Detail of a handwritten page of a book titled: a wound drink.

Digitizing Material Culture: Handwritten Recipe Books, 1600–1900

By John Rees

Cookbooks and recipe books have always been popular with students of history and family genealogy. They are tangible artifacts of past lives lived that we can often trace back directly to our immediate or distant relatives offering a historical window perhaps even into dishes and remedies we still use today or fondly remember from childhood.

Cookery, alchemy, and medicine were closely intertwined in pre-modern Europe up to the 1800s. Recipes and advice for food preparation and preservation, animal husbandry, preparing useful household concoctions, and allopathic medicines and treatments for maintaining personal health were available in books via a growing publication industry and shared between friends, family, and neighbors. The head of a household would often record these in ‘receipt’ books, of which the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection holds a good number and has recently embarked on a project to digitize and make available in NLM Digital Collections.

‘Receipt’ books are now commonly termed ‘recipe’ books; indeed, their compilers used both terms to describe these texts. Today these two words have distinct meaning different than in the 15th through 18th centuries. The word ‘receipt’ derives from the Latin ‘recipere’ meaning “to receive” or “to take.” Both ‘receipt’ and ‘recipe’ originally referred to medicinal preparations. These would be either literally prescriptions with lists of ingredients, or loose instructions for mixing herbs, plant extractions, and foodstuffs. ‘Receipt’ was often abbreviated to a capital R with an X through it, becoming the ℞ symbol used by our modern pharmacies today.

Detail of a handwritten page of a book titled: a wound drink.
Detail of Recipe book of William Frye, ca. 1696
National Library of Medicine #101233151 (p. 203)

Many of the recipe books that survive today and that libraries buy from rare book dealers were the domain of the high culture in Europe’s early modern period. They would be found in the manor houses of aristocracy and large land owners. The ones in NLM’s collections largely come from England and Scotland, with a few from Germany and Holland. Many of our recipe books are anonymous but others are attributable, usually to women.

Instructions for treating dropsy (edema), blood humors (diarrhea), agues (shivers), and melancholic wind (those with young children will easily guess the modern corollary) are commonly found in most recipe books. They are indicative of contemporary medical knowledge which was less about treating disease than keeping the body’s four humors in balance—you will not likely find a treatment for a broken leg or heart attack here. It was thought that a person’s temperament and health were controlled by the body’s fluids and any sickness or disease could be attributed to their imbalance.

Practical needs, more akin to alchemy or chemistry, were also addressed, such as curing meats, waterproofing boots, making ink, tooth powder, and curing the bite of a mad dog or venomous animals. (OK, how often does one encounter a mad dog even in the 17th century? Based on the number of entries, more often than you might expect!)

Recipes consisted of products commonly available in kitchens of the day and were usually food-based instead of chemical. Rose and violet water or syrup, known for their digestive aid qualities, are common ingredients. Licorice, anise seeds, cinnamon, wormwood, sage, and fennel are common as well, regardless of the symptom being treated.

Some of my favorites:

Find these in books in NLM Digital Collections:

Biting of mad dogs, 1670–1722 (p. 166)

For the bloody flux, ca. 1750 (p. 74)

For a fever or ague, ca. 1750 (p. 57)

Spirit of lavender, 1776–1809 (p. 32)

King’s Evil (scrofula), ca. 1696 (p. 198)

A diet drink to correct sharp humors in the blood, 1776–1809 (p. 8)

While some recipe books were maintained by the male household head, women are most often the source of these works. A growing historiography about recipe books as compiled in publications such as Michelle DiMeo and Sara Penell’s Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800 (2013), the Folger Library’s 2011 exhibition Beyond Home Remedy, and the online scholars community The Recipes Project explores these books as artifacts documenting the history of domestic practices, and examines them as evidence of social networks, power relationships, and the transmission of scientific and medical knowledge.

For Example, Elizabeth Strachey’s A book of receipts of all sorts, started in 1693 and continued by her daughter until at least 1727, provides examples of features used by cultural historians using research techniques such as intertexual analysis—how texts relate and refer to each other—to explore these questions.. The Strachey family lived in a manor house named Sutton Court in the countryside of Somerset, about 10 miles south of Bristol (the philosopher, John Locke grew up a few miles away and was a family friend).

A large stone manor house on a lawn.
Sutton Court, rear facade, 2013
Source: Rodw via Wikimedia
The recipes in Strachey’s book provide evidence of the social dynamics of life at Sutton Court. They come from a variety of sources with the names of sources written near the title. Annotations like “Mrs. Barbers Red powder,” “Lady Hewitt’s water,” “Couzin St. Loe,” and “Doctor Chambers his water” show that her sources consisted of neighbors, family, and local doctors. Others were copied from printed recipe books. One explanation for these annotations is that they are symbolic of power relationships–Doctor Chambers and Lady Hewitt might be of such status that having their recipes was an honor and privilege. These annotations are also evidence that Strachey was not constrained to Sutton Court, but moved in a variety of social and business circles.

Historians also use annotations such as “approved by Mrs. Newark” as evidence that women of the era participated in scientific and medical pursuits. ‘Approved’ indicates that the recipe was tried and tested, not taken on faith as useful. Strachey herself might have acquired this knowledge of science from her geologist husband, but the ubiquity of ‘approved’ across  recipe books argues for a more generalized view that women of similar status as Strachey participated in the production and exchange of scientific knowledge and complex information exchange–between men and women regardless of marital status.

Recipe books are undoubtedly rare pieces of material cultural to have survived from Europe’s early modern history. But in special collection libraries or private collections these rare books are divorced from their original context, which would provide more definitive evidence of their uses. In many cases, we only know they exist–not why they were created or for whom exactly, when were they used, where were they stored or with what other texts.

We invite you to explore our newly digitized receipt book collections, and those of other libraries, to make your own discoveries.

Portrait of John Rees outside on the water.John Rees is Archivist and Digital Resources Manager for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


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