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

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 woman at the time. During the schools tenure, strong woman would lead, educate and lecture the all female students. The school was most notably lead by Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln and Fannie Farmer.

Fannie Farmers name is well known for many reasons, which I will expand on later, but Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln 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 on July 8, 1844 in South Attleboro, Massachusetts. As a young woman, she attended the Wheaton Female Seminary (which is now known as Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts). Mary taught school until she married David Lincoln in 1865, after which she stayed at home to raise her family. Within 10 years of their marriage, David’s health became dire and Mary needed to find ways to support her family financially. 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 woman, and educating them with modern cooking techniques that would ultimately change the way 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. Mary established free courses for the Italian immigrant girls in the Boston’s North End as well as “sick room cookery” courses for nurses in area hospitals. She also believed that recipes should be easier to follow, which included requiring standardized measurements. Up until that point, recipes in cookbooks 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 how to cook properly included understanding chemistry and domestic science.

In a few short years, Mary was able to create a huge impact at the school, and now it was time to expand her reach using publications. In 1883, Mary published her first of 30 books and publications; '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 clear and easy to follow recipes and made suggestions to use more modern kitchen equipment (for example; using a Dover rotary egg beater, rather than the old-fashioned whisk). All this was music to the home cooks ears, as well as 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 such a perceptive businesswoman, she also created her own 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, and as such expected their first child to attend college. 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 schools principal. Like her predecessor, Fannie had continuous improvement goals and desires for the school and its students. Her focus was 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. 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 occured 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 own school Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery on August 23, 1902. Shortly after her departure from the famed Boston Cooking School, it was acquired by Simmons College in Boston. Her newly created school had a similar focus, empowering woman 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 that this was her most important work, and truly, what she wanted to be remembered for. She believed that there was a value in providing not only nutritious food to the ill, but found that appearance, taste and presentation of the food had significant impact. She continued to give lectures up until 10 days before her death in 1915. Wheelchair bound, Fannie was still incredibly passionate about cooking and its positive impact on the ill.

One interesting fact to note. Many of you may hear the name Fannie Farmer and think of the little chocolate shops that were all over 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 very 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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