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The Woman Suffrage Cookbook of 1886: Culinary Evidence of Women Finding a New Voice

The Woman Suffrage Cookbook (1886), edited by Mrs. Hattie A. Burr, was created as a fundraising tool for Massachusetts suffragists, but it also provided a powerful new voice. It communicated with women of all classes in the common language of the cookbook about not only food and domesticity, but also the radical cause of women’s right to vote. The Woman Suffrage Cookbook also tracks changing cooking practices in the United States in the late nineteenth century, changes that mirrored larger transitions in society. The growing forces of industrialization, urbanization, and a variety of social movements—among them women’s suffrage—swept the nation, forever molding her into a new shape. This cookbook demonstrates the changes impacting women’s domestic and civic life at the time by documenting the transformation taking place within her kitchen.

The Cookbook

The cookbook begins: “This little volume is sent out with an important mission,” which we can assume has scope beyond “cookery, housekeeping, and the care of the sick” given when and why it was published.

The Woman Suffrage Cookbook is the oldest fundraising cookbook in support of women’s suffrage. It was developed for and sold at events in Boston, Massachusetts in 1886 and 1890, which were held to raise much-needed funds for the municipal suffrage campaign. In the cookbook’s introduction, Burr refers to the cookbook as “our messenger,” believing that it “will go forth a blessing to housekeepers, and an advocate for the elevation and enfranchisement of woman” (emphasis added). This cookbook served as a unique, subversive, and intelligent messenger. Its success is marked in that it was followed by suffrage cookbooks in other states, although The Woman Suffrage Cookbook features contributions by iconic leaders of the suffrage movement.

The Authors

The contributors to The Woman Suffrage Cookbook are prominently introduced as “eminent in their professions as teachers, lecturers, physicians, ministers, and authors, — whose names are household words in the land.” Among the authors are the organizer of the Boston Festival and Bazaar, President Mary A. Livermore, and leading suffragists Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Frances Willard. These authors are not only experts in domestic issues, as is typical of cookbooks, but also women of significant social standing and education, often in positions that until recently had been held exclusively by men. This preface alerts readers to the fact that this cookbook is unlike any other. Even if the recipes are similar or familiar, the way in which they are presented—and the presenters themselves—are of specific and vital importance, as they now embody women’s suffrage.

The Recipes

Within the context of this cookbook, particular recipes take on a new meaning. If published within any other compilation, Mrs. Mary F. Curtiss’ Rebel Soup would be less rebellious. While election cakes were common, Miss M.A. Hill’s Mother’s Election Cake has more potency within this cookbook, marking an opportunity for women’s involvement in elections to expand beyond the kitchen.

While I know not the consistency of “popped robbins,” my mind’s eye conjures something akin to this little fellow.

These embodied recipes were intended for a broad female audience with varying cooking expertise, just as the vote was intended for all womankind. An assumed familiarity with cooking is present in many recipes that are written in the “old style” of a short narrative devoid of significant description or instruction. Assumed familiarity is also apparent in recipes that compare one dish to another and, specifically, in the instruction to “stir with a spoon until of the consistency of what our grandmothers called ‘popped robbins,’” revealing the assumed knowledge of generations of cooking techniques. A few recipes are more instructive, such as To Broil Whitefish or To Fry Spring Chicken and Make Gravy as Mother Did It.

A Time of Social and Culinary Change

As a time of great transition and change, the climate of the late nineteenth century is clearly visible in three recipe characteristics.

1. Recipes employ both old and new equipment and measurements.

Some recipes refer to older, traditional technology, such as the kitchen fire lit in the morning, while many others refer to the “quick oven” and at least one recipe refers to the Dover egg beater. Several recipes state a preference for porcelain cookware. In addition, disinfectant “recipes” are included for both water-closets and outhouses, perhaps revealing not only the progress of technology, but also the broad audience of the cookbook, which included women of all social classes.

The recipes also feature both standardized and non-standardized measurements. References to both cups and teacupfuls appear throughout the cookbook and even within the same recipe. For example, Mrs. Mary J. Buchanan’s Cake recipe refers to both “butter size of a small egg” and to the standard measures of “cupful” and “teaspoonful,” again revealing the state of transition in not only food and cooking, but in American life more broadly.

2. Recipes include both traditional and modern foodways.

The cookbook includes historically “native” ingredients and recipes, as it features “Indian meal” several times, as well as pone. Matilda Joslyn Gage acknowledges American Indian foodways in her recipe To Broil White Fish, saying “Upon the shores of this great inland sea I learned – a Chippewa Indian’s receipt – that, to have this fish in perfection, it must be covered while boiling.” Traditional and historic recipes are also included, such as Centennial Pepper Hash, Old-Time Baked Indian Pudding, Last Century Blackberry Pudding, and Washington Cake, St. Louis, 1780.

Recipes also feature “modern” ingredients. Mrs. Emma P. Ewing’s bread recipe calls for Fleischmann’s yeast, indicating a full departure from making one’s own yeast at home. A disinfectant recipe and Mrs. H.R. Shattuck’s recipe for Cocoanut Cookies also reveal a growing trend of purchasing ingredients at markets, shops, and drugstores.

3. Recipe language appears in both old and new formats.

Most recipes are written in the “old fashioned” model and do not list ingredients separately or use imperative verbs as signposts throughout the recipes. Rather the recipes read as a list of ingredients, sometimes including instructions, woven together in short narrative paragraphs. An exception to this style of recipe is that for Iowa Brown Bread submitted by Mrs. Emma P. Ewing. One of the few submissions from outside of New England, Ewing’s recipe reads in the “modern” fashion that would soon become conventionalized, providing the ingredients in a list at the beginning of the recipe, followed by process steps marked with imperative verb instructions that are absent from most other recipes.

Page 7 Woman Suffrage Cookbook | Image from: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/coldfusion/display.cfm?ID=wosu&PageNum=27

Example of a recipe written in the “old style”

Recipe Codas

While the old style of recipe writing is often brief and direct, many of the recipes include what is referred to as a “coda.” The recipe codas not only function to end the recipe, but also provide us with snippets of the author’s views on cooking and domesticity in her own words and voice. For example, Catherine H. Birney’s recipe for Home-made Macaroni explicitly promotes home cooking and frugality, saying, “If the paste is stiff enough and rolled thin enough, it will be found superior to the bought macaroni, and far cheaper.” Some recipes include a coda with a strict tone emphasizing precision and quality, such as “If this recipe is strictly followed, and the yeast and flour are of good quality, it will invariably produce sweet, nutty-flavored delicious bread and roles.”

The coda may also include advice applicable both in the home and the public sphere. For example, Abigail Scott Duniway’s Pure Salt Rising Bread recipe warns and encourages us “…it takes time, patience and thought to make it. Try it, and be convinced.” Matilda Joslyn Gage tells us in her Baked Tomatoes recipe, “If you do not succeed the first time, try again; they are worth the trouble,” lessons that perhaps apply not only to cooking, but to the quest for the vote, which will not come to all women for another thirty-four years.

Conclusion

Filled with new meaning and revealing a historic transition in cooking and society as a whole, The Woman Suffrage Cookbook provides a powerful example of the inner workings and purpose of cookbooks. This cookbook in particular reads as a “fragmented autobiography” and fulfills Anne Bower’s assertion that the main theme of cookbooks is the “breaking of silence,” as this cookbook features a generation of women on the verge of possessing a political voice.

Its publication also represents a use of the cookbook as an opportunity to express “an inner drive towards the assertion of selfhood in resistance to the overt and violating male plots of ambition,” as can be seen in the professions of the contributors and the explicit mission of the cookbook itself to promote political equality. The Woman Suffrage Cookbook also provides fruitful evidence of the changing times, offering a window into a new era of food and cooking and the expansion of women’s roles in American society.

Bibliography 

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Bacon and Legs – Women’s Equality Day: Get your ass back in the kitchen - HoboTrashcan

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