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Reading Recipe Books as Autobiography: Ellen Hall Crosman

Like most nineteenth-century women, Ellen Hall Crosman left behind little written material. Census records provide the basic structure of her life; she was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania in 1847. She married James Heron Crosman in Allegheny City on April 25, 1872 and moved with her new husband to New York where he worked as a stockbroker. According to the census and social directories, the family lived in New York City and the surrounding suburbs, including New Rochelle and Tarryton. Ellen raised four children, served as the vice-president general of the New York chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), founded the National Society Patriotic Women of America, and occasionally appeared in the society pages of New York newspapers.

Mrs. Ellen Hall Crossman, upper left. Lineage Book National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution

Mrs. Ellen Hall Crossman, upper left. Lineage Book National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution

Ellen Hall Crosman’s recipe book fills in her life story.[1] Ellen collected recipes for cakes, pickles, punch, sauces, candies, and other dishes. Since she recorded more information than ingredients and cooking time, her recipe book serves as an autobiography, providing information about her travels, friend and kinship networks, club work, and her efforts to nurture her family. Most of Ellen’s recipes are not only attributed to an individual source, she also provides the location and date. For instance, in November 1899 Ellen attended the D.A.R. Slate Conference in Lancaster, PA (likely with her sister, Mary Jordan, who lived nearby in Harrisburg) where she was served Devil’s Food Cake. Recipes for Devil’s Food Cake, a rich, intensely chocolate flavored cake, proliferated in the early twentieth century. The first printed references to Devil’s Food appear in the early 1900s and it’s unsurprising that Ellen Crosman, noted society hostess, would have been eager to add this recipe to her collection when she encountered it at the D.A.R. conference.

When mapped using GIS software, Ellen’s recipe book’s limited geographical scope reveals a more intimate network than the Rappe Family Cookbook. The farthest flung recipe sources are the previously mentioned D.A.R. conference in Lancaster, recipes from her sister in Harrisburg, and a recipe for Punch from Mrs. Row obtained during a visit at Fortress Monroe a military installation in Hampton, Virginia. According to the society magazine, The Epoch, “in twenty years, Mrs. Crosman has not missed spending a portion of each March at that gay and delightful resort,” suggesting Ellen escaped the cool and chilly early spring in New York for the developing resort community at Virginia Beach.[2]

Rather, many of Ellen’s recipes appear to come from her family and friends. Recipes she collected while visiting friends around New York, her sister in Pennsylvania, and her yearly trip to Virginia. Most of the recipes with a location list the family’s address at 33 West 50th Street suggesting these recipes may have been shared during events hosted by Ellen. Another recipe in the collection for punch hints at Ellen’s role as a hostess, on Mrs. Harriman’s recipe Ellen notes, “this quantity is enough for a small reception of thirty persons.” According to the society papers, Ellen hosted intimate gatherings at her home in New York City,“Mrs. J. Heron Crossman, of 33 West 50th Street, is giving a series of small afternoon receptions which are very delightful. Only a score or so congenial women are asked each week, and hostess and guests have the opportunity to talk with each other.”[3] Her recipe book hints at what was served during these events. According to the Census, the Crosman family did not have any live-in help until 1900. Three recipes labeled as “John’s” were entered into the recipe book in 1885 at the family home. These recipes for oyster croquettes, lobster Newburg, and “bernais” sauce represent the French-inspired cuisine that was increasingly popular at American tables in the late nineteenth century.[4] That two of these recipes are written in a different hand and on loose sheets inserted into the recipe book suggests that a caterer or hired cook named John supplied them.

This c. 1850 painting of the Ernest Fiedler Family in their parlor, provides a sense of the sort of space Ellen Crosman may used for entertaining.

This c. 1850 painting of the Ernest Fiedler Family in their parlor, provides a sense of the sort of space Ellen Crosman may used for entertaining.

The oyster croquette recipe may have been a mainstay of Ellen’s entertaining. Oysters were plentiful and cheap along the eastern seaboard during the nineteenth century. Their versatility made them a popular food for entertaining served as stews and soups, fried oysters, oyster fritters, oyster stuffing, and various other dishes. Of the seventy-four recipes in Ellen Crosman’s book only eighteen are indexed in the back, including the oyster croquettes. The majority of the other indexed recipes are cakes: black fruit cake, Dixie molasses drop-cakes, ginger snaps, scotch cakes, Harrison cake, Maryland jumbles, two egg cake, plain chocolate cake, ice cream cake, and five recipes for sponge cake. The sponge cakes and possibly the ice cream cake and black fruit cake were likely intended for afternoon receptions like the one described by the Epoch. But simpler recipes for breakfast cakes and cookies are possibly representative of the sort of cooking Ellen did for her four children.

Among this number is a recipe for Harrison Cake, an old-fashioned confection sweetened with molasses, studded with raisins and currants, flavored with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, and leavened with either soda and sour milk or baking powder. Throughout the nineteenth century, cakes and other confections were named for political figures including Washington Pie, Madison Whims, Jackson Jumbles, Tyler Pudding, and Lincoln Cake. Below the recipe, Ellen noted, “this is the original ‘Harrison Cake,’ known to fame in Philadelphia during Wm. Henry Harrison’s campaign for President in 1840.” Born in 1847, Ellen experienced this recipe through her mother, “my mother used this recipe and it was recalled to my mind as being one of her written recipes when Benjamin Harrison ran for President.” The recipe was not copied from her mother’s book, but instead Mrs. Henry Parish “gave me the exact recipe.”

This simple cake of an earlier era was unlikely to grace the dessert table at one of Mrs. Crosman’s elegant afternoon reception, unless, like her mother, she resurrected it during Benjamin Harrison’s 1888 presidential campaign. Rather, Ellen Crosman’s recipe for Harrison Cake reveals a more intimate reason for women’s recipe collecting and baking: an effort to maintain connections with the past and to nurture their children with recipes from her childhood. These old-fashioned recipes serve as a tangible reminder of loved ones. In an anonymous letter to the editor of Good Housekeeping, a reader shared a similar recipe for Harrison Cake from her own mother. In a recent NPR story, Gersine Bullock-Prado reflected on the experience of baking her mother’s recipe Zwetschgendatschi (Bavarian Plum Cake), describing the experience of opening the oven, “That smell came to me — and it was my mother, my mother was in the room, and I started to weep. I mean that smell that comes from that cake, it’s different from any plum cake or apricot cake; it is so specific . . . since it was my mother’s joy to make in the summertime, it was Helga coming from the oven.”[5] For Ellen Crosman, baking Harrison Cake may have been a similar experience.


Rachel A. Snell, “Reading Recipe Books as Autobiography: Ellen Hall Crosman,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), October  15, 2014,

[1] Ellen Hall Crosman Recipe Book, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

[2] Epoch, 107.

[3] Epoch, 58.

[4] Abigail Carroll, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 79.

[5] “Zwetschgendatschi, A Mouthful That Captures The Perfect Plum,” National Public Radio (1 August 2014),

Image Credits:

Lineage Book National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution Vol. XXXII 31001-3200 1900 compiled by Sarah Hall Johnston (Harrisburg, PA: Telegraph Printing Company, 1911).;view=1up;seq=10

Ernest Fiedler Family in their parlor, 1850.

Good Housekeeping, Vol. 8 (Nov. 1888-April 1889)

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