A Turn of the Century Cookbook: Our Home Cyclopedia

Laura Taxel shares recipes from the turn of the century cookbook Our Home Cyclopedia and a spin on variations from this cookbook and tips to modernize the recipes.


| June/July 2000



Turn of the century cookbook


Enjoy these turn of the century cookbook recipes from Our Home Cyclopedia.

In 1890, Etta Thayer came to Plymouth, Indiana, as Jim Thayer's new wife. She brought with her a copy of the newly published Our Home Cyclopedia to help her. More than a cookbook, it was an improved and scientific guide for the homemaker, the most up-to-date volume of its kind and an invaluable tool for family life. It was dedicated to housewives and promised to show them how to make their married lives a success.

The promise seemed reasonable, since those were the days when young ladies were taught that the road to marital bliss started with a man's full belly. Get a husband what he likes, the author admonished, and save a thousand household strikes. So young Etta must have sat in her northern Indiana kitchen thumbing through chapters entitled "Frogs," "Jumbles" and "Mush" to learn just how to please Jim Thayer. Advice, warnings and a compendium of rules accompanied the recipes, and it was understood that a wife's role was to create a perfectly civilized and civilizing haven for her family. The turn of the century cookbook Our Home Cyclopedia was intended to guide the lady of the house through every situation she might face. It advised homemakers to learn how to make desserts on short notice so as not be annoyed by unexpected company. It cautioned that cash customers get the best value from the butcher. And for everything there were detailed instructions: When arranging the dining room, the table should be covered with a colored cloth with fringe extending just over the edge; when handling servants, never, ever say thank you; and for husbands and children, proper table manners are a must. Good food, readers were told, generated good behavior:

It is impossible to feel polite and well-mannered over unpalatable, coarse, ill-prepared and indigestible food. Every mouthful of it provokes ill humor, resentment and dissatisfaction. The housewife who insists on good table manners must give her family good food. How can one be gentle, polite and sweet-tempered on a diet of sour bread, muddy coffee, soggy potatoes, heavy pie crust and leather batter cakes? If this book could be means of bringing into the household happiness, peace and contentment; if the husband hereafter sits at the table with a smiling and satisfied countenance and the wife feels less care and anxiety then its mission will have been accomplished.

The housewifely arts — if such a concept can even safely be mentioned these days — have changed a great deal over the past 100 years, and Our Home Cyclopedia gives us now, more than a century later, a feel for the lives of the women who lived by its dictums and followed its counsel. A good wife and mother was expected to spend her days preparing everything that made its way to the table. It was important to know how to make rhubarb wine, bottle gooseberry catsup, pickle walnuts, preserve eggs, whip up a syllabub, test lard for freshness and cure butter. The Cyclopedia urged women to avoid new-fangled commercial food products that were becoming increasingly available and solemnly warned against succumbing to the temptations of store-bought goods:

A good housekeeper will always look with pride upon shelves of closely corked bottles she has prepared herself and neatly labeled, feeling that she possesses close at hand the means of imparting a delicious, flavor to her meals without placing any deleterious compound before, friends and family.





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