Learning to Make Invisible Inks and Other Projects from The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Magazine (1799)

If you are interested in learning more about how adults have tried to keep children from being bored by dreaming up interesting projects, this post about a pioneering magazine for children may be of interest.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a child with time on its hands must be in need of something to do.  This was a truth understood very well by Dr. William Fordyce Mavor, the editor and chief compiler of The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Magazine, which appeared in monthly numbers between February 1799 and January 1800.  One of the features that sets The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Magazine apart from its predecessors, The Lilliputian Magazine (1751) and The Juvenile Magazine (1789-1790) was the promotion of learning through doing across the disciplines.

One of the magazine’s chief selling points was its engraved plates.  Their function was to encourage accurate observation and artistic activity.   A subject from botany or natural history was reproduced in two versions, one professionally hand-colored, the other in outline “intended as an Exercise for the juvenile Pencil.”  The passion flower graced the pages of the seventh issue, and the male bird of paradise the third.

No instructions to the juvenile wielding the pencil were offered, as if Mavor assumed most of his readers’ parents employed drawing masters. Perhaps to remedy this oversight, in the sixth issue Mavor ran an article with directions for mixing colors.  It seems to have been contributed professional artist, who noted that he hoped this would alleviate the frustration he had observed in children attempting to complete the plain copies.

Brainteasers could be found in every issue.  There were complicated charades and enigmas to solve, with the understanding that readers were invited to submit their clever verse answers or original specimens for possible publication. In the correspondents’ sections, Mavor always politely acknowledged the receipt of readers’ efforts, but accepted only the best ones (most of them were probably by himself).  Arithmetical word problems only appeared in the first three issues and they may have been too forbidding to have very wide appeal (how many children in the audience were burning to learn how to convert French livres to pounds sterling?).  Another more engaging example of a different kind of brainteaser was a piece that consisted of a model dialogue of two boys playing “Twenty Questions.”

Raising the spirit of enquiry was among Mavor’s other educational priorities.  He did not  want to spark his readers’ passive sense of wonder through descriptions of inventions and discoveries, he wanted them to roll up their sleeves and try to replicate the results of easy experiments.  One that many children probably would have wanted to try at home was making “sympathetic (i.e. invisible).”  The recipes are vague as to quantities, so I suspect there were unsuccessful trials and tears of rage.  One of the suggested uses of sympathetic ink was the sprucing up of artificial flowers, an inducement to the young ladies in the audience.  They probably employed them in the writing of letters whose contents were supposed to be kept secret.. Much messier would have been the preservation of birds and butterflies caught in the field.  Directions for butterflies follows, being the less gory of the two.  I wonder how well this method actually works and if similar methods can still be found in children’s books now.

While none of these features looks revolutionary to us now, it gave The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Magazine a much more modern feel than eitherThe Lilliputian or Juvenile Magazine, whose contents were very similar to any eighteenth-century miscellany.  Dr. Mavor’s attempt to include more hands-on projects for children may well have been a response to the increased anxiety in the 1790s about making sure children did not waste leisure time in stupid, cruel, or unproductive ways, at least in families that were sufficiently well-off not to need children’s paid labor for the unit’s maintenance.  Dr. Mavor may not have been among the great writers for children of this era, but he certainly deserves recognition in the history of British magazines for children for mixing up the contents of The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Magazine with non-fiction materials to appeal to a much broader range of interests..

Picture Book Herstories of Great American Women Cookbook Writers

Count on  Deborah Hopkinson, a distinguished author of children’s non-fiction, to take on the challenge of introducing two giants of American culinary herstory in picture book biographies.  Her subjects are Amelia Simmons, whose American Cookery (1796) was the first of its kind and Fanny Merritt Farmer (1857-1912), author of the best-selling Boston Cooking School Cookbook  (1896), which in various incarnations  reached a 13th edition in 1990.  Not having led adventurous lives, painted innovative artwork, made major advances in science, or written famous fictions, the two women had to be largely reinvented to be worthy of remembrance.

Fannie Merritt Farmer (1857-1915), the first to write recipes with precise quantities measured in standardized equipment in the Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), was a product of the domestic science movement.  She came from a well-educated Boston Unitarian family and was expected to attend college.  Those plans were upended by a paralytic stroke (or polio) she suffered at age sixteen.   She regained enough strength in her twenties to learn cooking and operate a boarding house known for its bill of fare out of her mother’s home.  Although mostly confined to a wheelchair by thirty, she still pursued a busy and successful career teaching, administering the Boston Cooking School, founding her own school, and improving nutrition and care of invalids.

Fanny in the Kitchen could have been the inspirational story of a physically challenged female icon, but Hopkinson chose instead to dream up a story revolving around the daughter of Mrs. Charles Shaw, Fannie’s employer of  who recommended she attend the Boston Cooking School. Fannie cooks like an angel, much to the dismay of Marcia Shaw, who feels she has been displaced as her pregnant mother’s helper.  Fannie, as realized by illustrator Nancy Carpenter, has the briskly efficient no-nonsense air (and turned-up nose) of Mary Poppins.  She is kind and attentive enough to see that Marcia likes being in the kitchen and wants to learn.  Marcia’s lessons give her the idea of writing everything down to make it easier to retain the art and science of cookery.  Her pupil’s mastery of cake baking coincides with her departure for new horizons.Almost no biographical information survives about Amelia Simmons beyond a few tidbits in the cookbook.  Hopkinson’s solution?  Admit up front that she’sl Inventing a credible backstory for the “American orphan” that is  a “revolutionary confection.”   It goes like this: her father perished in the war of independence and her mother died shortly thereafter of smallpox, leaving their daughter poor and friendly. The wives of the town elders decide that rather than making the municipality responsible for her maintenance, a family will take her in as a “bound girl,” presented by Hopkinson as a kind of mother’s helper rather than a contractual form of slavery.   Stalwart  Amelia walks into the Beans’ chaotic home, where two of the six boys take bites out of apples and toss them aside like colonial Ramona Quimbys.   Without missing a beat, she takes over household management from their overwhelmed mother.

This is a cheerier and more palatable take on Miss Simmons’ slightly sour explanation of her qualifications for writing American Cookery.  Being “reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics,” she possesses “the more general and universal knowledge” a female needs to be of service to her employer, the “Lady of fashion and fortune.”  Simmons’ advice that an orphan in service must maintain a character for strict virtue, coded language for the unpleasant reality that she will have no protectors to forestall the unwanted advances of the master or his son is given a pass by Hopkinson,

She does, however, assume that Amelia Simmons intended to rise above her gallingly low social position.   Having learned to read by helping one of the little Beans with his letters,  when asked by Mrs. Bean how she might assist her,  Amelia replies that she wants to master the art of American cooking so she can share it with her fellow citizens.  But first she has to build upon a foundation upon English recipes, then advance to variations using American ingredients like winter squash, molasses, and corn meal, testing them on the hungry Bean family.   A successful afternoon tea where the town ladies sample Amelia’s divine cakes and strawberry preserve, leads to an invitation to bake a cake as a gift for display on the occasion of George Washington’s inauguration.  That “plucky patriot” Amelia outdoes herself by producing thirteen cakes, one for each of the new states, lavishly decorated with gilt.  Our first president pronounces his slice “Delicious.”

Of course, there is not a word of truth in this pretty tale of the new nation.  There is nothing distinctively American about Amelia’s independence cake, whose recipe is very close to almost any English recipe for  a yeast-raised great cake, with its huge quantities of flour, butter, eggs, brandy and “plumbs”—raisins, currants, and citron.  If Hopkinson had slipped in more nuggets from American Cookery—Amelia’s praise of shad, her suggestion that raising rabbits was a sure money-maker, her distaste for garlic, her recipes for what looks like a good old pot pie, a Christmas butter cookie flavored with ground coriander seed, or candying watermelon rind as a substitute for citron—there wouldn’t have been much of a story, however mouthwatering such details might be to the adult reader with a fine palate.

At times these two picture book biographies seem to be turning back the clock, even though there is never even a whisper of a suggestion that homemaking is the only path for girls– or ought to be. They do, I think, suggest to young readers that the kitchen was a site of empowerment for women in previous centuries and that ought to be remembered and honored as such, even if producing light, delicate biscuits will never be in one’s skill set.  This model of female advancement has not yet outlived its usefulness, but rather morphed in surprising ways in the twenty-first century.  Last week the New York Times Food Section ran an article about Arab women, their careers outside the home stymied, who have found an alternative calling demonstrating home cooking on YouTube food channels.  Pleased and surprised to win millions of subscribers and earn respectable incomes, they find great satisfaction teaching others the secrets of  making delicious food.