made plans to expand it as DIY History. While we knew we’d be adding more personal narratives from other time periods, we also wanted to try something different, so we decided early on to showcase the handwritten cookbooks in our Szathmary collection. We knew having full-text access to those recipes would be very useful for food historians and other scholars, plus we anticipated interest from the general public as well – many people grow up in households where such handwritten recipes get passed down from generation to generation. Plus there’s the gross-out factor – most of us aren’t going to rush home and cook up some brain hash or turtle stew, but it’s fun to read about.

How did the University of Iowa acquire its collection of historical recipe books? Are you continuing to collect in this subject area?

Louis Szathmary (1919-1996) was a well-known Chicago chef and bibliophile – he’s featured in A Gentle Madness, Nicholas Basbane’s landmark examination of the subject. He donated his culinary collection of approximately 20,000 items – manuscript and published cookbooks, as well as pamphlets, menus, and related ephemera – to the University of Iowa beginning in the early 1980s; it now takes up an entire room in the library known as the Chef Room. Szathmary selected Iowa based on his relationship with our Conservator, William Anthony, also a well-known figure in the book world. Anthony had been Szathmary’s bookbinder in Chicago before he moved to Iowa, so the Chef knew his collection would be well taken care of with us.

Since Szathmary’s donation almost instantly established the UI as a major research center in the culinary arts, it has become a top collecting focus. According to Special Collections Librarian Patrick Olson, the department buys large lots of cookbooks and related materials at auction – both eBay and IRL – and from rare book dealers. We also receive quite a few donations. Recently we’ve been branching out into acquiring recipe boxes, which are the 20th century version of handwritten cookbooks. Pretty much all of the English-language handwritten cookbooks have been digitized – i.e. the Irish, English, and American series listed on the collection guide – and we do add new items as they’re acquired.

The Art of Cookery, 1760s |  Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts, University of Iowa Special Collections
The Art of Cookery, 1760s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts, University of Iowa Special Collections

I love that transcription volunteers can easily access a digitized manuscript page in just a few clicks without a log-in. You then offer only three basis tips to deal with misspelled words, formatting, and illegible handwriting. What are the pros and cons of listing only a few guidelines?

One of the main goals with DIY History has always been to keep the barrier for participation low, so a conscious decision was made to not require a log-in or a lot of navigation to get to the transcription screen, and we didn’t want to intimidate people with highly detailed rules. The more conscientious users can follow a link to further tips, and we do field the occasional email query on how to proceed with a particularly challenging bit of handwriting. But mainly we just encourage people to take their best guess, since any access is better than none at all. Users are also reassured to hear that their work will be reviewed, and that the transcriptions will be associated with the digitized page image as part of its permanent metadata record, so scholars will always have the option of comparing.

How do you check the transcriptions for accuracy?

The review process has evolved along with the project. An early version of the site required quite a bit of manual labor on the part of staff, cutting and pasting emailed transcriptions into our digital library software on the back end. This slowly morphed into proofreading and copyediting, but we didn’t have enough staff to keep up with the volume of submissions and it felt contrary to the spirit of the project. Switching to Scripto, an open-source transcription tool developed at George Mason University, has been instrumental in letting us streamline the process and put greater trust in the crowd. User contributions appear live on the site immediately, and there are mechanisms that allow anyone to review and edit a submission, while deputy users with elevated security can give final approval and lock down a record. These deputies are drawn from our pool of “power users” who have demonstrated a high level of skill and dedication to the project.

Since the site launched in spring 2011, over 38,000 pages have been transcribed – wow! Do you know who’s doing most of the transcribing?

There’s a wide range of participation on the site, with anonymous users contributing only a page or two, to classroom exercises of twenty new users submittting exactly two pages each, to registered users submitting lots more. I mentioned “power users” above – DIY History follows the pattern of most crowdsourcing sites, with a small minority of users doing a large majority of the work.

I’ve corresponded most frequently with David, a volunteer in Fresno who’s a retired professor of history. Like most of our power users, he keeps us on our toes, letting us know when pages are out of order, if items are misdated, etc. He’s put in long hours working on the diaries of a woman named Iowa Byington Reed, who wrote brief entries nearly every day from 1873 to 1936.

I heard you guys hosted a Cooking Club, where you asked people to try recreating the recently transcribed recipes. What kind of responses did you get?

Yes! The Historic Foodies club is organized by Special Collections Librarian Colleen Theisen, who hosts a meeting once a month based around a certain type of recipe or time period – e.g. soups, pies, the food of “Downton Abbey” – and members recreate a relevant recipe from the Szathmary manuscripts. It’s a small but dedicated group (approximately six to twelve attendees per meeting) of cooking fans, campus museum staff, and current and former librarians. A favorite event among club members has been their outing to the Iowa State Fair, where the UI hosted a historic recipe cooking contest based on the Szathmary collection. Actually, our student newspaper just made a video about the club.

Front cover illustration, American cookbook, 1920s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts, University of Iowa Special Collections
Front cover illustration, American cookbook, 1920s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts, University of Iowa Special Collections

Many academic and professional historians with research interests closely related to DIY History will read this blog interview. Can you offer us any usage tips? How can we help you?

We would love to get more people using the transcriptions. The crowdsourced data is periodically migrated to the digital cookbooks’ permanent home in the Iowa Digital Library, but unfortunately we have work to do to make that interface more user-friendly. For up-to-date and easy-to-navigate search results, using Google’s site restriction functionality works best; e.g. a Google query for “tongue site:diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu” retrieves nearly 300 results.

We would also encourage any instructors to consider using the site as a method to teach students about research with primary sources. Crowdsourcing projects can make for an easy way to experiment with digital humanities in the classroom. From the feedback we’ve received, students using DIY History especially appreciate the feeling that their work is making a real contribution to scholarship.

Thanks, Jen! If you’d like to get in touch with DIY History, please do so via their contact page. For inquiries about the First Monday Library Chat, please contact Michelle DiMeo.

Chocolate in the Classroom

By Amanda E. Herbert

Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Chocolate, Courtesy of the Historic Foodways Division of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Chocolate, Courtesy of the Historic Foodways Division of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Last semester I taught a course on Tudor and Stuart Britain, and devoted one week to study of the Commercial Revolution.  This “revolution” in taste and consumption occurred c. 1650-1750, as exotic goods from British colonies came up for sale in metropolitan British markets.  From Edinburgh to Bristol, and from London to Dublin, early modern Britons began to purchase these “new world” products in great numbers, significantly changing British financial markets and British tastes.  The students readily grasped the economic and logistical details of this historical shift, but I wanted them to understand that the Commercial Revolution also marked a sensory change for early modern Britons, whose senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch mediated their interactions with new goods.  So I planned an experiment for the last day of the unit: the students would drink chocolate in class.

In early modern Europe, chocolate usually was consumed as a hot drink – Amy Tigner explored the many ways that early modern people ate and drank chocolate in her excellent Recipe Project posts on chocolate here and here – with crushed cacao nibs mixed with spices, hot water, and a bit of sugar.  I wanted the students to try early modern chocolate, and (luckily for me) there’s a company that makes it.  Starting in 2003, the Historic Division of MARS Chocolate North America began work on an eighteenth-century-style chocolate drink.  Partnering with historical organizations such as the Colonial Chocolate Society, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Fort Ticonderoga, and the University of California, Davis, MARS created a chocolate blend which it believes is historically accurate.  The mixture is available for sale, and I purchased a container for the class.  After mixing the powder with hot water as directed, I poured each student a small cup and asked them to compose “tasting notes” on the drink, describing the flavors and asking them to identify what they thought was in the recipe.

Some of the students loved the chocolate.  Several thought it contained coffee, reporting that it reminded them of their caffeinated drink of choice:

“The texture and thickness reminds me of Turkish coffee.”

“It’s like thicker coffee which is nice and soothing.”

Most of the students believed that the chocolate contained spices and fruit extracts.  For many, the spicy and fruity flavors in the drink were evocative of banana:

“You can smell the different spices.  It seems to have fruity tones.”

“It tastes like banana after a while…I don’t like banana.”

“It tastes like hot cocoa and apple cider had a baby.  Kinda has a banana flavor.”

Many students commented on the fact that the drink was not very sweet.  In trying to emulate eighteenth-century recipes, MARS included only a bit of sugar in their recipe.

“I wish it was sweeter.”

Most students found the texture and the thickness of the chocolate to be disconcerting.  For these modern American students, chocolate was supposed to be smooth and sweet.  They thought that the texture and flavor were off-putting, even revolting:

“It’s like warm liquid cough medicine.”

“I’m slightly disturbed that there are yellow oily stains inside of my cup.”

“It reminds me of vomit.”

After everyone had finished their chocolate (or discreetly tipped it into the trash) and turned in their tasting notes, we sat down and discussed the recipe.  MARS doesn’t reveal the precise details online, but it does say that the chocolate contains ingredients commonly found in eighteenth-century recipes: anise, chili pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel, and vanilla.  One by one, I revealed the ingredients to the class, and then we mapped them onto an atlas, exploring where each ingredient originated in the early modern period, the shipping processes and time required to bring them to British markets, and how much they would have cost.  Many of these ingredients would have seemed strange, and their tastes or textures unpleasant, to early modern Britons themselves.  We finished the class by discussing how consuming fashionable products may not always have been a positive experience for people in eighteenth-century Britain — and sometimes even for those in twenty-first century America.

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Many thanks to the students in “HIST 308: Tudor and Stuart Britain” (Fall 2013) at Christopher Newport University for their enthusiastic participation in this project, and for their permission to reproduce their tasting notes online.