Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 7 Winter 2005

Understanding Women's Lives through their Cookbooks

by Jean Robbins

A leading folklorist and author of Eat My Words stated that reading a cookbook is "to open a window into the lives of women of distinct classes, cultures, and historical periods who would otherwise be unknown to us".(1) For example, cookbooks offer opportunities to peer over the shoulder of an eighteenth century cook who is milking her cow into the bowl used for a frothy syllabub or learn the use of native American foods in the Amelia Simmons' cookbook.(2) Through this review of a few cookbook authors and their books, an attempt is made to understand the women and the purpose of their books.

Barile summarized the history of cookbooks from ancient Rome to Colonial America. There are few cookbooks by women authors from the early periods; men were the cooks and writers. The first known cookbook written by a woman did not appear until 1598. (2)

Manuscript Cookbooks

Women made their mark on the food world through their personal family manuscripts. They passed down their knowledge and experience to family members over generations--giving recipes for food, medicines, inks, and cleaning supplies. (3) These manuscript documents have been overlooked as primary documents that women wrote about their own lives and work. These intimate stories reveal individual women telling their own life stories; their versions of their communities; and the visions they have of their society and culture. (1)

Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery is a very old manuscript cookbook, which was given to her in 1749 and used in her household for fifty years. Karen Hess has written that this book had its beginning in England and was eventually presented to Martha Washington's granddaughter, Nelly Custis in 1799. (7) The Washington manuscript was a manifestation of the cuisine of the Mother Country England and included cuisine of the Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Included in this manuscript are also recipes reflecting America's produce and colonial history. (7)

Theophano explains the heir and subsequent reader not only inherits a domain of cultural knowledge about cooking and household recipes, but receives a token of her female kin. A bond is created by possessing a kin's physical artifact and is the means by which members of different generations become entwined with one another. (1)

Published Cookbooks-English Authors

By the eighteenth century, English women published cookbooks; these books were used in America after the colonies were settled. Authoring cookbooks became a way for women to gain economic independence and authority. (1)

Eliza Smith

In 1727 Eliza Smith authored The Compleat Housewife, which showed her self-assurance to attack English attitudes toward food and women cooks. Mrs. Smith had worked as a cook in upper-class houses; her experience had developed her common sense and her ability to prepare and serve food properly. (2) In her Preface, Eliza Smith chides the male culinary writers of her time. She charged that they concealed their best receipts from the public. This appears to have been the way she identified with her female audience; also she stressed her years of experience as a woman in the kitchen, thus establishing her authority.(1) In 1742 William Parks, a Williamsburg printer, "borrowed the English edition and put it into print under his imprint". The time was ripe for a cookbook suitable for families of wealth. (4) A copy of this book is owned by Colonial Williamsburg, Inc. (5)

Hannah Glasse

The English author Hannah Glasse published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Mrs. Glasse was not a professional cook, but she complained that "ignorant and unlearned" servants could not understand highflown cooking directions; she protested the waste of costly ingredients.(6) Her emphasis on the use of plain language in her Preface was to retrieve cookery from the professional male chefs, who were accused of writing to male professionals with complex techniques.

Hess, a noted culinary historian, called the Glasse book "the most English of cookbooks" and "the most American of cookbooks". (6) Glasse was a pioneer in giving recipes for ice cream, chocolate, and vanilla. Recipes from this cookbook appeared in the family recipes of the Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin families. (3,4,5,7)

The American author, Mary Randolph used some of the information from Glasse; i.e. the method for cooking vegetables. This cookbook was printed as an American edition in 1743; and the book was known as a standard kitchen reference.

Mrs. Isabella Beeton

One other outstanding English author, Mrs. Isabella Beeton, is mentioned for her Book of Household Management. Her purpose for publishing her first edition was to correct mismanagement in the home. Her book represented traditional fare and solid Victorian values. Although it contained a few extravagant recipes, the author had devoted many pages to plain family fare; these pages were removed in later editions. The recipes listed ingredients before the method of preparation. She included information of management of children, the doctor, and legal memoranda. Reviewers stated "her skill was in clarity of language and the organization of the information into easily digestible nuggets". (11) Nearly two million copies of her first book sold by 1868. Her publisher bought the rights to her book from her husband after her death, and the book continued to sell in new editions into the next century. (11)

The Oxford University Press referred to Household Management as a significant document of social and cultural history. The Press declared the book one of the unread great classics. (11)

Published Cookbooks-American Authors

Amelia Simmons

With the exception of reprinted English cookbooks and the family manuscript cookbooks, American cookbooks were in short supply. (2) In 1796 the first American written cookbook was published in Connecticut by Amelia Simmons. The author, an orphan and domestic worker, wrote that her work was "adapted to this country, and all grades of life". (8) In her Preface, she states that the book is "calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of females in America, particularly for those females in this country, who by the loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics, or taking refuge with their friends or relations, and doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members of society". (10)

Her book demonstrated the continuity of English culinary tradition and how she adapted the use to this country. Simmons holds her place as first to create an awareness of indigenous cookery in America. She printed the first corn, squash, and pumpkin recipes; and she was the first to recommend the use of potash, a forerunner of baking powder. Her book was under copyright; however, for 30 years her recipes and advice appeared under other names. (3) Although Simmons hired a scribe, she was educated enough to realize that her work had value, enough business acumen to pursue the project, and enough perceptiveness to realize that American cooks needed reference material.(2)

Mary Randolph

Karen Hess, noted culinary historian, proclaimed The Virginia House-Wife, 1824, by Mary Randolph, as the most influential American cookbook of the nineteenth century. (9) Hess stated that Randolph's book documented the cookery of the early days of our republic and was the most cherished of kitchen manuals. Mrs. Randolph was born into one of the prominent families of the Richmond area; she was a relative of Thomas Jefferson and the Custis family. Her book demonstrated the wealth, prominence, and status of her social network.

Hess stated that Mary Randolph brought a sumptuous cuisine with her personal flair. She had worked from the influences of the English, and the Indian, African black, and Creole. Her cookery was solidly based on Virginia produce and Virginia practice. Her imprint on Virginia recipes was her perceptiveness and culinary curiosity, which added dimensions to Virginia cookery--a new authentic American cuisine. The following is a statement of Mrs. Randolph's philosophy: "Let everything be done at a proper time, keep everything in its proper place, and put everything to its proper use". (9)

Marion Harland

After Mary Randolph's book in 1824, there is no record of any important Virginia cookbook until 1871 when Marion Harland published Common Sense in the Household. Marion Harland was the pen name of Mrs. Mary Virginia Terhune, a successful novelist. Before writing her book, Marion spent 20 years experimenting and begging tried recipes from friends. Her book was popular and had printed editions as late as 1926 and published sequels. (2)

Eliza Leslie

Another American author of early nineteenth century was Eliza Leslie; she was introduced anonymously in 1828 as "a lady of Philadelphia" writing Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats. When her father, a prosperous watchmaker and exporter, died, Eliza and her Mother opened a home for boarders as a means for financial support. Later they moved to West Point, and Eliza changed her destiny and became a writer. (10)

Her cookbook, Directions for Cookery was published in 1837 and had fifty printings. Her talent for culinary arts was elaborately exhibited on every page of her book. She also authored the first book on French Cookery. Her authorship showed her economic independence and gave her an identity for that time. (10)

Mrs. Tyree

Two Virginians added their cookbooks in the late 1800s. Mrs. Tyree, author of Housekeeping in Old Virginia, compiled this book of recipes from 250 famous Virginia names, and she published the book in 1877. The recipes, lavish in the use of wine, butter, eggs, and cream, created a feeling of abundance and a feeling that the source of the recipes were cooks who knew how to prepare good food. Mrs. Tyree presented a contrast of living standards in Virginia at her time and the life in Virginia at the time of the royal colonial governors. (4)

Mrs. Mary Stuart Smith

Mrs. Mary Stuart Smith published Virginia Cookery Book in 1885. Her purpose was to have her book represent memories of the past. (12) She refers to the fact that, in her day, there was no authorized edition extant of Mrs. Randolph's book, The Virginia Housewife. (4) Her personal interest in Randolph's cookbook relates to the written introduction by her grandfather, Professor George Tucker. She reprinted his introduction in her Preface. Mrs. Smith preserved from oblivion many old Virginia recipes. She included nostalgia comments of that era. (4)

Janet Theophano stated in her book, Eat My Words, that cookbooks are celebrations of identity. Connections to people, places and the past are embedded in the recipes women kept and exchanged, transformed, and adapted to the changing world. (1) Both authors, Mrs. Tyree and Mrs. Smith wrote this type cookbook.

Published Cookbooks as Fund Raisers

During the period from 1861 to 1915, there was great interest in the fund-raising "receipt books". Women began to work as a group to gather recipes and sell them in one volume to assist charitable activities in their communities. The first charity cookbook is believed to have been Camp Cookery and Hospital Diet, For the Use of U.S. Volunteers, Now in Service, published in New York City, 1861. (10) With the end of the war, this type cookbook was a fund-raiser for local charities, such as hospitals, schools, churches, and organizations. The charity cookbooks reflect the cooking fashions of the period in various parts of the country. (1)

Cooking Schools

After the Civil War and by 1900 cooking schools had been established in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. The purposes of these schools were to educate women to supervise servants in their homes, to work in institutional kitchens, to operate food businesses, to give public lectures on food and diet, to create and demonstrate recipes, to teach in various groups, and to write for magazines and food companies. Thus this was the beginning of professional education in domestic science. Many of these early career women became celebrities and gained prestige through their cookbooks and written materials. Some of the notables were Maria Parloa, Mrs. Sarah Tyson Rorer, Mrs. Mary Lincoln, and Fannie Merritt Farmer. Probably America has the most outstanding written history records through its cookbooks. (10)


In the review of the book, Eat My Words, written by Janet Theophano, folklorist, it was possible to better understand how women used their cookbooks to define their identity, their beliefs, their talent, and the issues which they confronted at their time in history. Also helpful in understanding cookbook authors was a review of their books or facsimile copies and the historical comments of Karen Hess, an outstanding culinary historian. (1, 7)


1. Theophano, Janet. Eat My Words. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

2. Barile, Mary. Cookbooks Worth Collecting. Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead Book Co., 1994.

3. Better Homes and Gardens: Heritage Cook Book. U.S.:Meredith Corp., 1975.

4. The Woman's Auxiliary of Olivet Episcopal Church. Franconia, VA., 1967.

5. Bullock, Mrs. Helen. The Williamsburg Art of Cooking or, Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion. Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, Inc., 1938. 3rd Printing.

6. Glasse, Mrs. Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Alexandria: Cotton and Stewart, 1805. Facsimile edition, 1997.

7. Facsimile copy transcribed by Karen Hess. Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

8. Simmons, Amelia. American Cookery. Facsimile of the second edition, New York: 1796. Reprint by Applewood Books, Bedford MASS., 1996.

9. Randolph, Mary. The Virginia House-Wife. A facsimile of the first edition, 1824. Historical notes by Karen Hess. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1984.

10. Du Sablon, Mary Anna. America's Collectible Cookbooks. Athens, Ohio: University Press, 1994.

11. Beeton, Mrs. Isabella. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. Oxford, England:Oxford University Press, 1859, 1861. Abridged Edition, Edited by Nicola Humble, 2000.

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