Conference Report: Materia Medica on the Move, Leiden, 15-17 April 2015

By Sietske Fransen

What happens if you put together historians of early modern science and medicine, ethnobotanists, historians of pharmacy, and art historians in the Dutch National Biodiversity Center in Leiden? Last month this resulted in an amazing conference where we discussed the (global) movements of early modern materia medica. The conference was jointly organized by the Descartes Centre (Utrecht University), Huygens ING, and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre.

The conference was hosted by the project Time Capsule and was interdisciplinary to its core. The project’s aims and goals are wonderful, and deserve some explanation, so here it comes. Project Time Capsule has as aims to create a ‘semantic interoperable ontology’ of cultural heritage data. This ontology will consist of a combination of existing digital databases and new data, in order to provide historians as well as the creative industry with new methods for research. And the actual ‘time capsules’ – based on Andy Warhol’s project – are supposed to contextualize historical events or facts. To exemplify this exciting but rather mystifying concept, Time Capsule works specifically on data sets related to the history of medicinal plants in the Low Countries, c. 1550-1850. With a team of computer scientists and historians of science the project tries to set an example for further research into the development of digital resources. The final goal is to enable scholars to connect, compare and use an enormous amount of digital resources regarding early modern material medica.

A re-created sunflower, using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, fol. 155.
A re-created sunflower (native to the Americas), using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, f. 155.

The conference started at Museum Boerhaave with a key-note lecture by Florike Egmond, who  the introduction of non-European ‘medical’ plants into the European context. Even though there were not that many exotic plants actually introduced in European medicine in the sixteenth century, it is remarkable to see that they did gain a rather prominent present in visual sources such as herbaria, prints, and paintings. One of Egmond’s concluding questions and useful pointers for the rest of the conference was to wonder what ‘exotic’ or ‘indigenous’ really means. How long does a plant need to be grown in Europe to be no longer exotic?

The following two days took place at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre. One of the most exciting papers (at least to me) was given by ethnobotanist Tinde van Andel.

Materia Medica on the Move - Tinde van Andel
Key-note lecture by Tinde van Andel

Van Andel showed us how the movement of knowledge about local plants can be traced by following African slaves from their home countries to the Surinam rain forests. Combining ethnobotanical and anthropological field research in West-Africa and Surinam with historical botany and linguistics Van Andel argues that enslaved Africans reinvented their household medicine in the New World. Van Andel’s research demonstrates clearly how the knowledge of plants travelled with the people and was adapted to the needs of surviving on a new continent. Through trial and error and comparison with the knowledge they brought about African flora, the slaves figured out which new but similar plants could be used as medication and food. 

Historian of Pharmacy Sabine Anagnostou, used pharmacopeias in Europe and America to research the transfer of medicinal plants and drugs. She not only looks at the import of exotic plants into Europe, but also at the building and use of pharmacies in the New World. Jesuits were of major importance in the development of such institutions, and would use their own knowledge of European plants in combination with local knowledge in these New World settings. She argues, amongst other things, that there is still a higher amount of European plants present in the American pharmacopeias then the other way around.

Harold Cook delivered the final key note lecture about the ‘Atlantic drug trade and the new sciences’. Cook argued convincingly that we need to study the developments in the use of drugs at the large plantations in the Caribbean to explain the globalization as well as entrepreneurship that started to become connected with medicine from the eighteenth century onwards.

Harold Cook, key-note lecture.
Harold Cook, key-note lecture.

The owners of big plantations were looking for a universal medicine that would cure any disease, in any situation, in any person, with the best possible outcome. The idea behind this was to make sure that ill people could go back to working again as soon as possible. According to Cook the impersonality of these developments (from drugs aimed at an individual to drugs aimed at large groups of people) should be seen and studied (!) as major issues in the changing perception of social medicine in the 17th and 18th century.

Unfortunately this blog is too short to give a description of all papers, but a brief report of all presentations can be found here. The papers covered topics like botanical gardens in Leiden, Poland and Russia; testing of new and unfamiliar drugs in both European and Asian contexts; and the materiality and circulation of herbaria in Early modern Europe. Just as examples I would like to mention Alexandra Cook’s paper on the approval of exotica in a European medical context. She argued that both ginseng and tea (after they were brought to the West) were for a while seen as universal medicines. However, during the eighteenth century, these unproven claims were no longer seen as valid. This lead to reports based on observations and experience in which the qualities of the exotic drugs were systematically described. A last example comes from Davina Blankert, who showed us how the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin and the Veronese apothecary Giovanni Pona discussed exotic plants in their correspondence. Blankert argues that the scholars utilization of plant names with few plant descriptions demonstrates that both were conversant in their knowledge of exotic plants using similar nomenclature and terminology. Bauhin would later publish his acquired knowledge about exotic plants in his famous book Pinax theatri botanici.

Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.
Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.

Bringing together so many different scholars, methods, used materials, and questions seems exactly the point of Warhol’s Time Capsule project. Fortunately for us, the focus of this specific project is not the daily life of Warhol but the ‘daily life’ of materia medica between 1550 and 1850. The conference gave a wonderful view into the research that can be done when material will be collected and brought together in digital form. The current scholars working on all these different aspects of materia medica will hopefully be the providers of the content as much as they should be able benefit from the integration of the all the existent cultural heritage data.

Mapping Women’s Social and Cultural Influences: An Exercise in Historical GIS

By Rachel A. Snell

Winterthur Library, Doc 47, Mrs. E.A. Phelp's recipe book
Winterthur Library, Doc 47, Mrs. E.A. Phelp’s recipe book

Dear Lizzie, You are quite welcome to the recipe & I wish you success in making the cake. I will come & see your cousin as soon as possible. Yours in such haste, Anne[1]

The above note accompanied a recipe for Hallowell Cake tucked into a recipe book kept by Mrs. E.A. Phelps of Canandaigau, Ontario County, New York. Manuscript recipe books from the nineteenth century overflow with examples of women’s social networks including notes marking the exchange of recipes like the example above, but also references to printed cookbooks, newspapers, churches, and social contacts.

In Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks they Wrote, Janet Theopano argued, “women’s cookbooks can be maps of the social and cultural worlds they inhabit.”[2] Cookbooks record not only what women cooked, but also their reading material, purchases, spirituality, and social networks. Occasionally, manuscript cookbooks contain enough information that the researcher can use GIS techniques to literally map these connections.  An extraordinary example of a manuscript cookbook from the Winterthur Museum and Library recently presented just that opportunity.

The inscription in the Rappe Family recipe book attributes the book to Grandmother Rappe. Dates recorded with some recipes as well as newspapers listed as sources for recipes suggest Grandmother Rappe complied the cookbook between 1810 and 1840. It consists of recipes for food and medicine as well as hints for housekeeping and gardening. A variety of categories are represented including cakes, puddings, preserving food, keeping cheese, creating a vegetable chimney ornament, various dyes, several recipes of tomato ketchup, advice to make cows come home, and remedies for common injuries as well as diseases like cholera and dysentery.

In most respects, the Rappe Family recipe book is typical for the period. Uniquely, the volume has an unusually precise record of recipe sources. Whoever compiled the Rappe Family recipe book included a source for nearly two-thirds of the recipes contained in the book. These sources include printed cookbooks, newspapers, almanacs, and individuals. Furthermore, for many individuals their location is recorded with the recipe. This inclusion of locations allows the researcher to create a GIS map of recipe sources, thus allowing us to view spatially Grandmother Rappe’s network: the connections and influences that shaped her cookbook and, by extension, her everyday life. As I start exploring GIS as a tool to better understand women’s networks, what follows is a description of my process thus far and some research questions I’m currently investigating.

Printed materials constitute a major source for the work; about half the attributed recipes were copied from newspapers or almanacs (marked in blue on the map). The Rappe Family recipe book references newspapers and almanacs published throughout the Mid-Atlantic including New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. A handful of recipes originated from newspapers published in Indiana and Virginia. The state of Ohio, unsurprisingly, is the best represented with The Ohio Repository contributing sixty recipes largely devoted to remedies, preserving food, and household hints. Published in Canton, Ohio under varying names from 1815 to the present, the domination of the local paper is unsurprising. While the recipes from The Ohio Repository are sprinkled throughout the text, suggesting it was consulted on a regular basis, the recipes from other newspapers appear in clusters such as six recipes from The Hagerstown Almanac (published in Hagerstown, Maryland) recorded successively in the volume.  This clustering suggests these publications were not regularly available and perhaps shared amongst friends forcing the cookbook compiler to transcribe the desired recipes in one sitting.

Winterthur Library, Doc. 512, Rappe Family Recipe Book
Winterthur Library, Doc. 512, Rappe Family Recipe Book

Other printed sources include two cookbooks printed in Vermont and Massachusetts (marked in red on the map). The first, New England Cookery, is a pirated edition of Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery published in Montpelier, Vermont in 1808. The second is Lydia Maria Child’s classic work, The Frugal American Housewife first published in 1829. Like the non-local newspapers, the recipes copied from these two printed works appear in clusters. Again, it is likely the compiler borrowed these cookbooks from a friend or neighbor.

Winterthur Library, Doc. 512, Rappe Family Recipe Book
Winterthur Library, Doc. 512, Rappe Family Recipe Book

Finally, the remaining attributed recipes are from individuals. A portion of these individuals are identified in the cookbook by their name and location, suggesting the compiler of the recipes had contacts within the state of Ohio in Akron, Newark, Sandusky, Columbus and Dover and with persons residing in Pennsylvania and Virginia (marked in purple on the map). My hunch is that the individuals lacking locations, the majority of the individuals appearing in the cookbook, were the compiler’s close friends and neighbors.

Once again, cookbooks prove to be powerful tools for better understanding the lives of ordinary women. When mapped, these sources reveal the far-flung nature of Grandmother Rappe’s connections and influences. Of particular note and deserving of more research, is the greater significance of newspapers and almanacs as sources of recipes and domestic advice.  What prompted women to create manuscript recipe books? Does the compilation of the Rappe Family recipe book reveal something about the availability of printed cookbooks in early nineteenth-century Ohio? Did collecting recipes from newspapers and friends provide a low-cost means for women to create personalized recipe books?

 


[1] Mrs. E.A. Phelps, Cookbook [1800?-1899?] Doc. 47 Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera. Winterthur Library, Winterthur, DE 19735.

[2] Janet Theophano, Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks they Wrote, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 13.

The map for this post was created using arcGIS.com and can also be viewed here.

 

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.