Unboxing My Ancestress’ Recipe Book

Today begins the big blog project that I alluded to in my previous post. Today I’m cracking open an old family treasure that was passed down to me–a cookbook with possible 1800’s roots which I will be exploring, page by page, in this and future weekly blog posts.

~ Treasure Box

I keep the book inside this box, which is in turn stored inside a padded, zippered bag with metal frame on the second floor of my home (so that any flooding won’t touch it), away from my kitchen (so that no kitchen fires could ever harm it).

This storage box is archival quality, acid-free, etc–I purchased it from an archive supply company for the specific purpose of protecting the book from further wear and tear. The way this book came to me is such a miraculous story (I’ll share it in an upcoming blog post) that I could never bear to lose it–I must keep it safe.

The book, inside, is spellbinding, is it not? That was the inspiration for my blog name, NellBound–a play on words because I am both bound to the ancestress who kept this book (Helen, aka “Nell”), I am spellbound *by* the book, and I am bound to her by both blood, and as DNA tests uncovered some of my ancestresses have been removed from my biological family tree, but research in documents uncovered that where there is no biological connection, we remain bound by ties of love, nurturing, and legal definitions of family that transcend biology.

~ The Book

Note the homemade cloth tabs for categories; aren’t they precious?

So this book has become a very powerful symbol in my life–I will be blogging about it weekly, page by page, lifting its secrets, researching them, and sharing them with you.

See the numbers on the binding? Being a professional genealogist, I had to research it (I am still researching the cover, which I have not yet shown you–stay tuned for a future blog post about it!).

Here is the patent design I uncovered in relation to the patent number:

The date on this patent says 1892. The ancestor to whom this book is purported to have belonged was born in 1893. This book could certainly been in production for many years after 1892, however–and it could also have been a gift placed in her girlhood trousseau by her mother. Or, the book could have been handed down from an older female relative. The best way to find out is to research its contents on the inside. Which you get to watch me do now:

By researching each individual clipping, I got a better idea of the timeline for what magazines my ancestress was reading and when she was putting this book together.

~ The Toast

First, the “Prohibition Toast”

Prohibition was the law between 1920 and 1933 in the United States. I got a big kick out of this clipping because, after my own dad died of colon cancer (when I was twenty) we found a file folder full of humorous newspaper clippings and jokes that he had collected over the years. Apparently his funny bone runs is an inherited trait.

But knowing the year span wasn’t enough for this genealogist–I really wanted to know if this had been clipped from any local papers. I searched for these words and didn’t find them in any of California’s papers (where Nell is from), but I did find it in a magazine I had never heard of before!

Here is a copy of the clipping where I found it, at the end of an article in the Green Book Magazine, volume 15, dated April 1916, page 596:

The issue where I found my ancestor’s clipping

The Green Book Magazine was a periodical issued monthly and which featured articles, opinion pieces, and fiction, as well as cartoonish caricature drawings and lifelike portrait sketches of the who’s who in the theater scene, later including photographs, once cameras entered the scene.

The mystery here is: if prohibition didn’t start until 1920, why were they printing a prohibition prayer in a 1916 magazine? Did even magazine writers see the forest for the trees by as early as 1916? Was prohibition already such a buzzword even four years before the law passed that they were able to laugh about it, to even draft humorous brindisi about their upcoming loss of beverage rights? If so, those thirteen years in which prohibition was actually a law must have been very, very long for drinkers.

~ The Budget Life Clipping

Next I found an quirky clipping that I knew I would not find in any California newspapers nor in any magazines for obvious reasons–it was apparent that it had come from some sort of cookbook:

This clipping, like the prohibition joke, serves no utilitarian purpose in the book, but really clues me in to the personality of my ancestress. When she sees her objective typed up nice and neat in another publication, she grabs it and makes it hers for the taking (and pasting), and isn’t afraid to paste it alongside bawdy temperance jokes.

And, oh yeah, a Kewpie cook with an apron and a naked tushie:

How’s THAT for a vision board?

Dang, I love this woman already.

Anyway, back to the blurb above–

I found a copy of it, though not in the exact the exact same font, in a Savory Steamer Prize Recipe book, which accompanied the purchase of their metalware pots in the early 1900’s. The cookbook on the UNC Greensboro Special Collections web site is dated 1913, but it is, again a different version than mine in a different font (though the exact same wording as Nell’s clipping), so I can’t be sure of the date.

The cookbook itself is absolutely charming, and can be downloaded as a PDF from the UNC Greensboro site that I linked to above:

Researching one clipping helped me discover that my ancestor may have owned the pot pictured here

When I researched the pot and recipe book, I discovered ads in all sorts of magazines that told women if they ordered this pot, they’d get this cookbook with it, but also ads telling women to call and order a free copy of the book, too–

For example, this ad in a 1912 copy of Cosmopolitan tells readers they can write in and get a FREE recipe book:

Check out the top half of the ad, too–notice the little Dutch girl up in the corner?

My ancestress clipped a little Dutch girl and put her in the center of this page with a funny little quote at her feet:

The caption on this little clipping reads: “Vy should veak vimmen vork vhen mens iss so plenty?” (Translation: Why should we [weak?] women work when men are so plenty?)

I get couple of things from this clipping, combined with the Dutch girl, above. One, just how en vogue Dutch girls were around this time in early America (I’m sure you all have seen the Dutch girl branch kitchenware, foods etc). And two, yet another glimpse at Nell’s sense of humor. For a cookbook, this thing is giving me more giggles than I had expected. As I mentioned in my previous post, family history can be very therapeutic, and working with Nell’s book has been no exception! 🙂

By 1916, the company making the savory cookbook was no longer giving it away–they were giving away placecards instead and offering the recipe book with this blurb only upon purchase of their pan:


Nov. 1916 Good Housekeeping, Vol. 63, p. 206.

But based on what I know of human behavior and housewares purchasing as a homemaker and cookbook user myself, I would date the snippet in Nell’s cookbook closer to the 1916 Good Housekeeping ad and not the 1912 Cosmopolitan/1913 UNC Greensboro copy of the cookbook. Here’s why:

Because first of all, it doesn’t resemble the text of the UNC copy. And second, if she actually owned the pan (as she needed to in order to get the 1912 version), I don’t think she’d want to cut it up–at least, I wouldn’t. I typically try to keep around books that go with products I own. However. If I had received a free book in the mail for a product I didn’t own, sure why not–I wouldn’t mind hacking it to bits or repurposing it for something else.

~ The Joke I Don’t Get

Next up is a clipping that makes zero sense to me. I think it is supposed to be a joke?

Problem is, I don’t get the joke. Could be because I am Mormon and Mormons don’t drink tea. We can have herbal tea, but we don’t drink stuff with habit-forming stimulants, so I guess that’s why I don’t “get” the punchline? Anybody care to explain this to me? Is it an early 1900’s thing? A British thing? What is it?

Regardless, I found out that my ancestor clipped this from American Cookery magazine (again with the magazines! Here I thought I’d be finding these in newspapers. Huh. Did nobody read the newspapers? Maybe her husband did that).

Here’s a snapshot of the original context for this clipping:

American Cookery magazine, vol. 20 (Boston: Boston Cooking School, 1916), p. 648.

Check out the ad for a home study course in domestic science–love it!

By the way, this  clipping appears at the tail end of a mini-article on  the importance of not cooking breakfast cereal for longer than eight minutes.

The 1916 date aligns with the 1916 Good Housekeeping date I had picked for that Savory roaster cookbook blurb, too, which is a cool coincidence (I discovered these in different order than I am blogging about them).

But Nell’s choice to include this in her cookbook, again, speaks so much to her personality.

Given that I don’t get the joke, this aspect of her personality will be an enigma to me–for the time being. 🙂

~ Progressive Investigative Housewife

Now this last Clipping still makes me chuckle. When I first saw it, devoid of any context, well, let me tell you what ran through my mind . . .

I really liked the thought of my ancestress clipping and saving this–all this talk of being an investigative, progressive homemaker really resonated with me, because I come from a long line of really progressive, liberated women. My paternal grandmother, for example, was college educated and so committed to social justice that the family joke I heard growing up was that she referred to chigger insects as “chegroes” so as to never even come close to the “n” word in her lexicon. My maternal grandmother was also a college educated teacher with an incredibly open mind and heart. My goal is to pass their legacy on through the future branches of our family tree via my children.

However, while I pictured her investigating matters of the heart or finances and being politically progressive, my research into the context of this clipping turned up something laughably different–

                      Good Housekeeping Magazine, Vol 61, no. 1, July 1915, p. 832.

Turns out, this article is all about seasonal eating for maximum body fuel/nutrition. The progressive/investigative housewifery referred to here was actually a reference to investigative sniffing out of the proper foods/fuels for her household, and the progressive use of proper foods at the right time of year, no matter what the Joneses are eating. Huh.

Same general time period as the other clippings

But still–

The fact that my ancestress was herself a progressive woman (she had only one child in an era of large families and drafted herself into the military during WWI as a married woman, separating herself from her husband!), gives me a bit of license to wonder if maybe she liked this blurb a bit better when divorced from its context.

~ Other Embellishments

The remaining pieces on this page are embellishments; fun little statements that again speak to Nell’s personality. I think of them as a hodgepodge–her combination vision-board blurbs, mission-statement mantras, and humorous quips. They are what make this book such a delight to peruse:




Oh, and apparently the phone number of a friend that she jotted down one day:

Kind of hard to see because I’m shooting this all with my iPhone FIVE. One of these days I’ll work my way up to a phone from this decade, lol!

I can’t wait to explore the next pages with you all as we become better acquainted with my amazing ancestress and her incredible personality via the clippings in her book.



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