History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Empty-Headed or Future Leaders? Cooking-School Pupils in the 1800s


I wrote the other day about the market savvy of Elizabeth Goodfellow, who ran the first cooking school in the United States.  Mrs. Goodfellow, Becky Libourel Diamond explains in her study of the enterprising woman, was a Philadelphia pastry chef in the early decades of the 1800s.  She had a thriving retail and catering business and also offered cooking lessons.

Diamond tells us that Mrs. Goodfellow’s students were typically well-off young ladies in the marriage market.  Knowing how to cook would help them catch and keep a husband and therefore their mothers, wise in the ways of the world, sent them to Mrs. Goodfellow’s school.  Moreover, Diamond adds, the mark of a good hostess was her ability to execute delicious and stunning desserts.  In high society, she says, people talked when a lady’s dessert course did not measure up.

The young ladies in Mrs. Goodfellow’s classes had good reason to be attentive pupils, as Diamond tells it, but nonetheless they didn’t always want to be there.  “Some of the girls tittered together,” she writes, “and didn’t seem overly eager to learn.”  The sensible teacher, however, took them in hand and focused them on the tasks at hand.

Diamond’s sources may well recount such a scene and, as she relates it, the girls come across as fairly empty-headed.  Whether or not they wanted to take cooking lessons, however, they may have been far from empty-headed.  In the decades after the American Revolution, women’s education had blossomed.  Just as scores of colleges and seminaries for men were founded in that era, so were academies for young women.  Well-to do parents (and a few who were less well-placed in society) sent their daughters to these institutions to pursue educations that rivaled their brothers’.  Historian Mary Kelley explains that in these schools, women learned “to stand and speak.”  They came to see themselves as full-fledged citizens.  After their formal schooling was over, these women kept up their intellectual and civic engagement through teaching, writing for publication, and leading, most notably in the women’s rights movement of the 1840s and ’50s.

Were Mrs. Goodfellow’s students not only well-off but also well-educated?  Did young women who had “learned to stand and speak” remain resentful of their schooling in the culinary arts?  Or in time did their views of Mrs. Goodfellow change?  Did they come to see her as they come to see her as the kind of accomplished and independent woman they might be?  Was she a teacher in more ways than one?

5 thoughts on “Empty-Headed or Future Leaders? Cooking-School Pupils in the 1800s

  1. A Danish friend of mine told me this story. A week or 2 after she had had her first baby in the mid-1970s, she gave a dinner party. She thought the meal was very good. Her husband made the dessert. After the party the only recipe requested was the dessert recipe. Perhaps some things never change!

  2. Pingback: Spanish recipes in the 19th c. U.S. — A Tribute to Penelope Casas | History's Just Desserts

  3. Pingback: A Pastry School in Colonial Boston | History's Just Desserts

  4. Pingback: History's Just Desserts

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