Cooking Up History: ‘Kitchen Klatter’ and Other Resources of Home Economy

During the course of reading a fabulous book called The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski (to learn more please read my post here), the author references and used as source material the databases available to us through the digitizing of many publications from the early 20th century. One such database is called HEARTH – Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, and History – maintained by Cornell University (see link here).

The HEARTH collection encompasses a stunning array of books, journals, and articles on the art of home economy, domestic science, and home making. A treasure trove…if you know how to value it.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

Shooting from the hip: I’m a traditionalist and a sentimentalist, so I find the underappreciated quantity of research and practical information produced by the early 20th century home economists a tragedy. When did we stop valuing the efficient, sanitary, effective, imaginative, joyful making of the home? Have we stopped living in homes? Do we somehow not need to have economic savvy anymore? Is sanitation a thing of the past?

The modern feminist movement has achieved many of its purposes, but unfortunately in many cases it has done so at the expense of and through degrading the contribution and acumen of home makers, “home women” as Przybyszewski puts it, and home economists. This is short sighted, and rather sad. We have suffered for underappreciating the value of women who choose to focus their lives on making a home and raising children.

So what to do? Legislation? Protests? Long social media rants? Um, as if there is any shortage of those things these days.

How about simple appreciation?

Start with a little knowledge. Look into some of the published works of the generation that valued home economics. Find out what savvy they accrued and put it to work!

The HEARTH collection is one place to start, but another is the folksy magazine produced by Leanna Field Driftmier (1886-1976) an Iowa farm wife and educator. She produced a highly popular and long running early radio show on home making topics, and later translated that knowledge to a newsletter-style magazine, Kitchen Klatter.

The Iowa Heritage database preserves many issues of this publication. Take a moment to explore them. Try some of the recipes, and maybe you will find a practical tip or two to make your life a little more efficient and economic! Don’t undervalue these kind of resources in your quest to understand the past. They aren’t flashy, but they help us understand the daily lives of our predecessors in the past.

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Praising John Adams

The U.S. had its fair share of kingmakers and quasi-aristocrats in its early years, but the venerable John Adams seems not to have been among them. That didn’t stop his opponents from labeling the force behind the Declaration of Independence a royalist!

From a farm in Braintree, Massachusetts and working as a lawyer in Boston and environs, Adams stood up for what was right and faced down those with whom he disagreed, most vociferously at times and sometimes to the annoyance of others – many others.

However, an aristocrat he was not and seemed not to have been riddled by the double standards that plagued Jefferson and others. He is fast becoming one of my favorite patriots of the revolutionary period.

I draw these conclusions from the masterful biography, John Adams, written by David McCullough. I know that it doesn’t do to rely only on one book to try to understand an historical figure, but I was struck by the fairness of McCullough’s approach to Adams, his friends, and his enemies.

The author treats his subjects as men with all their flaws, but doesn’t deny that they were extraordinary men in extraordinary times. Especially touching is the skillful way he weaves in the relationship between John and Abigail Adams and that of their extended family. Their vast letter writing capacity despite years and years of separation proves that a happy marriage isn’t based solely on the physical, but requires a strong intellectual attraction as well.

I strongly recommend this book as a basic primer on Adams. McCullough’s very approachable style of writing turns a somewhat lengthy book into a compelling page-turner. If you are trying to sink your teeth into history, this is a good place to start. I will admit that it slows as the narrative follows Adams life to its close, but perhaps that is because the 1770’s in America were so packed with action that the 1820’s seem placid in comparison.

For the interested historian John Adams is a fabulous resource of excerpts from letters and written works by Adams and others. A good author knows how and when to use a source directly rather than a paraphrase and this book is proof of that. Hearing the subject in his own words helps us draw a better picture of the man, more so because Adams was a straightforward individual (agree with him or not) and free of rank political duplicity.

Great book, great man, great marriage – great history.

– Amanda Stiver

Play Me A Dirge, Matey…

A few years ago my folks were out on a garage sale tour and they came across an estate sale with a significant collection of books. Garage sales are fun on their own, but with the added incentive of books they are irresistible, to me at least. So I went along.

The collection was breaking up at a rapid pace, but before they disappeared I located part of a series of Time-Life books called The Seafarers. I ended up with eight volumes out of a set of 22.

Ever since high school when I read C.S. Forrester’s Captain Hornblower I have been curious about naval history. I’ve not sailed, but have had the chance to tour a replica of Captain Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour and my haul at the estate sale came as a boost to my curiosity.

Would you be interested in buying…

I remember commercials for Time-Life books when I was a kid, but I didn’t realize, until I got my hands on the nautical volumes, how detailed and fascinating they were. The illustrations are spectacular and the writing very approachable.

Collections of books like the ones sold by Time-Life take me back to the days of encyclopedia sets as well. My mom tells me childhood stories of curling up with a crunchy apple or wedge of cabbage and reading through a volume of the encyclopedia. I remember going through our own set and being fascinating by the pictures and the concise descriptions or explanations of various entries – mostly scientific.

The history of science

It wasn’t until my parents did some research that we learned the rocky relationship encyclopedias have had with history. Early on in the 18th century these compendiums of knowledge contained history as well as the burgeoning study of science and the natural world. This trend continued until the early 20th century, around WWI. At this point the history got dropped in favor of the multitude of scientific discoveries that were coming along at a rapid pace.

Our modern default setting is for science and scientific proof to back up even historical discoveries. Sometimes this “proof” is debatable, science itself not being a science, but an art and subject to interpretation. Human witness can get relegated to second place behind scientific substantiation in anthropological and archeological pursuits. Perhaps not always without cause, humans can be liars.

Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy the pages of well-reasoned, carefully researched history and see if someday I can track down a few more volumes of The Seafarers.

When is history fact – wait, let me revise that…

Human interest in its own history has been around for, well, since humanity began. Through different means – oral, written, re-enacted – has history been passed down between generations. It was important to live up to the expectations and deeds of the elders.

Herodotus is given credit for being the father of history, but if we look further back we will find that various cultures had already been recording their history in writing. The Israelites spring to mind with the earliest historical works in the Bible: the five books of Moses.

Were all of these accounts (Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Israelite, etc.) factual? Some yes, some no. Do humans revise their history? Certainly. So are there really facts in history? Yes – the key is how to find and organize them to accurately understand an historic event.

You printed what?

Think of a reporter in an old black and white film, being chewed out by the editor of the paper for not getting the facts. The editor goes on to remind the wayward employee that he needs to get back to the basics – who, when, where, what and then, maybe, how and why!

Reporting or researching history works along the same lines. Who was involved in the event in question? When did it occur? Where? What kind of event was it? These can usually be verified by physical evidence – inscriptions, written records, archeological ruins, etc.

When the concrete details are corralled, then the suppositions may begin. How was it done? And, most iffy of all – why it happened?

It’s like working through one of those logic puzzles, with a series of clues and a criss-cross chart. Verify the easy items first. Then come the mental gymnastics.

See, what I really meant was…

Revise means to correct or improve – not a bad idea if past research was flawed or a supposition was off base because of societal taboos or bias. It has another meaning, slightly less virtuous sounding – to amend (not so bad) or alter (hmm, bad).

Alteration to rectify a mistaken fact is what history is about, but altering an historic record to change the interpretation based on current societal bias, personal opinion or grudge isn’t history – it’s misleading and dishonest. Ironically, the record of human history is full of this kind of revision.

To see through revision, learn about the authors; find out their philosophy of history. Then if you subtract the bias of their philosophy, does their interpretation still hold up? Be your own historian, be it academic history or any story or human event because, tomorrow, it will all be history!

The Internet: Research Tool

In my college days the Internet as a research tool had the reputation of a con artist heading up a charity. Academia didn’t like the idea of all that unsubstantiated “chatter” out there.

Well, times are changing and a little over a decade has given the Internet a sheen of respectability. It’s still a jungle of information but not a dead loss.

The Internet is a useful tour guide. With regard to history, Wikipedia and the like are a good starting point if you want basic information and are prepared to swim through a river of bias to get it. Encyclopedic sites that are reader-written have obvious problems – anybody can say anything!

Start there and move on to verifiable sources: books, official journals, news items (although, depending on source and with the political bias of many news sources, take them with a grain of salt), and official websites. Some of these are available on the Internet. And then there are story verifying watchdog sites (like Snopes) that come in handy.

Find the Facts

“Verify, verify, verify” is the catch phrase of Internet research. So much information, often self-published, is circulating that you have to consider it questionable until you have two or three sources to back it up.

If I’m trying to recall an historical event and it’s just barely escaping me, search engines can take the details I do remember and lead me back to the source. That is the beauty of the being online.

I’d like to say a word for online bookstores, like Amazon, and their review pages. Thrown in with the occasional crank are useful bits of information that may lead to another book or source of study.

Research on the Internet is still much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with part of the information here, another fact there, mixed in with a lot of repetition, or on the downside, a bunch of lies.

Tread the river of information carefully, and be grateful we have the freedom to produce it!