Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Well Prepared Dish

Object: Book, Mackenzie's Receipts
Accession#: 1988.0023

This leather bound book published in Philadelphia in 1827covers a broad spectrum of subjects, from metallurgy to husbandry. Mackenzie’s Receipts or Five Thousand Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts constituting a complete and universal practical library and operative Encyclopedia, which is its full title, also covers the subject of the culinary arts.  Several recipes and directions are under the subject of cookery, which is sub-divided into the sections of soups, pastry, confectionary, pickling, and preserving.  Mrs. Randolph might have consulted the pages of a book such as this one when planning her meals and advise the slaves how to cook dishes on the plantation.
A cook on a plantation, such as Wilton, faced hours of preparation for the afternoon meal as well as ensuring the fire was stoked.  The kitchen, which was a separate building at most plantation homes, was where all of this hard work took place.  On a plantation the size of Wilton, the kitchen would need to be supplied with a variety of foods.  Mrs. Randolph likely spent a lot of time supervising and directing the meal preparation.  It was the duty of the housewife to make sure that there was a well supplied cellar of meats, vegetables, and  preserved fruits to supply her dinner table for guests.  Dinner would have been, as one historian attests, “one of the most visible symbols of the success of a lady as a housekeeper.”  In wintertime, dinners included a large assortment of vegetables to compliment the roasted or broiled meats served.  Many delectable sweets would have been served for dessert, which may have included jellies, cakes, cookies, and puddings.

Walking into a kitchen during the eighteenth century, one would meet a series of aromas and odors, cooking tools and gadgets, and intense heat.  A huge brick fireplace with an iron crane attached to the walls of the chimney which would support pot hangers holding large pots and kettles over the roaring fire.  The pot hangers could be raised or lowered to adjust the temperature.  A swinging crane was used to move the pots and pans out from the fire.  A metal shield may have conveniently been placed next to the fire for use by the cook to “hasten” or keep the heat which made the food cook faster.  Boiling and roasting were the most common means of cooking meat.  Roasting was done on a spit turned, in wealthy households, by a jack driven by clockwork weights, smoke, and the winding and unwinding of cords.  A long metal pan would lay under the roasting meat to catch any drippings, which would be used in the gravies.  Potatoes and pieces of cut up meat were also put in this pan to be cooked. One historian points out, “scarcely a main dish was served without [sauce]” whose main ingredient was gravy. (see above recipe from Mackenzie's Receipts)

Brick ovens, which were used exclusively for bread, cake, and pastry,  were also common by the 1770s in larger plantation kitchens of Virginia.  The oven door was left open a crack to allow smoke to escape and oxygen to enter the oven to keep the fire going.  One historian points out that, “Baking was a highly organized, efficient operation in which none of the precious heat of the oven was allowed to go to waste.”  A peel, a long handled wooden shovel, was used to take baked goods in and out of the oven without the cook being burned. 

Cakes were “one of the staples of the well fed household” which took a lot of preparation as the cook would have to “pulverize, sugar [from loaves or cones], grind the spices, free the flour from possible bugs, [and] beat egg yolks with rods.”  The cake is one example of a popular dessert whose preparation shows how much work was needed to prepare each course of a dinner served in the 18th and 19th century. 

The culinary arts, in Mackenzie’s, opinion was one of the subjects he wanted to preserve in his book.  In the preface of this 1827 edition, he states, “In a truth, the present volume has been compiled under the feeling, that if all other books of sciences in the world were destroyed, this single volume would be found to embody the results of the useful experience, observations, and discoveries of mankind during the past ages of the world.”  Food, how it is cooked and served, continues to be important today as it was in the time the Randolphs lived.  Around mid-December, Mrs. Randolph might have started planning the Twelfth night meal and consulted the pages of books similar to this one to pick out the perfect dishes to impress the palates of her visitors. 


Carson, Jane. Colonial Virginia Cookery. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg:
Caruba, Rebecca. Colonial Cooking. Hammond Inc. Maplewood: 1975.
Crump, Nancy Carter.  Hearthside Cooking. EPM Publications, Inc. Mclean: 1986.
Dosier, Susan. Colonial Cooking. Capstone Press. Minnesota: 2000.
Garrett, Elizabeth Donaghy. At Home: The American Family 1750-1870. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 
New York: 1990.
Schmidt, Patricia Brady, ed. Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book. Historic New Orleans
Collection, New Orleans: 1997.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Well Heeled

Object: Women’s Shoes
Accession #: 1900.0069

         By the time of the Randolphs and the founding of Wilton in the 18th century, the trades of tailor, shoemaker, and makers of other such personal accessories were well established in the colonies.  However, some upper-class American families still enjoyed ordering these items from Europe.  Due to Europe’s vast trade routes, colonists, while purchasing their clothes from England, could be wearing textiles from all over the world – such as linen from Holland or silk from China. 

            As early as 1616 the shoemaking trade was popular in the colonies.  Not only did the colonies have skilled shoemakers and bootmakers, they also imported ready-made shoes from Europe.  Yet, as mentioned, some colonists preferred to order their footwear from England to keep abreast of the current European fashion trends.  In order for a shoemaker in England to create footwear to fit the feet of a colonist in America a few different ways to describe shoe size were developed.  One way was to measure the feet in inches and then send those measurements to the shoemaker.  Another way was for the customer to send a shoe they owned to the shoemaker, thus, allowing the shoemaker to assemble the new shoe to the same measurements as the old shoe.  A third way was to ask for a shoe fit for a person of a specific age: “Shoes and Pumps for a Boy of eight years old.”  Interestingly, a common way to order shoes for women was by a “standard” shoe size; however, these sizes were in no way universal.
            Upper-class colonial women’s shoes were very elegant but somewhat fragile.  They were often made from silk or worsted1 and had narrow soles with a heel a few inches high.  Heels on shoes for both genders were a very popular trend during the 17th and 18th centuries and were an indicator of the wearer’s wealth and status. 

            Wilton’s collection contains a pair of white satin and kid2 women’s pumps made between the late 18th and early 19th century.  Although they did not have ties or shoelaces, the latchets3 of these shoes identify them as “laced” shoes and would have been fastened with shoe buckles4.  Buckles were separate, removable items which could be transferred from shoe to shoe.  A label inside one of these shoes identifies the shoemaker as “Chamberlain and Sons Shoemaker in Cheapside, London.”  An inscription on the bottom of the shoe reads “S.C. Madison.”  According to their provenance, the shoes were once owned by Sally Catlett Madison Macon (1764-1843) and worn on her wedding day in 1803 when she married Thomas Macon.  Sally Madison was the sister of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison.
1  Worsted is a fabric made from smooth, compact yarn from long wool fibers.
2  Kid is a type of leather made from goatskin.
3  Latches are overlapping flaps on the top of the shoe.
4  An example of buckles can be found on this blog under the entry “Finery for the Occasion.”


Baumgarten, Linda. Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation , 1986. eBook.

Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. Print.

O'Keeffee, Linda. Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers, and More. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1996. eBook.

 "Search the Collections." Victoria and Albert Museum. N.p., 4 2012. Web. 10 Dec 2012. <>.

Tunis, Edwin. Colonial Living. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. eBook.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Designed To Perfection: Mark Catesby's Natural History

     In 1712, English naturalist Mark Catesby took his maiden voyage across the Atlantic to Virginia.  Little did the young Catesby know that this would not be his last such journey, and would open his eyes to a new world still largely unknown to the Old World.  This initial trip was solely for the purpose of visiting his sister, Elizabeth Cocke.  Elizabeth’s husband, Dr. William Cocke, was a very prominent physician and advisor to Governor Alexander Spotswood.  It was through Dr. Cocke and his prominent Virginia connections that Catesby would find his way into the grand homes of the Commonwealth’s elite.
     After spending the better part of seven years in Virginia, Catesby returned to England, but only for a brief period before journeying to North America, again.  This second trip would bring Catesby for business, rather than pleasure.  Under the sponsorship of the Royal Society, an organization composed of English aristocracy and the scientifically minded, Catesby was able to make the voyage to Charleston, South Carolina to begin a four-year study on the flora and fauna of British North America.  The result of his extensive research produced Catesby’s most noted work, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.  From his arrival in Charleston in 1722 to the completion of his Natural History in 1747, Catesby would devote twenty-seven of his sixty-six years to this first extensive survey of the flora and fauna of the entire region. 

     Noted for its beauty and exhaustive detail, his work would be collected by kings and queens, lords and ladies, as well as the lesser elite and well-to-do of England and continental Europe.  Catesby’s star would fade for much of the 19th century as naturalists in Europe and the United States, with greater knowledge and understanding of wildlife in their regions, began producing more detailed surveys of the local flora and fauna.

     The 20th century brought the spotlight back to Mark Catesby, with the rise in sales of the various editions of Catesby’s work.  In the late-20th century, Queen Elizabeth II’s collection of Catesby’s works, inherited from her ancestor King George III, travelled on exhibition.  In 2012, Mark Catesby returns to the limelight again, as the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s first arrival in Virginia is celebrated and remembered.  On October 25, 2012, Wilton House Museum will open its exhibition Designed To Perfection: Mark Catesby’s Natural History, featuring prints by the acclaimed naturalist and engraver.