In November 2012 I had the pleasure of attending the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair. My favorite part about it is hidden in the show’s current title; it contains a good amount of ephemera, including some vendors that specialize in ephemera. Much of what was on offer was beyond my budget, including some that was far beyond it, such as a first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, on offer from the London vendor for a staggering $240,000, more than the earlier King James Bible on display in the same case.
But I happily bought some items of interest, including an 1887 nursery catalog from F. R. Pierson of Tarrytown, New York. I confess that what first caught my attention in the nursery catalog was the ‘Gettysburgh’ entry on the page scanned just below this paragraph. Since back before I began doing genealogy, I have thought that plants are an excellent way to get a window onto how people of the past related to their world. Flipping through this catalog while chatting with the vendor, I was suddenly struck silent by the description of new verbena ‘Gettysburgh,’ “brilliant vermilion, shading to crimson” – as spilled blood, of course, would also do. This provides such a stark window on one way how the United States was trying to cope with and integrate its Civil War 22 years after the war ended.
As someone who has spent some time researching what crops of the past are still available, and what crops my farming ancestors grew and likely would have grown, the crop section was also of particular interest to me. On the below page featuring some of the nursery’s specialty crops, I am already aware of two that are still barely available commercially in the United States, muskmelon ‘Netted Gem’ and lettuce ‘Black Seeded Simpson.’ I actually grow ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ in my vegetable plot as I focus mostly on heirloom/heritage crops. I have not yet researched the others on this page, which are new cultivar names to me. The modern American commercial crop business is very hard on crop varieties; I have an extensive book on what cultivars were available to American gardeners in the 1980′s and many of those are already commercially extinct in the U. S. or nearly so.
The records I have compiled clearly show that many of the people in my tree were involved in farming, and a combination of records and social history research indicate that a good number of those that weren’t had gardens. In my great-grandfather’s journal, he wrote that he and his new bride planted a garden the spring after they married. Unfortunately the records and the journal do not mention specific cultivars. So while this contemporary catalog gives me an idea of what my great-grandparents could have grown, it doesn’t tell me what, if any, of the plants in the catalog they actually grew.
I have been interested in old cookbooks since I was a child, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before. At the fair I also bought a 1908 cookbook titled Household Recipes that was compiled by the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts. Each recipe includes the name of the woman who submitted it. This shows the kind of thing you can try to locate if you know that someone in your tree was involved in something like a Ladies’ Aid Society. Religious records (other denominations and other religions had charitable organizations as well), newspaper feature stories, and obituaries are a few of the kinds of records that might include this sort of information. Even if the research subject turns out not to have submitted a recipe to a cookbook contemporary with their being active with a group, a cookbook like this would provide the names of people with whom they had likely associated and could provide new avenues of research – or simply a fuller picture of their life – as a result.
I recently wrote a post titled Daily Life in the Past: Pasta in America and used the example of macaroni becoming more common. I was fascinated in this cookbook to note two major changes between the 1896 recipe I quoted in my previous post and this 1908 cookbook. First, macaroni had moved from the ‘Sweets’ section to the entrees section. Second, there were now three recipes featuring macaroni instead of one. The 1896 recipe was from an almanac put out by a soap company with the intent of everyday household use; whether it actually was used every day in households, I cannot say for sure. The 1908 cookbook was compiled by women for other women. It seems that in the span of 12 years, macaroni had become a staple kitchen item, at least in Massachusetts. Also, only one recipe now includes instructions to break the macaroni into smaller pieces, and that one specifies a particular length, suggesting the possibilities that they may have already come partially broken or that this particular recipe may have required a very specific length. Is this because macaroni had already started being sold pre-broken, or because it had become such a familiar ingredient that the instruction was no longer necessary?
Two of the macaroni recipes are excerpted in the page scanned above. The third:
Ham With Macaroni Croquettes.–One and one-half cups chopped ham, one and one-half cups cooked macaroni. Form into croquettes with egg and crumbs as usual. Serve with the following sauce: One and one-half cups cheese melted with small piece butter; beat one egg, add one cup milk, stir into hot cheese. Mrs. J. F. Tufts, Watertown.
Of the three recipes in this cookbook, this one is the closest to the one in the 1896 almanac, although that one did not have meat nor was the cook instructed to form croquettes. It seems perhaps steps like these were part of what was involved in macaroni making the leap from a treat to an entree.