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The Boston Cooking School and its Influential Leaders; Fannie Farmer and Mary J. Lincoln

Inspired by domestic courses offered in European schools, the Women’s Education Association of Boston established the Boston Cooking School in 1879. The school was to “offer instruction in cooking to those who wished to earn their livelihood as cooks, or who would make practical use of such information in their families.” The establishment of this school meant that women who previously could only learn cooking skills at home or within their communities would now be offered formalized education that could lead to the possibility of contributing financially to their families. This was a powerful message to women at the time. During the school's tenure, the strong woman would lead, educate and lecture all female students. Mary Johnson, Bailey Lincoln, and Fannie Farmer led the school.

Fannie Farmer's name is well known for many reasons, which I will expand on later, but Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln's is lesser known. One of the reasons is that Mary published her work under the name Mrs. D. A. Lincoln until 1884, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Mary Johnson Bailey was born in South Attleboro, Massachusetts, on July 8, 1844. As a young woman, she attended the Wheaton Female Seminary (now known as Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts). Mary taught school until she married David Lincoln in 1865, after which she stayed home to raise her family. However, within ten years of their marriage, David’s health became dire, and Mary needed to find ways to support her family financially. So she put her home culinary skills to work and began cooking in the homes of others.

In 1879, the influential Boston Cooking School offered Mary an opportunity to combine her love of teaching and cooking. At first, Mary declined the invitation as she questioned her qualifications, but after taking a few courses, she realized she would do just fine. Mary became the school’s first principal and maintained that position until 1885. During her tenure as principal, Mary moved the social needle by empowering women and educating them with modern cooking techniques that would ultimately change how we all cook. The school ensured that all women who wanted an education could attend a class, whether they had the means, ability, or resources to do so. In addition, Mary established free courses for the Italian immigrant girls in Boston’s North End and “sick room cookery” courses for nurses in area hospitals. She also believed that recipes should be easier to follow, which included requiring standardized measurements. Until then, cookbook recipes focused on ingredients and heating techniques but no real standardized direction on volume and weight. (I know that all too well. I had to interpret recipes from the 1500s and Colonial times without standardization for my first three cookbooks.). To ensure that her students received a well-rounded education, Mary also believed that learning to cook correctly included understanding chemistry and domestic science.

Mary created a significant impact at the school in a few short years, and now it was time to expand her reach using publications. In 1883, Mary published her first of 30 books and magazines; 'the Boston Cooking School Cookbook: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking.' Her second book, published in 1887, was called 'Boston School Kitchen Text-Book: Lessons in Cooking for the Use of Classes in Public and Industrial Schools.' Each book was a success as they provided straightforward and easy-to-follow recipes and suggested using more modern kitchen equipment (for example, a Dover rotary egg beater rather than the old-fashioned whisk). All this was music to the home cooks' ears manufacturers. You could say that Mary had risen to celebrity chef status, and any endorsement from her was sure to be a success for that product. Manufacturers jumped on any opportunity to include her in their marketing material. Examples of her endorsements were included in the 1888 Frozen Dainties, published by The White Mountain Freezer Company, as well as a Jell-O booklet in 1912. She was a wise businesswoman who created her product, Mrs. Lincoln Baking Powder Company.

Though the Boston Cooking School valued Mary as a representative of their institution, they continued to do well under a new leader, Fannie Farmer. Fannie Farmer was born on March 23, 1857, in Boston, Massachusetts, and was the eldest of four girls. Fannie’s parents wanted their girls to be highly educated, expecting their first child to attend college. Unfortunately, that was not in the cards for Fannie. While in high school, Fannie suffered a paralytic stroke that left her homebound and unable to walk. Determined to do more, Fannie took up cooking and created a reputation locally for making delicious food. By the time Fannie turned 30, she could walk but with a substantial limp. It was time for her to do more with her life. She enrolled at the Boston Cooking School and found her calling. In 1891, Fannie was the school's principal. Like her predecessor, Fannie had continuous improvement goals and desires for the school and its students. She focused on nutrition, diet, convalescent cooking, sanitation, and household management.

In 1896, Fannie published her best-known work, 'The Boston Cooking School Cook Book.' Fannie expanded on Mary’s work by adopting and refining the system of standardized measurements. As a result, she received the nickname “mother of level measurements” as her recipes had descriptions like “A cupful is measured level.” Further, Fannie explained chemical processes that occurred during cooking to help the housewife understand why certain ingredients and techniques were necessary to achieve the desired results. This book was an immediate success, selling over 4 million copies in Fannie’s lifetime. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, consider this, Fannie wrote the book when she was 39 and only lived until she was 57. That means that she sold over 4 million copies in 18 years. Wow. The book was so well written it is still published today under the name 'Fannie Farmer Cook Book.'

After leading the Boston Cooking School for 11 years, Fannie left and created her school Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, on August 23, 1902. Shortly after she departed from the famed Boston Cooking School, it was acquired by Simmons College in Boston. Her newly created school had a similar focus, empowering women by teaching them a workable skill; however, she took the training up a notch. Perhaps this was due to her own health experiences, but Farmer also focused on diet, nutrition for the ill, and diabetes. She created a 30-page publication that focused on diabetes titled 'Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent.' Her work was so respected that Harvard Medical School invited her to teach convalescent diet and nutrition to doctors and nurses. Fannie felt this was her most important work and what she wanted to be remembered for. She believed that there was value in providing nutritious food to the ill and that the food's appearance, taste, and presentation had a significant impact. She continued to give lectures until ten days before her death in 1915. Wheelchair-bound, Fannie was still incredibly passionate about cooking and its positive effects on the ill.

From my 1939 version of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book

One interesting fact to note. Many of you may hear the name Fannie Farmer and think of the little chocolate shops throughout the US and Canada. A Canadian businessman, Frank O’Connor, created this company in 1919 (4 years after Fannie’s death). This chain of stores had no affiliation with Fannie Farmer. O’Connor thought by spelling the name of his chocolate shops with a “y” (Fanny), there would be little confusion with the culinary powerhouse (did I mention that Fannie’s picture was on the chocolate boxes) but just enough for him to leverage her success. Well, it worked, and the shops continued successfully for many years. Today, you can still buy the chocolates, but they no longer have an affiliation with the business O’Connor created. Funny how that stuff works out.

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