History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


Eliza Leslie, Women’s Work in the 1800s, and a Controversy

If you follow news about history, you may have read recently about the dustup over the proposed National Women’s History Museum.  Legislation is wending its way through Congress to authorize, though not fund, the museum, and it seems likely to win approval.  So what’s the problem?

The controversy is over this:  A few weeks ago, the museum dismissed its Scholarly Advisory Council.  The Council had been made up of leading women’s historians, who had been working to help craft the museum’s plans.  One member of the disbanded Council, Professor Sonya Michel of the University of Maryland, took to the pages of The New Republic to express her unhappiness about the lack of scholarly input into the museum.  The American Historical Association has registered its concerns on that score, and various historians have also weighed in.  Meanwhile, the museum has responded to historians’ criticism.  (Full disclosure: I know and admire Professor Michel and, as you may recall, I now work for the National History Center of the American Historical Association.)

If you’ve skimmed through the articles and blog posts on the subject, you’ll have noted that historians think historians should be involved in planning a history museum, because they care deeply about the approach the museum takes in its exhibits.  As Professor Michel explains in her article, women’s historians do not want to see the museum just telling “Great Woman” stories.  Instead, they want to see the museum exploring how women from many walks of life have shaped changes over time in politics, family life, the economy, religion, culture, and much more.

Now you may be wondering what’s wrong with a Great Woman approach.  Why would anyone want to dwell on people who haven’t amounted to much?  Well, when a tricky historical question arises, you know what I like to ask.  Can desserts help us address the matter at hand?  (No, I’m not suggesting the parties sit down over cakes and cookies.  Does anything suggest to you that would help at this point?)

I mentioned a few days ago that I’ve been eager to delve into Eliza Leslie’s Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, first published in 1828.  I’ve started trying her recipes – they’re good! – and I’ve been reading up on her too.  Her story brought to mind an insight about the history of women’s work that I think helps make sense of why historians are uncomfortable with a museum that focuses mainly on female firsts and other great accomplishments.

Like a number of other early American cookbook writers, Eliza Leslie found her eventual way into print after a turn in fortune.  She had been born in Philadelphia in 1787 and spent a comfortable childhood there and in London, where the Leslies moved when she was five or six.  The family returned to the United States in 1799, and her father, a watchmaker and merchant, found that his partner had sunk the business.  A few years later, Leslie’s father died, and several years after his death, in straitened circumstances, his widow opened a boardinghouse.  Leslie helped her mother to run the establishment and even took classes at Mrs. Goodfellow’s cooking school, presumably for business reasons.  In time, she would draw on her experience to write bestselling cookbooks as well as works of fiction and advice manuals.

What I found myself thinking about, though, was not Leslie’s success in an increasingly capitalist economy but this:  Eliza Leslie and her mother realized economic gain from women’s household work.  They supported their family by doing domestic work for paying customers, and Leslie got her start as an author by writing recipes, that is, compiling instructions about domestic work.

Nothing remarkable there, you may be thinking.  They were in business.  Their work had an economic value.  But consider this.  In the 1700s, the same domestic work performed by women in their own homes had been economically valued too.  By some point in the 1800s in the Northern United States, that was no longer true.  What changed?  Not women’s work, but men’s, as historian Jeanne Boydston explains in Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic, published in 1990.  In the 1700s, men and women typically worked at home.  Farmers, merchants, printers, you name it – people worked in the same places they lived, with employees or apprentices living with their masters.  In the 1800s, however, men increasingly went out of their homes to work.  Their living and working spaces became separated.  As that happened, the economic significance of women’s labor at home was forgotten.

That insight, I think, gets to the heart of women’s historians’ qualms about focusing on leading women or on an inspiring account of women’s gradual acquisition of formal political rights.  The story of women gaining formal political rights is an important one and deserves to be told in a women’s history museum.  But the remaking of the American economy in the 1800s – to take just one – is an important story too.  We don’t fully understand it, though, without examining how women participated in that transformation or probing how it affected their lives.  In other words, women’s (and men’s) everyday experiences are the stuff of history.

Eliza Leslie was one of the most successful female authors in the nineteenth-century United States.  She was historically important.  The women who, laboring in their own or in others’ kitchens, made her recipes were too.