The University Record, July 9, 2001

Household manuals provide window on turn-of-century life

By Judy Steeh
News and Information Services

(Image courtesy Clements Library)
For diverse perspectives on American cooking practices, daily life and commerce in 19th- and early 20th-century America, look no further than the materials in the growing culinary collections at the Clements Library, says Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history. As Detroit celebrates its tricentennial, Longone says, household manuals and cookbooks provide a unique window on daily life in a prosperous, turn-of-the-century American city.

In 1897, O’Brien & Co., grocers and wine merchants, offered customers a Household Manual containing “Modern Menus and Recipes to the Lovers of Dainty Dinner Dishes.” The 154-page book contains suggested menus, recipes, household hints and illustrated advertisements. The manual advertised dozens of other Detroit firms, along with products offered in O’Brien’s two Woodward Avenue stores. Those products included Detroit’s own Williams Brothers & Charbonneau condiments, J.M. Flinn Co.’s ice cream (“Fancy bricks and individual cuts a specialty”) and Windsor Table Salt (“Pure underground crystals—will not flake”).

O’Brien & Co. appealed to the upper classes, reminding its readers, “The finest goods obtainable on the markets of the world at moderate prices is the principle which has won for us a trade which in its extent and select character is unparalleled in so brief a period.” They warned that any dish, no matter the recipe or the expertise of the cook, could be a failure without the highest-quality ingredients. This failure, a “veritable Waterloo,” could, of course, be avoided by using O’Brien’s merchandise, since “the quality is the thing that controls the issue.”

Another peek into the daily life of Detroit women is found in The Household of the Detroit Free Press. First published in 1881, this encyclopedic volume went through nine printings by the turn of the century. The second-edition copy in the Clements Library consists of 664 pages that contain virtually everything a middle- to upper-class housewife needed to know, from “Aeolian Harps, How to Construct Them” to “Taxidermy.” There are 43 menus, ranging from an extravagant New Year’s dinner to picnic lunches, and a splendid collection of recipes, including 60 each for pickles and puddings.

“Detroit women clearly took great pride both in their culinary skills and in their civic obligations,” Longone says. The library has a copy of Detroit’s earliest charitable cookbook, The Home Messenger Book of Tested Recipes,” first published in 1873 to benefit the Detroit Home of the Friendless. This charitable fund-raising technique, still popular today, is a legacy of the Civil War, when women’s groups came together to raise funds for worthy purposes.

Demand for the Home Messenger was so great that second and third editions appeared in 1878 and 1886, respectively, raising thousands of dollars for the charity. The third edition was modernized to include exact measurements and contained many new recipes, including more than two dozen for oysters and clams. The second and third editions also added the words “Total Abstinence” on the title page, reflecting the increasing power of the temperance movement.

“There is much in culinary archives that lies beyond the table,” Longone says. “These examples give only a hint of the many facets of a community that are mirrored there.”

The U-M continues to celebrate Detroit’s 300th anniversary through programs, exhibits and courses designed to bring into focus the history and future of this dynamic neighbor.

For more information about these or other items in the culinary archives, contact Jan Longone, (734) 764-2347 or