Woman's Favorite Cook Book
by Mrs. Gregory & Friends (1902)


My mother recently gave me this beautiful old cookbook that belonged to my Great-Grandmother, Florence, who lived most of her life in a small wheat-farming town in central Washington. She was a divorced, single mother—fairly rare in her day, as you can imagine—and ended up living with her parents for the remainder of her adult life, while raising her two sons. Florence shared a kitchen with her somewhat fractious mother (who was the first owner of this cookbook; she filled it with little newspaper clippings, which were stabbed through the cookbook’s pages with sewing pins). 

Great-Great-Grandma Mary was an avid newspaper reader, and collected whole scrapbooks of news clippings during her lifetime. She later went on to write her memoirs of her childhood journey to Washington State (in a covered wagon), which I’ve unfortunately been unable to locate.  I believe they were donated to a museum at some point.

My mother recently shared some lovely recollections of her childhood visits to her grandmother's kitchen in Washington, at which point the only family still living there there was Florence, her mother Mary, and her brother Johnny:

I remember her kitchen as being fairly spacious, at least compared to the one I grew up with. The sink, countertop and fridge were on one side with the sink under a window. The second side had a full length day bed under another window and a door which opened to a long back porch. The third side had a large side board, a door that led to a hallway upstairs, a rocking chair where Uncle Johnny sat and a TV. The remaining side had a brown metal furnace that heated the house, a cook stove, and the door to a cute walk-in pantry. The pantry had shelves and a little window that I loved because it was set sort of low in the wall and looked out on the shady side yard. A round wood pedestal table was in roughly the middle of the room with mix and match chairs around it. I think our family of 7 plus the 3 old folks squeezed in and ate meals together when we visited. We may have used the bed for extra seating. It truly was a catch all room. Grandma had a drying rack mounted up high on a door frame where she hung dish towels and anything else that needed to dry quickly. It’s fun to think about.

Often used in this charming kitchen, Woman’s Favorite Cook Book, published in 1902, reveals fascinating insights into how cooking (and women’s lives, for that matter) have changed since then.  The author, Mrs. Gregory, wrote to friends of hers across the country in order to collect material for the cookbook.  In her initial letter, she wrote:

My Dear Friend: At this, the beginning of the twentieth century, the thoughts of every up-to-date person are naturally turning toward that great and important subject: What shall we eat?  The people at large are asking for a new cook-book, something that will not only tell us how to make the most appetizing foods, but healthful ones, as well...I am about to prepare a cook-book on an appetizing and healthful plan…I therefore invite you to contribute your favorite, with directions for making the same—something not found in any cook-book to your knowledge.

The cookbook is full of beautiful pen-and-ink drawings, such as these:

Woman's Favorite Cook Book is arranged in three segments: recipes, household advice, and the treatment of ailments/beauty tricks.  The recipes, of which there are several hundred, are fairly short on details, and contain fascinating units of measure which I'd never heard of before, calling for "a half an eggshell of water," for example.  The author includes several sample holiday menus; for a  Christmas feast, she suggests the following sumptuous affair:


Decorate the table with holly and mistletoe.

           Breakfast                                                     Dinner                                                        Supper  

             Oranges                                             Oysters on half shell                                          Cold roast goose
    Germia (a brand of porridge)                     Cream chicken soup                                          Oyster patties
        Broiled salt mackerel                             Broiled Whitefish                                                 Cold Slaw
       Chipped beef on toast                         Roast goose, apple sauce                                  Charlotte Russe
          Baked Potatoes                           Boiled Potatoes      Mashed Turnips                             Popovers
   Griddle Cakes     Muffins                                  Sweet potatoes                                              Currant Jelly
             Coffee                                            Christmas Plum Pudding                
                                                              Lemon Ice              Squash Pie
                                                              Quince Jelly           Delicate Cake
                                                             Salted Almonds         Fruit

I mean, if you didn't have a cook and a couple of kitchen maids on call, could you whip that one up at the holidays?  Me neither.

Woman's Favorite Cook Book also has many quotes, and enough advice to keep you on the straight and narrow for the rest of your life.  For one thing, Mrs. Gregory was big on morals, character, and cleanliness, and the housewife was expected to play an outsized role in cultivating these at home.  The author exhorts her readers in regard to avoiding wastefulness: “Does not the Bible speak of the careful wife thus: ‘She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.’”  Included throughout the cookbook are directions on how to keep ones kitchen clean; how to wash one’s corsets (thank heavens we got rid of those!); and how to eat so as to make “…our bodies fit temples for the dwelling of the immortal soul” (emphasis added by one of my great-grandmothers, who underlined the above phrase blue ink), which the author interpreted to mean avoiding animal products (interestingly, she was an early vegetarian). 

After the recipe section, there’s a whole segment dealing with Sick and Convalescent care, which was probably something every housewife got a fair amount of practice with prior to the development of modern medical care and hospitals.  The author writes: “Nursing the sick is a duty that requires intelligence and patience.  Few sick persons retain the cheerfulness that characterizes them while well, and in dealing with their little whims, the tenderest forbearance should be exercised…Permit little or no company in the sick room.  Caution is to be observed regarding remarks about the sick in their presence.” 

Of course, this was back in the bad old days when paid sick leave from work wasn’t something people generally had to worry about, and there would be a mother or maiden aunt at home to force-feed you some of the concoctions inflicted upon the sick (many of which would be enough to spur one to recover, just to avoid the treatment).  Here, I include a small sampling of delectable “invalid diets:”

Beef Tea
Toast Water
Stewed Prunes
Fiberless Beef
(Disappointingly, there is no mention of cod liver or castor oil here.)

Mrs. Gregory then launches into childcare.  Her instructions for feeding infants (How and What to Feed Them) are rather stern: “If it is ascertained, past all doubt, that a mother cannot nurse her child, then a healthy wet nurse should be procured, as the food which nature has supplied is superior to any invented by art.  Never bring up a baby, if you can possibly avoid it, on artificial food.”

The author then goes on to give timeless advice for how to Make A Child Happy:

Let a child’s home be the happiest house to him in the world; and to be happy he must be merry and cheerful; and he ought to have an abundance of playthings, to help on the merriment.  If he has a dismal nurse, and a dismal home, he may as well be incarcerated in a prison, and be attended by a jailor.  It is sad enough to see dismal, doleful men and women, but it is a truly lamentable and unnatural sight to see a doleful child.  The young ought to be playful and as full of innocent mischief as kittens.  There will be quite time enough in after years for sorrow and for sadness. right colors, plenty of light, clean windows (mind this, if you please), an abundance of good colored prints, and toys without number, are the proper furnishings of a nursery.

Then we come to Prevalent Disorders and Their Remedies.  (Most of these home remedies need to be prefaced with a warning: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.)  As with home nursing, your average turn-of-the-century housewife must have been a real pro at handling your basic daily emergencies (a small sampling: poisoning; choking; sunstroke; cholera; croup; diphtheria; and palpitation of the heart).  It’s a miracle anyone survived, really.

Hiccoughs must have been a nuisance, as there are no less than 3 remedies provided by the author, one of which suggests applying “small pieces of ice suddenly, so as to surprise the patient” as a cure. 

Care of the Ears is quite sage: “Children’s ears ought never to be boxed, for besides being an ill-mannered way to punish one, it is liable to injure permanently the delicate membrane of the ear.  Nor should the ear ever be ‘cleaned out with the screwed-up corner of a towel,’ much less with a bodkin [a blunt, thick needle].”

How about this Internal Cancer Cure?  “Take the dried blossoms of the common red clover, put them in hot water, let them steep over night and this will be a clover tea.  Take a tablespoonful of this tea five or six times daily.  Cases of virulent cancer have been cured by this simple remedy.”

And finally, Mrs. Gregory leaves us with Toilet Suggestions and Recipes, referring to a lady’s beauty routine.  She asks: “Is your skin wrinkled and old-looking, your complexion muddy and unhealthy, your neck, cheeks, arms or breasts shrunken and unsightly? Why not remedy the matter?” 

Sure, why not.  I did like this simple suggestion, grandly entitled The Royal Road To Beauty: “Breathe deeply, bathe daily—think joy, not sorrow—eat wisely and never speak unkindly.”  I think we can all manage that one (more or less). 

Then Mrs. Gregory waxes poetic upon A Cheerful Disposition:

A cheerful disposition and an optimistic view of life do much toward making the beauty suppliant, plump of outline [back when being plump was a good thing] and charming of countenance.  When one is blue and moody, the appetite fails, the stomach sulks, digestion and assimilation are interfered with and the entire body suffers from malnutrition.  One should get out of doors.  Exercise moderately and rest a good deal. [I’m not sure when the busy housewife had time to rest, what with all that cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and nursing…but I digress.] Read helpful books….sleep always in a well-ventilated room.

She tackles the joys of the dinner table (back when families sat down and ate dinner together) under Sufficient Time For Eating:

The housewife who keeps her trials to retail to her husband at mealtimes, and the man who brings home business anxieties, which he impertinently intrudes, sin not alone against propriety, but against hygiene as well; because anxiety, sorrow, or sudden shock are known to have a very serious effect upon digestion…

(As an aside: maybe people in the early 1900s in America liked being preached at.  The Social Gospel movement was in full swing around this time, propounding the concept that clean bodies lead to clean souls and all that. At the end of the cookbook there’s a full-page advertisement for a 500-page tome entitled “The Perfect Woman” written by a female doctor (how many of those do you think there were in the early 1900s?)  This book, marketed as “Next to the Bible, the best book of the age,” was published in 1903.  The publishers claim: “You will save enough in doctor’s bills in one month to pay for a copy” and that “It will make better girls, nobler wives, happier mothers.” (I had to go see if there were used copies on Amazon.  There were.  Of course I had to get one!)   In keeping with the Social Gospel movement, the first chapter discusses “The Body The Temple of The Soul.”  However, (horror of horrors) this book is advertised to contain “scores of drawings showing the reproduction organs of women.”  It has an entire chapter dedicated to “The Marriage Relations.” Where are my smelling salts??) 

Mrs. Gregory continues her lecture on Toilet Suggestions by giving us a little dermatology lesson under The Complexion:

Blessed is the woman who has a clear complexion.  She little knows how much she has to be thankful for, and since these women are very scarce it behooves the rest of us to make up by the care we take of our complexion where nature has slighted us. The principle source of a bad complexion in otherwise healthy women is generally caused by comedos, commonly called flesh worms [okay, gross].  This is specifically a disease of puberty and consequently self-limited.  These are affections of the sebaceous glands of the skin and consequently prevented by keeping it in a healthy condition…

To conclude her beauty tutorial, Mrs. Gregory addresses a topic that women’s magazines everywhere are still obsessing over today, How To Obtain A Handsome Form:

Many a rich lady would give all her fortune to possess the expanded chest and rounded arm of her kitchen girl.  Well, she might have had both by the same amount of exercise and spare living…I knew a young lady, who, at twenty-two years of age, in a great degree overcame the deformity of bad arms…she walked every day several hours in the open air, and never neglected the constant daily use of dumb-bells.

One really couldn’t go wrong with that prescription. Those kitchen girls worked awfully hard back then (just think of little Daisy in Downton Abbey)!

Well, there you have it: food, housekeeping, and beauty advice, circa 1902.  The Woman’s Favorite Cook Book tells you, in no uncertain terms, precisely what you must do to be saved from domestic chaos.  I doubt Mrs. Gregory would think much of my housekeeping skills (true confession: my windows are definitely smudgy), and possibly she might critique my lack of maids, footmen, cooks, and staff, which she seemed to find indispensable, especially when throwing parties.  I have a sneaking suspicion she had more money than I ever will, and that she kept a flask in the pantry (just for emergencies).  Nobody could really be this uptight all the time!   At least, you'd hope not.