This post is written by graduate student, Marie Pellissier, based on her research in the archives.
My favorite kinds of materials in archives are the ones we might describe colloquially as “well-loved,” where you can tell that someone—or perhaps more than one someone—spent hours writing, reading, and thinking about a topic. I also find that I learn a lot from engaging with primary sources as objects: thinking about how a book was made, how a manuscript was bound, or an account book organized. The pandemic has limited my access to physical documents, and has pushed me to spend more time looking at digitized versions of primary sources.
Over the past year, I’ve been working on a project focusing on a nineteenth-century cookbook: Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife, which was published in 1824. Mary Randolph was born into the Virginia gentry, but experienced a series of financial reversals in her life that forced her to open a boardinghouse. That experience was an opportunity for her to turn her traditional domestic skills—and the labor of the enslaved people that she owned—into financial profit. The cookbook was another way for Randolph to monetize her domestic skills.
Until recently, I only had access to digitized versions of the cookbook, primarily through the Library of Congress. I visited the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at William and Mary recently to see the cookbook in person, and was immediately struck by how much I’d been missing by only seeing the digital version. The cookbook was much smaller than I’d expected, an octavo volume with small type. The book was very worn, almost falling apart—and further examination revealed that the title page was missing, and lined paper had been added in to the back of the book. Recipes cut from nineteenth-century newspapers were pasted onto the pages in the back, and at one point, the owner had gone through and made edits with black ink, correcting grammar and striking out recipes he or she objected to (like this recipe for Shrewsbury Cakes).
Engaging with the physical object in addition to the digital version gave me a fresh perspective on this particular primary source. Mary Randolph’s text draws on knowledge from the enslaved people who worked in her kitchens, as well as on recipes passed to her from her extended family. The physical copy in the SCRC shows how the reader of this volume added their own knowledge through annotations and additions to the text. Cookbooks like this are important sources for understanding women’s domestic knowledge, and tracking the practices they used to record that knowledge. This is a major theme in my dissertation work, which focuses on the connections between food, memory, and identity from the eighteenth to the twentieth century in Williamsburg, Virginia.