History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

A Pastry School in Colonial Boston

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This year I’ll be teaching a series of historic cooking and baking classes at DC’s terrific Hill Center.

A while ago I mentioned that my plans to teach my first historic baking class got me curious about culinary education in early America.  A Philadelphia pastry chef, Elizabeth Goodfellow, I learned from Becky Diamond’s fascinating book, ran the first cooking school in the United States, in the first decades of the 1800s.  Working on my new classes got me thinking again about Mrs. Goodfellow and, especially, her predecessors.

I had read that before the 1800s, chefs in America had taught cooking lessons, but Mrs. Goodfellow’s was the first cooking school.  What, I wondered, could I learn about cooking lessons in the 1700s?

Where else to start digging but newspaper ads?  I searched the remarkable digital America’s Historical Newspapers, for the word “pastry” to see what I would find.  (I’ll just pause here to make a public service announcement for any students out there: Digital resources are but one tool in historical research.  Colleagues, no need to thank me.)

What I came upon surprised me.  “The Pastry School and Painting upon Glass, and plain work, Marking, Flowering, and Embroidering, may be learned in the House where Mr. Perkins kept his Dancing-School, right over against Mr. Astin’s the Apothecary, in the South-End,” advertised one Margaret Mackellwen of Boston in November and December of 1736.  In short, there was a school teaching pastry in Boston as early as the 1730s!

Who was Margaret Mackellwen?  Did her school last long?  And did many people plunk down money for classes?  I haven’t yet turned up any more information, but I’m eager to learn more.

Margaret Mackellwen’s ad surprised me, but it did not astonish me.  After all, Mackellwen’s venture belonged to a time when Americans were embracing a consumer culture.  In the 1700s, people throughout the British empire built a global commercial economy.  As a result, many Americans, like their British counterparts, had more money to spend, though others found themselves squeezed harder.  Those who could spend, did.  They increasingly graced their tables with tea sets, decorated their homes with carpets – Persian, Scottish, or Turkish? – and adorned themselves in satins of whatever color they liked.  Americans’ homes were getting more comfortable, and colonists, on the fringes, as many saw it, of civilization, were becoming more genteel.

Margaret Mackellwen’s pastry school – or, better, her cultural center – belonged to this world of consumer choice.  It was a world where she could outfit an operation that would help young ladies (surely they were intended clientele) secure or flaunt their gentility.  Or at least, she hoped she could.  After December 1736, her ads stop showing up.  She was, I suspect, too early, too optimistic about the consumer revolution that would in coming decades transform the colonies.

So, I wasn’t astonished, but I am intrigued.  I see a research trip – hello, Boston – in my future.

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