The Art of Cookery / by a lady

The Art of Cookery, produced by the cookery writer and costumier Hannah Glasse (c.1708-1770), was an immediate bestseller when it was first published in 1747, and continued in popular print for the next hundred years.

The rapid expansion of the middle classes over the course of the 18th century resulted in a growing demand for manuals directed at servants, designed to relieve the lady of the house. Glasse's book was one of the first to explicitly tap in to this market. ‘I believe I have attempted a Branch of Cookery which Nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon’, she claims in the readers' epistle, 'If I have not wrote in the high, polite Stile, I hope I shall be forgiven; for my Intention is to instruct the lower Sort, and therefore must treat them in their own Way.’

Though published anonymously 'by a lady' professing to know first-hand the demands of household management, the book became associated with Glasse's name and later editions, including the Library's 1767 copy, featured a facsimile of her signature (see below). This attribution, however, was subject to doubt and after Hannah's death there was widespread speculation as to the author's gender.  In his diaries, James Boswell records a dinner conversation between the publisher Charles Dilly and Samuel Johnson in 1778:

DILLY: Mrs. Glasse’s ‘Cookery,’ which is the best, was written by Dr. Hill. Half the trade know this.

JOHNSON: Well, Sir, this shows how much better the subject of cookery may be treated by a philosopher [...]

Women can spin very well; but they cannot make a good book of cookery. (340)

In truth, the 'trade' were misinformed: Hannah Glasse was no non de plume. Raised in London as an illegitimate daughter of Isaac Allgood (1683-1725) and his mistress Hannah Reynolds, her life was plagued by financial worries. This necessitated Glasse's innovative approach to raising funds. After marrying in London in 1724, she began to sell Daffy's elixir, a patented 'cure all' popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This brought little return however, and by 1745 she was working in earnest on The Art of Cookery, managing to attract 202 subscribers for the first edition. 

Despite this, and the successful costumier's shop she set up with her daughter Margaret after her husband's death in 1747, Glasse was never out of debt.  She escaped bankruptcy in 1754 by selling off the copyright of the lucrative Art of Cookery to the bookseller Andrew Miller, clearing debts of over £10,000.  Three years later however, she was consigned to prison as a debtor, after which very little trace of her exists.

Hannah was never a professional cook but she had much experience as a housewife and she deftly compiled The Art of Cookery with admirable logic and wit. 342 of the 972 recipes in the first edition were taken from other printed sources.  This was not at all uncommon at the time; the receipt book genre, with its emphasis on compilation and selection over authorship and practice over passive consumption, foregrounded (whether purposely or not) a collaborative relationship of mutual production. 

The distinguishing feature of Glasse's book is not the orginality of the receipts (with one notable exception - the first recipe for curry printed in English, reproduced below) but her approach to the organisation of this knowledge and how she framed it paratextually.  The Art of Cookery includes an impressively detailed contents page and index and is structured thematically, in contrast to some of the more erratic miscellanies of earlier periods.  Her particular emphasis is on reinforcing a broad disdain for extravagance among those of lower status.  She especially has it in for the French style of cookery: 'So much is the blind Folly of this Age, that they would rather be impos’d on by a French Booby, than give Encouragement to a good English Cook!’

For more on this subject, stay tuned for the Library's Summer Exhibition on early modern household knowledge - circumscribing everything from making blancmanges to nursing blisters.


This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 19 May 2014 by Charlotte Hoare, Library Graduate Trainee 2013-2014.