Tag Archives: time

Tales from the archives: Keeping Time in the Victorian Kitchen

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, perhaps prompted my own reflections on how time flies, I want to share a post by Rachel Rich. In this piece from June 2013, Rich discusses the notion of time in Victorian cookbooks and argues that these texts are a window into how historical actors understood the passage of time. Skipping through time, Rachel recently gave a paper at the University of Essex. One of our editors, Lisa Smith, live tweeted the talk, go here for a storified version of the tweets.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

Kitchen form the 1907 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book, with clock clearly on display

By Rachel Rich

After years of working on eating habits, I recently tried to turn away, and think about new questions and problems. But the world of the cook book, and its close relation the domestic advice manual, keeps pulling me back. I am no longer trying to find out about the ideal dinner party of the middle-class Victorian housewife; now I am thinking about time, and about how people experienced its passage in an environment which many historians assert was dominated by the ticking clock, and the feeling that time was a precious resource, not to be squandered. In her London memoirs, Molly Hughes recalled the family clock and her mother’s habit of keeping it set ten minutes fast “‘to be on the safe side’, as mother said. She also confided to me once that it caused visitors to go a little earlier than they otherwise might…for she had observed that they never trusted their own watches.” (1)

Readers of this blog are sure to be as aware as I am of the difficulty of linking words on the page with food in people’s mouths. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because the textual recipe is about something else, it is the fantasy of food, and of the way of living which could be enjoyed by people who might regularly eat such foods. And the cookery books of the nineteenth-century are so different from the cookery-as-lifestyle advice we get now from Jamie Oliver and the like. Instead of drawing readers into their warm embrace, they start off with admonishments: Almost every book I look at has an introduction in which the author sets out to remind her readers of all the perils and pitfalls facing modern woman. The dining room was the heart of the home, and a woman who couldn’t entice her husband to spend time there faced abandonment, as he would head for his club or, worse, the anonymity of the restaurant.

The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success. And to ensure the success of the family, just as in following a cooking recipe, timing was everything. So Mrs. Beeton, queen of the Victorian cookery writers, covered all the timing bases. Recipes: for Soup a la Julienne, she indicated: ‘Time: 1-1/2 hours,’ or for Stewed Fillet of Veal, ‘A fillet of veal weighing 6 lbs., 3 hours’ very gentle stewing.’ (2) For all the other hours of the day: rise early, instruct your servants, groom yourself, educate your children, socialise, read, practice music, go to bed, but punctuate the whole with meals every four hours, a necessary requirement of a healthy body. And the days were not the whole story. Recipes didn’t just come with information about how long it would take to cook them, but also with an indication of when, in the bigger timetable of the year, they should be cooked, which in the case of stewed veal was ‘from March to October’. Henry Southgate, in his wonderfully titled Things a Lady would like to know (1881) expressed his disapproval about the lack of attention to seasons in menu choices: ‘summer dinners are, for the most part, as heavy and hot as those in winter, and the consequence is they are frequently very oppressive.’ (3)

For Molly Hughes’s mother, for Mrs Beeton, Henry Southgate and all the other cookery writers in the nineteenth-century, timing was the key to good food, well-planned meals and to a life well lived. With their increasing emphasis on timing and timekeeping, nineteenth-century cookbooks may not tell us everything there is to know about what people ate, but they can tell us an awful lot about what writers and their readers understood about the passage of time.

(1) M. V. Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61.
(2) I. Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London: S. O. Beeton, pp. 69-70; 414.
(3) H. Southgate, Things a Lady would like to know, Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo & Co., 1880, p. 377

Making ‘powder for hourglasses’ in the early modern household

By Stephanie Pope

There are numerous fascinating recipes in BnF Ms. Fr. 640, the sixteenth-century French metallurgist’s manual which forms the basis of Pamela Smith’s Making and Knowing Project–but, for me, the most fascinating of all is the one to make ‘powder for hourglasses’:

It must be made very fine and not subject to rust and with enough weight to flow. Taking i lb. of lead, melt it and skim and purify it from its filth, then pour into it four ℥ of finely ground common salt, and take care that there are no stones or earth. And immediately after pouring it, stir continuously very well with an iron [tool] until the lead and salt are quite incorporated, and take it immediately off the fire, stirring continuously. And if it seems too coarse, grind it on a marble slab and pass it through a fine sieve then wash it as many as times as necessary until the water runs clear, throwing out the fine powder that will float on it, renewing the water as many times as necessary until it is completely cleared.

What was this recipe doing in the working manuscript of a sixteenth-century French practitioner? This recipe, however, provides valuable insight into the flexibility of ingredients in early modern recipes and the experimental nature of the domestic setting in this period.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Image credit: author’s own.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Image credit: author’s own.

The origin of the hourglass is unclear. Although the device has its precedent in the ancient Egyptian water clock known as the clepsydra, the hourglass seems to be a medieval invention. The earliest reference to its existence is iconographical and symbolic. It appears in a series of frescoes dating to 1338 in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, entitled The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, and is held by the female figure of Temperance, one of the six virtues of good government.

Although there is some confusion over the earliest functions of the hourglass, it seems that at some point the production of hourglass sand became part of a repertoire of standard household recipes. This is suggested by a recipe in Le Menagier de Paris (‘The Goodman of Paris’), written c. 1393 by a wealthy Parisian burgher for the instruction of his wife in various marital matters. The miscellaneous section, ‘Other small things that be needful’, includes–along with recipes for various preserves and rosewater–a recipe:

TO MAKE SAND FOR HOURGLASSES. Take the grease which comes from the sawdust of marble when those great tombs of black marble be sawn, then boil it well in wine like a piece of meat and skim it, and then set it to dry in the sun; and boil, skim and dry nine times; and thus it will be good.

Although the ingredients in this recipe differ from those in Ms. Fr. 640, the processes and their ends seem comparable to our recipe (e.g. heating and skimming are both required).

Attempting to determine why the production of hourglass sand became a sort-of domestic chore is difficult. Perhaps its presence among household recipes was partly due to the ready availability of the necessary ingredients. Variant seventeenth-century recipes state that pulverised eggshells can also be used to make sand of this sort, which would certainly have been easily accessible, and an efficient use of domestic waste. More than this, though, the various recipes for hourglass sand–lead and salt, eggshells, “grease” from marble–suggest that it could be produced from any materials that the experimenter had on hand.

So, lead and salt may be the principal ingredients of our author-practitioner’s recipe because these two substances would have been in ample supply in his workshop. While the marble grease that features in the Menagier de Paris’s recipe seems a little more exotic than lead or eggshells, we should bear in mind that great marble tombs were being constructed in Paris in the fourteenth century; this particular material probably played a more significant role in quotidian life than we might initially guess.

The notion that hourglass sand might be produced by any scraps of material readily available might also explain the spike in popularity experienced by the hourglass in the fifteenth- and sixteenth centuries: if the ingredients for hourglass sand could simply be anything readily available, hourglass sand could (and would) be produced frequently. Increased hourglass production would cause people to find more uses for it in their daily lives, and demand for its production would consequentially increase.

At any rate, the hourglass gained prominence in daily life during the fifteenth- and sixteenth centuries, and was used to measure intervals such as the length of sermons, cooking time, and breaks from labour. It was also employed in specialist domains: the hourglass marked the length of lectures for the students at Oxford University, helped medical practitioners to measure pulses, and regulated working hours in craftsmen’s shops. The last might be why our author-practitioner was interested in their production: he could have needed one as part of his working environment.

Even as domestic hourglass sand production spread across early modern Europe, the product was notoriously inaccurate. Can this tell us anything about the conception of time in early modern Europe? Well, the lack of time standardisation across areas of the same country in sixteenth-century Europe meant that time was much more heterogeneous than now. This non-universal understanding of time is reflected more widely in MS. Fr. 640 by the use of anthropocentric forms of temporal and spatial measurement.

For instance, the author-practitioner often measured objects in terms of handspan, an individually-variable form of measurement. Even more intriguingly, he also referred twice to the recitation of the paternoster as a measurement of time duration. In the recipe for ‘Something excellent against burns’, the author stated that an oil-wax must be stirred for ‘the time you need to recite 9 pater nosters’. The presence of a prayer as a form of time measurement provides a link between theology and horology. It also suggests that time was not a universal standard for our author-practitioner, but was something local to individuals and their measuring practices.

The domestication of hourglass sand production, then, is a neat illustration of how material culture can often shed new light on contemporaneous intellectual, ideological, artistic, and literary concerns.

Temporality in John Dauntesey’s Recipe book (1652-1683)

by Melissa Schultheis

In May and June of this year, I had the opportunity to research recipe books and midwifery manuals at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. One manuscript, inscribed “John Dauntesey 1652,” contains several manuscript copies of printed medical texts, including information on gynecology and alchemy, along with numerous English and Latin recipes in nearly half a dozen hands. While I had anticipated focusing much of my attention on its gynecological recipes, I became fascinated by MSS 2/0070-01’s treatment of time.

The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Manuscript MSS 2/0070-01 (Signature Page), Photo included with permission.
The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Manuscript MSS 2/0070-01 (Signature Page), Photo included with permission.

Mastering time to manipulate the material world was a significant component of seventeenth-century recipes when treating and preserving the body, as Wendy Wall has recently considered and as Rachel Rich has discussed in terms of the Victorian kitchen. Recorded in John Dauntesey’s (1629-1693) Recipe Book, an unidentified scribe advises, “Also note that the houres of the planete be different to them of the Clock for the houres of the Clocks be alwais equall of 60 minute” (fol. 9r). That recipes often speak in time—the time to pick particular herbs, the time and duration to perform a step, the time to ingest food or medicament for the body, etc.—is not surprising, yet what I find fascinating here is the scribe’s awareness that recipes employ and distort different types of time: one natural and one artificial in order to preserve the natural world and the human body. To preserve is “to protect or save from (injury, sickness, or any undesirable eventuality)” (“Preserve”). Consequently, to participate in food preservation through recipe writing is to obviate undesirable contamination as to slow entropy and prolong the time that a product can askew the natural growth of bacteria, fungi, or other microorganisms. However, in early modern recipes, food is not the only object being preserved. Understood through Galen’s humoral theory, recipes exist to preserve, sustain, and prolong human life. Controlling Nature’s and human-made temporalities, then, becomes a means of both making recipes and treating the body.

The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Manuscript MSS 2/0070-01, Personal photo included with permission
The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Manuscript MSS 2/0070-01, Personal photo included with permission

I’m also interested in MSS 2/0070-01’s own temporality, what it may suggest about early modern medical practice, and how changes in medical practice effected the period’s perception of the body. Compiled from the mid- to late-seventeenth century, Dauntesey’s Recipe book is situated in a time when renouncing Galenic medicine and turning to alternative medical practices became increasingly common. Shortly after the above discussion of clock and planetary time, the manuscript turns to a section titled “12 Celestiall signes,” an almanac that describes the humors and character traits of those born in each month, again reminding us that much of early medicine depended on reading time (fol. 10v).[1] The section incorporates many terms and phrases associated with Galenic medicine: “hot and drie cholericke nature,” “cold & dry and . . . Melencholy meridionall,” “Sanguine of Complexion hot & moist,” “cold moist & waterie fegmatuke of Complexion” (fol 10v, 111r, 112v). Understanding this almanac would have been instrumental, presumably, when choosing and creating recipes to balance the humors and restore bodies to good health. However, after recording only one month, the almanac is interrupted. A second scribe turns to transcribing “An hundred and fourteene Experiments and cures of Phillip Theophrastus Paracelsus” before the first scribe continues the almanac over one hundred pages later (fol. 11r).[2]

The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Manuscript MSS 2/0070-01 (fol. 11r), Photo included with permission.
The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Manuscript MSS 2/0070-01 (fol. 11r), Photo included with permission.

Of course, my literary heart fluttered to see two of the century’s most influential medical theories interrupting each other, and as I continue to study issues of chronology, genealogy, and geography present in MSS 2/0070-01, I hope to be able to address the following types of questions: Can MSS 2/0070-01 be used to understand the ideological shift from humoral theory to Paracelsus’ hermetical views? How is the ideological shift manifest in the period’s recipe writing? And what effects did the change in focus from balancing humors to treating symptoms have on the early modern period’s perception of the body?




Melissa is an MA candidate in English at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Her research interests are in early modern English literature, the history of medicine, ecocriticism, and feminist and queer studies. You can follow her on Twitter @MelSchultheis and @Engl3000Omeka.

[1] For more information on early modern astrology and medicine, see Lauren Kassell’s chapter “Astronomy, Magic, and the Mathematical Practitioners of London” in Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London; for more on almanacs, see Bernard Capp’s English Almanacs, 1500-1800: Astrology and the Popular Press.

[2] Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), also known as Paracelsus, was a physician and alchemist known for his rejection of many sixteenth-century medical traditions and his contributions to what we now call toxicology. For more information on Paracelsus’ thoughts on medicine, theology, and occultism see Charles Webster’s Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic, and Mission at the End of Time.