During the first half of the nineteenth-century, as domesticity was increasingly redefined as a skill demanding instruction and experience, the geographical mobility of the industrial age removed young women from the traditional source of that instruction, their mothers and other female relatives. To meet this need a cadre of women authors published a canon of cookbooks and domestic manuals to instruct middle-class American women on the art of housekeeping.
These household manuals included recipes and advice on all aspects of domestic work, including managing servants, caring for the sick, aiding the poor, laundry and other cleaning tasks, and even advice on selecting furnishings and attire. By their design and purpose, these texts encouraged annotation by the reader. Housekeepers commonly used blank pages to record additional handwritten recipes, mark favorites and failures, and alter recipe measurements or make substitutions. These marginalia provide the researcher with invaluable clues about how ordinary women navigated domesticity. After all, “a women’s recipe book is the record of her life.”
Women created annotated household manuals and cookbooks for their personal use, reminders that allowed them to perform their daily and seasonal tasks more efficiently. However, marginalia also allow the researcher a window into a previously inaccessible space: the nineteenth-century, middle-class kitchen. Printed cookbooks and household manuals also record the development of domesticity during this period. The marginalia in these texts suggest how ordinary women both conformed to and negotiated with cultural expectations of their proper place in society. Much scholarship focuses on the extraordinary women who supported themselves (and often their families as well) with their pens and worked to define domesticity, but what about their readers? How did the relatively silent majority of educated, middle-class, white women who consumed domestic literature apply that ideology to their daily lives? Marginalia may hold the key to answering these questions.
Ten copies of A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell published between 1807 and 1866 illustrate some of the ways that marginalia preserve the reader’s experience. Collected from the archives at the University of Guelph, the University of Waterloo, and the Library of Congress, this sample contains the most common types of annotation found in cookbooks, including handwritten recipes, newspaper clippings, inscriptions, and a variety of means for marking recipes for later attention. As figure 1 reveals, the annotators devoted most of their attention to cakes, pastries, puddings, and sweet dishes with more practical methods of food preparation largely ignored. The contrast is even more apparent when categorized by purpose. Of ninety-two total annotations, fifty-four modified to recipes related to entertaining (cakes, fruit preserves, wines, etc.), while just sixteen annotations related to everyday cookery and even fewer to keeping house and home remedies.
Why such disparity? During a period when the expectations of housekeeping were expanding and authors specifically addressed the poor quality of everyday cooking in their manuals, why aren’t women paying more attention to the everyday? One explanation for the general lack of concern toward daily cooking tasks is, as Janet Theopano offered, that “everyday cookery was common knowledge, [it] required no detailed instructions.” Women knew how to bake bread, prepare a simple supper, nurse a sick child, and serve a hearty breakfast. These were the routine tasks that composed the daily life of the nineteenth-century housewife.
Thus, marginalia in printed cookbooks and household manuals is indicative of the influence of educational opportunities on women during the early nineteenth-century. Women identified species of birds, noted the best seasons for salmon, adapted chemical leaveners to older recipes, and recorded the production of their gardens in the pages of their cookbooks. While many annotators mark books as part of a learning process, a habit developed in the classroom, cookbook annotators (although often clearly educated) practice annotation for a different reason.
Their annotations mark them as experts rather than learners; they modify the text to suit their needs and experiences. Despite the stated purpose of the cookbook authors and the opinions of those who decried the influence of women’s education on domestic endeavors, most women did not depend on cookbooks as instructional manuals for the daily practice of domesticity, but turned to them for special occasions and entertaining. Women were empowered and confident in the domestic space–and their marginalia reflects that status.
 Janet Theopano, Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote (116).
 Eat My Words, 40.
This post references copies of A New System of Domestic Cookery that are part of the following collections:
The Una Abrahamson Canadian Cookery Collection at the University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
Special Collections at the University of Waterloo Dana Porter Library, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.