At Home on the Range by Margaret Yardley Potter and Elizabeth Gilbert

At Home on the Range, Margaret Yardley Potter and Elizabeth Gilbert

McSweeney’s Books, 250 pages

ISBN 9781936365890

I have a particular fondness for domestic manuals from the early twentieth century. It may sound like an incredibly dull genre, but I find that the recipes, cleaning instructions, and entertaining ideas contain some pretty great stories of how life was lived a hundred years ago.  For many, it was a time of rapidly changing financial and social circumstance, and these little domestic guides aimed to provide wives with a sort of a blueprint for creating a welcoming home if they couldn’t emulate the lifestyle or traditions they grew up with.

Margaret Yardley Potter, a cooking columnist for the Wilmington Star, published one of these manuals, and a copy was handed down the generations of her family.  When her great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), unearthed the cookbook in a moving box, she uncorked a bottle of wine and read it slowly, savouring the opportunity to get to know the legendary woman her family always called Gima.  She enjoyed it so much that she thought it worthy of a re-release in 2012, and donated all proceeds to charity.

Potter was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family that had servants, sailboats and regular dinner parties.   She accepted that circumstances would be greatly reduced when she married, but she did not want to lose any of the comfort or pleasure that she had previously associated with home.  As a result, Potter learned to be open to new tastes, new habits, and to focus on what mattered most.  Claiming that a hearty appetite and a good sense of humour were the only requirements for a good cook, At Home on the Range encourages others to employ those same virtues in their own homemaking.  Potter learns how to make pizza from an Italian grocer back when international food was scandalous.  She plans menus and organizes household chores to free up her time during the summer when guests are likely to drop by and stay for a week.  And in the winter months, when colds and flus are making the rounds, she offers recipes and helpful suggestions for getting through the boredom.    Witty, ingenious, and always practical, At Home on the Range still offers excellent tips for living well.

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13 Responses to At Home on the Range by Margaret Yardley Potter and Elizabeth Gilbert

  1. I am currently doing a project for a class with domestic science textbooks. They are fascinating, so I completely understand your fondness for domestic manuals. Do you have any favorites or advice for me as I begin looking at them?

    • Naomi says:

      No advice, but lots of recommendations! In 2004, Ame Beanland and Emily Miles Terry published “Nesting: It’s a Chick Thing”, which was an updated version of classic-style domestic manuals. It’s lighthearted tone, but all of the elements of the old ones are there, and it contains a fabulous bibliography of domestic manuals new and old. Here are some picks from that list:

      The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook by Alice B. Toklas, (Harper&Row,1954; 1986)

      Decorating is Fun! How to be Your Own Decorator by Dorothy Draper, (Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1939)

      Deep in the Green: An Exploration of Country Pleasures by Anne Raver (Vintage, 1998 reprint)

      Entertaining is Fun! How to be a Popular Hostess by Dorothy Draper (Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1941)

      Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson (Scribner, 1999)

      The House in Good Taste by Elsie de Wolfe (The Century Company, 1914)

      How to be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson (Hyperion, 2001)

      How to Decorate by Martha Stewart (Clarkson Potter, 1996)

      For Home and Country, the Centennial History of Women’s Institutes in Ontario by Linda Ambrose (not sure of publisher,1997) – this is not really a domestic science manual per se, but rather a history of the organization founded by Adelaide Hunter Hoodless to promote safe and healthy domestic science practices in the home. She founded the worldwide WI movement after her son died from drinking improperly treated milk, and it’s thanks to her that Family Studies is taught in schools. Oh, and she’s from my home city 🙂 If you’re doing a project on domestic science textbooks, she’s a real pioneer you could look at.

      Best of luck! I’ll come back to you with the bib information of some of the smaller, early 20th century domestic science manuals I like.

    • Naomi says:

      Emily – Here’s a link to a brief, comprehensive list of 19th and early 20th century manuals in Canada. This comes from the University of Guelph, where Hoodless established a centre for the study of domestic science. It’s quite good, and contains some of the major works.

      As for me, mostly I pick up these sorts of booklets at antique shops and old bookstores. Alot of them are just paperbound, and according to WorldCat, they don’t exist (I just checked). I’m not sure how helpful it would be to give you titles you can’t reference, but if you still want the info, I can give it to you. I just thought that researchable titles would be more useful for your paper…

      • This is fantastic! Thank you so much. From that first list, I’ve actually read the Mendelson one. It’s huge, but so interesting! She writes good fiction, too. I can’t wait to dig into those archives. I’m very interested in those smaller manuals that aren’t necessarily easy to find or being reproduced.

      • Naomi says:

        Ontario is a long way from Utah, or I’d invite you over to take a look. I only have a half dozen or so, anyway – not a large collection by any means. I see them fairly often in the books section of antique stores/flea markets, and they’re usually not very expensive. It might be worth browsing the ones near you to see if you can find anything (and at $1-10 per book, it’s not going to break the budget).

        I love Cheryl Mendelson, too. Her novels make me want to move to New York – untiI remember that I find Toronto way too loud and busy. But while I’m reading, I can enjoy the best bits of New York in my head without any of the stress.

      • Naomi, I wonder if you would be willing to make copies of what you do have and mail them to me. I would be willing to cover expenses, of course. Email me at januarypetersen at yahoo dot com if you would be so kind. I understand if that amounts to way too much work, however! 🙂

  2. lynnwyvill says:

    I, too, love these domestic manuals and this one sounds like it will be so much fun to read. Can’t wait.

  3. Interesting! I’ve never read a domestic manual, but this one sounds like a fun read.

  4. HI Naomi,
    This sounds really interesting. I love to collect old cookbooks. I have a reprint of Martha Washington’s cookbook, for instance, and recipes from the Titanic menus. I love the peek into another time and place.

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