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by Judith Lucey
“Then at one came the ‘Glorious Thanksgiving dinner’Roast Turkey, plum pudding, pumpkin and mince pies…As usual I was the last to leave the table.”—From the Diary of Helen Warner,Thanksgiving Day, 27 November 1851
We’re now entering the time of year when we cook and bake foods associated with the holiday season.Food brings people together, and we experiencean emotional—and even historical—connection to food that resonates, whatever your family traditions or cultural background.
My culinary ancestry brings together flavors of the Mediterranean and Newfoundland with a New England accent. My mother is Italian American and, thanks to her influence, eating is one of my earliest memories and a favorite pastime. My mother and her sisters kept many of the food traditions their parents brought from Italy.My paternal grandmother, a native of Newfoundland, was raised on cod, but she and her mother were quick to adopt New England favorites such as New England boiled dinner, baked beans,and steamed brown bread.
When I was a child, the kitchen was the most important room in the house;in addition to being the center for meal preparation and eating, it served as the family gathering place. After dinner,wine or whiskey was brought out, if it was not already on the table, and there telling of family stories would begin.The children would be told to “go and play,” but I would try to sneak back into listen. Years later, when I became interested in genealogy, I learned that the best way to obtain family information from relatives was to begin with questions about food and holiday celebrations.
My personal love of cooking, food,and family history is now intertwined with my professional life. As archivist at NEHGS, I am one of the caretakers of the many manuscripts donated (and sometimes rescued) by people seeking a place to preserve their family treasures.Family papers often contain letters,diaries, and other records created by women, and it’s in these records we hear the voices of women that are often missing in published sources. Women are frequently the keepers of family papers, so it is no wonder we encounter their recipes and cookbooks, items they particularly relied upon and valued.
This article highlights three collections in the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections at NEHGS that tell compelling stories and demonstrate the unexpected value recipes can hold for family historians.Historical recipes offer an engaging means to directly connect with past generations. The study of recipes and documented food traditions not only makes our ancestors’ day-to-day lives more vivid, but also offers us opportunities to dig deeper and learn about other facets of our ancestors’ personal stories and the social history of another time, place, and culture.
“Required—A tin of oysters, or a dozen fresh ones, some rather fat bacon, cayenne pepper, slice the bacon very thin…”
Among the documents, letters, and photographs in the Louise Carruth Baxter Papers at NEHGS is a diploma belonging to Dolly Baxter (1872–1941),daughter of Charles Newcomb and Louise (Carruth) Baxter. The diploma,issued by the Boston Normal School of Cookery on 30 March 1892, proclaimed that Dolly was now “entitled to its indorsement [sic] as a teacher of the science and art of cookery.”
The Boston Normal School of Cookery was founded by Mary (Tileston) Hemenway in 1887 to train young women as cookery teachers.During Dolly’s time at the school, the course lasted a year; in 1894 the curriculum expanded to two years. The program combined theory and practical cooking techniques. A foundation in the sciences, taught at MIT, included coursework in chemistry, physiology, hygiene, and modern advances in bacteriology. The school’s training manual described the course work needed for the cookery of the sick,including “preparation and cooking of broths and acid drinks,” “the cooking of starchy foods and gruels,” and “the making of nutritious liquids with or without stimulants.” To be admitted,women had to be at least seventeen years old and high school graduates.Dolly Baxter, a lifelong resident of Quincy, Massachusetts, graduated from Quincy High School in 1890 and in the fall of 1891 was enrolled in the Boston Normal School of Cookery.
The collection contains Dolly’s copy of a popular cookbook of the day, Mrs.Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book (1891),which may have served as a textbook.Mary J. Lincoln was an instructor at the Boston Cooking School, located in Boston’s North End on North Bennet Street. Originally founded by the Women’s Education Association in 1879 to train working-class women as domestic cooks, the school was so popular that a second campus was established on Tremont Street to instruct wealthy and upper middle class women, employers of these domestics, in the art of cookery and domestic management. The school’s most famous graduate, Fannie Farmer, revised Mrs.Lincoln’s cookbook in 1896 and revolutionized cooking by offering very specific instructions and standardized measurements.
By 1896, in the blank pages in the back of Mrs.Lincoln’s cookbook, Dolly began to record her own recipes: cakes, pies, and doughnuts as well as prepared main dishes such as welsh rarebit, veal, and duck. One of Dolly’s first entries, “Angels on Horseback,” called for a very popular food of the day—oysters. Mrs. Lincoln’s cookbook refers to oysters as “more highly prized than any other shell fish”; indeed,they dominated nineteenth-century menus. (A menu in the NEHGS collection shows that an 1853 dinner for the Independent Boston Fusiliers included a first course of oyster soup, a second course of boiled oysters, and a side dish of oyster patties.) Dolly’s Angels on Horseback recipe required just three ingredients: a tin of oysters or a dozen fresh ones, fat bacon, and cayenne pepper.
Did Dolly practice cookery after her graduation? The family papers don’t answer this question, but my colleagues Sally Benny and Helen Herzer helped me find two articles of interest in the American Gas Light Journal,dated 16 May and 30 May 1892. The journal reported that the Light, Heat and Power Company of Nashua, New Hampshire, hosted a series of lectures about cooking on gas stoves. The classes were taught by a Miss Daniel, who was assisted by “Miss Dolly Baxter, a graduate of the Boston Normal School of Cookery.” While much of Dolly’s later life was troubled, this sole piece of evidence allows us to believe that for a brief period of time Dolly Baxter was a proud teacher of cookery.
3 cups of corn meal, 2 cups of flour, 1 cup of molasses…—Steam three hours “good”
A set of recipes, which included brown bread, poor man’s chowder, and gingerbread,was donated to NEHGS in 1989.Unlike many recipes in our Special Collections, they are neither part of a family collection of papers nor written into a family Bible or diary. Instead the recipes are found in the business records of a nineteenth-century milliner.Although we generally think of business life from this era as exclusively male, many nineteenth-century women owned and operated shops, stores,and other commercial ventures. One of these women was Eunice Goff of Boston. Her account book, kept in 1839 and 1840, offers insight into both her professional life and her domestic life.
Eunice (Burr) Goff was born in Boston on 14 February 1805, daughter of Martin and Eunice (Turner) Burr.In 1825 Eunice and her older sister,Adeline, first appear in the Boston City Directory as A. & E. Burr, milliners,with a business and residence on Salem Street. On 25 April 1833, Eunice married Ebenezer Goff;later city directories and newspaper advertisements no longer show her working with her sister. After Adeline married John Ellery in New York in March 1838, Eunice assumed command of the business. One month later an ad in the Boston Traveler announced that “Mrs. E. Goff has taken the Millinery House at No. 4 Beacon and will open her Spring selections of Paris and New York fashions in April.” A year later Eunice made the first entry in her account book.
In the account book, Eunice recorded customer purchases and wages paid to her workers. Occasionally a non-business transaction appeared—the purchase of butter and eggs for ninety cents or luncheon at Dill’s Oyster Establishment on Washington Street—but not until 1840 do we see entries of a personal nature. On 6 January, Eunice spent twelve cents for “Medecine Mr.Goff.” An entry on 18 March consisted of one word: “Sick.” Eunice’s husband Ebenezer had died the previous day of croup at age 32. No entries exist after 25 April 1840; Eunice may have closed the business. By the mid-1840s she and her parents had removed to Methuen, Massachusetts, where her sister Harriet(Burr) Currier lived. Eunice did not remarry.
Eunice likely wrote down her recipes at about the time she was keeping her account book. Titled “recipes for the ladies,” they include Boston puddingand a number of cakes. The recipe for Eunice’s steam brown bread was found on a loose paper in the back of the account book and dated 22 July 1900. As Eunice had died at Methuen in 1874, her recipe must have been recalled and written down by a family member who remembered it fondly. Eunice must have made the bread when it was a relatively new innovation; steam brown bread did not appear in a published cookbook until 1862. Quite different from traditional baked brown bread, the steamed version had a loose dough consistency due to the addition of sweet or sour milk and more molasses.The dough was placed in a pudding container.Over time this steamed version came to be called Boston brown bread. For many of us who grew up in New England, Saturday night meant franks and beans and Boston brown bread.
“Three pounds of flour, one pound of butter, ¾ of a pound sugar…good for 75 years.“
In 1802, English immigrant Dr. William Yates married Hannah Palmer (1781–1869), daughter of Capt. Ichabod and Mary (Wakalee) Palmer of Butternuts(now Morris), Otsego County, New York, formerly of Brookfield, Connecticut.William and Hannah purchased an estate in Butternuts in 1803, and had ten children; seven survived to adulthood.Through papers, records, and photographs of this family and their descendants,we see a richly documented life in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. While men are featured prominently in the collection, women are equally represented, with their voices heard through letters and diaries—and recipes. Ada Harris (1915–2002), great-granddaughter of William and Hannah Yates, lovingly preserved the collection,including recipes and cookbooks (manuscript and published) that belonged to her mother, Winifred (Yates) Harris, her grandmother Arrianna Corbin (Duroe)Yates, and other female relatives. These records, spanning three generations of women, provide a history lesson in the evolution of American cookery.
The earliest recipes in the collection are in a small, fragile manuscript recipe book,its cover naming the owner as “Annis Palmer, Butternuts, Feb 27, 1817.” Annis was Hannah (Palmer) Yates’s younger sister. Her handwritten recipes represent foods associated with colonial New England: cakes, boiled puddings, pies,and cookies. One of the first recipes is for “Election Cake,” which was very popular in colonial New England, frequently “served at the festivities surrounding colonial elections.” Election cake was a yeast-raised cake shaped like a loaf of bread, often covered in a frosting made of boiled sugar and egg whites. Annis’s recipe, similar to the traditional recipe found in published cookbooks of the period, required about four pounds of flour, three-quarters of a pound of butter, and a third of a pound of sugar.She also used ingredients common in the colonial period—“tea spoonful of pearlash” [perlash], a chemical leavener made from boiling down wood ashes and a pint of “emptins.” (Emptins was a slang term referring to “emptyings,” the yeast product, used in baking, derived from the sediment of wine and ale casks.)
Yeast-raised cakes were common in the seventeenth century but by the eighteenth century these recipes were being replaced with ones that included eggs and chemical leavens, which resulted in a lighter cake and reduced baking time. New Englanders, lovers of tradition, persisted in making yeast-baked cakes longer than bakers in other parts of the country, not abandoning them until the nineteenth century.
The next generation of cooks in the collection was represented by Arrianna Corbin (Duroe) Yates (1844–1923), who married William and Hannah Yates’s son George Yates in 1867. Arrianna’s recipes,inscribed in her “Mama’s Receipt Book,”include traditional cakes, pies, and puddings,as well as instructions for pickling and preserving fruits and vegetables and salting meats. Arrianna’s small collection of published booklets, containing a mix of recipes, household tips, and product promotion, show the emerging influence of advertising and marketing on women in the home. Arrianna’s copy of Kingfords Oswego Corn (1877) is filled with recipes and uses for corn starch, made locally in Oswego, New York. My personal favorite from Arrianna’s collection is her recipe for hard ginger cake, which, according to her notes, would last for seventy-five years.The secret to its longevity was keeping the cakes in a “closely covered tin box, or better still a stone jar, so they are air-tight or else they will become soft.”
Arrianna’s daughter, Winifred (Yates)Harris (1872–1945), began her recipe collection in December 1889 at age seventeen and continued it after her marriage to William Henry Harris in 1899. She collected many of the traditional recipes her mother used, but some (for instance,Indian pudding) were shorter variations.A product of her time, Winifred collected a great deal of information from newspapers and magazines—household suggestions and printed recipes submitted by neighbors and friends. Separated by about 100 years, Annis and Winifred’s markedly different experiences of cooking and baking offer one lens through which to view cultural change over time.
We would not know about the Yates-Palmer family cooking traditions if their recipe collections had not been passed from one generation to the next and safeguarded by Ada Harris, who valued them. We would not know of Dolly Baxter’s experiences with the Boston Normal Cooking School if her brother Charles and his family had not kept and preserved her records. Nor would we know of Eunice (Burr) Goff,her millinery business, and her steam brown bread and other recipes had not someone recognized the historical worth of her account book. All these records preserve far more than simple recipes;they offer insight into historic lives and lifestyles, and provide a window into social history, women’s studies, and even the history of technology. In each case,someone had the foresight to recognize the importance of these records and donate them to an institution where the women’s stories would be preserved and continue to be told.
I may not have a lot of papers and documents from my paternal grandmother,but I treasure her recipes and cookbook. So this year as I prepare for the holidays I think I will forgo looking for the latest recipe from Good Housekeeping and cultivate my own“new” tradition by making Nana’s favorite carrot cake recipe. After all, it’s tried and true and full of memories.
1 The 1850–52 diary of Helen (Warner)Nelson (1843–1911) is in the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections at NEHGS(Mss 595). Helen was born in Bostonand was attending school in Newton,Massachusetts, at the time she wrote her diary.↩
2 According to Fannie Merritt Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,revised edition (Boston, 1912), 206,“A boiled dinner consists of warm unpressed corned beef, served with cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, and potatoes.”↩
3 For more information, see Timothy G. X.Salls, “Louise Bartlett Carruth Baxter Family Papers,” New England Ancestors 8(2007) 4:52–53.↩
4 Report of the Commission Appointed to Investigate the Existing Systems of Manual Training and Industrial Education (Boston:Wright Printing Co., 1893), 262–263.↩
5 The Golden Rod [a monthly publication of Quincy High School], October 1891.↩
6 Dolly never married. Documents in the collection reveal a later life characterized by mental illness and institutionalization.By August 1919, Dolly was admitted to Taunton State Hospital in Taunton,Massachusetts. In 1930, Dolly was transferred to the Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she remained until her death on 26 January 1941.↩
7 According to Eliza Leslie’s Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, 3rd edition (Boston, 1830),30, Boston pudding was made byenclosing raw or stewed fruit in dough,tying the dough in cloth, and then boiling it. The resulting “pudding” was eaten immediately with sugar.↩
8 Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald,Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England (Amherst: University ofMassachusetts Press, 2011), 359.↩
9 Stavely and Fitzgerald [note 8], 361.↩
10 For more information, see Timothy G. X. Salls, “The Yates-Harris Collection,” New England Ancestors 7(2006) 1:52–53.↩
11 Ada Harris’s estate donated her familypapers to NEHGS after her death in 2002.↩
12 Stavely and Fitzgerald [note 8], 385.The cake was sometimes referred to as Connecticut loaf cake.↩
13 Ibid., 379.↩
14 Ibid., 386.↩
Judith Lucey is Archivist at NEHGS. Her genealogical interests include Irish genealogy, Newfoundland, nineteenth- and twentieth-century genealogy, Italian genealogy, and the history of Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts.