While individual physicians and moralists published recipe guides that supported their diet and health theories, women’s groups began authoring cookbooks sold as fundraising efforts in the nineteenth century. These community or charity cookbooks gathered recipes from a region or sponsoring organization to raise funds for local causes.
American charity cookbooks became popular during the Civil War, when they were first sold by women at Union Army Sanitary Fairs convened to raise money for medicine and clothing. Disease outbreaks from poor camp sanitation during the war made healthcare a primary national concern, and it was likely no accident that women published recipe books to raise money to alleviate disease as a natural extension of the association between food and medicine. Publishing, marketing, and managing funds for these books helped women use their domestic skills as a foundation to organize social and political groups. Over the following decades, groups from church boosters to hospitals published charity books as fundraising tools.
By the 1880s, women began using charity cookbooks to support local suffrage campaigns. Hattie Burr’s 1886 The Woman Suffrage Cook Book collected recipes from mostly Boston-area professional women and contained passages in support of women’s suffrage. The 1909 Washington Women’s Cook Book, published by the Washington Equal Suffrage Association, contained short food and medicinal recipes submitted from women across the region interspersed with pro-suffrage quotes and news.
Charity cookbooks offered suffrage organizations a way to raise funds using areas of traditional women’s expertise. Vociferous anti-suffrage critics painted suffragettes as unfeminine and accused them of abandoning traditional familial responsibilities. Publishing cookbooks was a way for suffragettes to assert their commitment to and authority over the domestic sphere while still advocating for political rights. Purchasing these cookbooks was also a way for everyday women to donate to suffrage causes without widely advertising their stance.
The Washington Women’s Cook Book draws comparisons between government and domestic management to insist women are necessary to the political system. The book’s last section includes information about local and national political issues, including highlighting women’s value as shrewd grocery economists and food preparers in studying the formation and application of food sanitation laws.
“What is politics? Why, it’s housekeeping on a big scale. The government is in a muddle, because it has been trying to do the housekeeping without the women.”
Charity cookbooks are terrific resources for investigating both traditional foods and new cooking trends. The Washington Women’s Cook Book includes multiple versions of recipes that had become American standards, like cornmeal “Johnnie Cakes” borrowed from Native Americans and five variations on pancakes. Also included, however, are submissions reflecting changing tastes and trends, such as an introduction to aspic, a gelatin suspension that became popular for serving everything from chilled vegetables to fish and poultry in the first half of the twentieth century after Knox and Jell-O developed boxed gelatin.
In preparation for Thanksgiving, in our next entry we’ll test recipes from the Washington Women’s Cook Book reflecting classic harvest-time desserts as well as new frozen food fads intended for the holiday table.
Special Collections Cooking is a periodic, bi-weekly series using resources from DePaul University’s Special Collections and Archives to explore American lifeways by recreating historic recipes. The entire series may be viewed here. To learn more about DePaul’s rare books and archival collections, contact Special Collections and Archives at 773-325-7864, or firstname.lastname@example.org.