Archive of Handwritten Recipes (1600 — 1960) Will Teach You How to Stew a Calf’s Head and More

If you’ve ever tried to fol­low a recipe from your grandmother’s col­lec­tion, squint­ing at her spi­dery writ­ing on a stained 3x5 card, you might be a can­di­date for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Libraries’ lat­est DIY His­to­ry project.

The University’s spe­cial col­lec­tions man­ages the Sza­th­mary Culi­nary Man­u­s­cipts and Cook­books, a hand­writ­ten col­lec­tion of Amer­i­can and Euro­pean recipes from the 1600s to the 1960s.

Help­ful food­ies, his­to­ry buffs and hand­writ­ing sleuths are invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in UI’s crowd­sourc­ing his­to­ry project by tran­scrib­ing dig­i­tized images of recipes.

It’s not the first time the uni­ver­si­ty has out­sourced a por­tion of its archival hand­work. Last year the Civ­il War Diaries and Let­ters Tran­scrip­tion Project was pow­ered by vol­un­teers, who tran­scribed more than 15,000 pages of mate­r­i­al. All you need to do is select a page from with­in the col­lec­tion and get start­ed. So far more than 17,000 pages have been tran­scribed and vol­un­teers chat and post ques­tions on a dis­cus­sion forum.

An exam­ple of the his­tor­i­cal nuggets uncov­ered while tran­scrib­ing: a pos­net is an 18th cen­tu­ry term for a small met­al pot, a spi­der is a skil­let, and to scearce is to sift. Of course no cook­book his­to­ri­an has com­plet­ed their task until they have actu­al­ly tried the recipes them­selves. This could be inter­est­ing for the lucky tran­scriber of a recipe from Abi­gail Welling­ton Townsend’s cook­book, cir­ca 1840:

To stew a calf­shead, let the calf­shead be split and open and cleaned put it in the stew pan with water to cov­er it stew it quite ten­der take it and cut it to pieces put them on again in the stew pan with the water it was first boiled in  put with it six large onions half a pint of claret a lit­tle catch up a lit­tle mace & pep­per & salt to your taste when it is stewed ten­der thick­en the gravy with yolks of six eggs boiled hard & braid in a lit­tle of the gravy put in six yolks of eggs boiled hard & fry’d forced meat.

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Find more of her work at  and

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Comments (3)
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  • Angelabsurdist says:

    This is an excel­lent project as so much quirky infor­ma­tion and his­to­ry can be shared.

  • Floyd Slotterback says:

    Look­ing for my grandmother’s recipe for Divin­i­ty. Any­one?

  • Tana says:

    Not sure how old this recipe is. Found it in an old recipe box from my dad.

    2 cups sug­ar
    1/2 cup white karo
    1/2 cup water
    2 egg whites
    1 cup chopped nuts
    1 tea­spoon vanil­la
    Boil sug­ar, syrup, water until mix­ture dropped in cold water turns brit­tle. Pour slow­ly over stiffly beat­en egg whites, add nuts and fla­vor­ing. Beat until creamy. Pour over but­tered plate.

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