Areas of Recipe Knowledge

Recipes before 1800 were a literary form that was deeply embedded in the practices of daily life and accessible to people with a wide range of literacy skills and education levels. Used to convey practical instructions for a variety of processes, our recipes have been categorized as:

food drink medicine veterinary medicine household cosmetic construction agriculture miscellaneous (everything that does not fit elsewhere)       Medicine

In the Early Modern Maritime Recipes database, the largest number of recipes are medical. The recipes seek to treat contagious diseases, such as measles and smallpox, as well as other common eighteenth-century maladies, such as the stone, cancer, consumption, gout, and the biting of a mad dog.  Some recipes are for cure-alls, such as “Milk-water, very useful in all sorts of Fevers and consumptions,” while others offer general instructions on making all kinds of simples, medicines based on a single herb. The recipes are often the work of physicians, but they are not necessarily local; one cure for ringworm comes from an English physician at the English colony in Bengal, for example. Other recipes, as the recipes note, come from “A Person of Distinction” and “A Member of the Community.” Manuscripts offer cures for a similar array of diseases as print sources do, but they also include a few recipes particularly concerning  women’s health, not covered in the remedies printed in newspapers.  Dr. William James Almon’s recipes, for example, include a “Tea of Garden Tanzy for Painful Menses,” while Handley Chipman’s account book includes a narrative about a miraculous (and gruesome) surgical removal of a dead fetus from a woman who had been unable to give birth, a report that may have been exemplary or intended to inspire hope. From London, John MacDonald sent his sister Nelly, then living in Tracadie (St. John’s Island) and taking care of his property, “Directions for Miss McDonald,” which addressed environment, diet, drink, and necessary medicines.  While the database includes a category for cosmetics, rather than for paints and powders, cosmetic recipes are for health-related concoctions that seek to improve the surface of the skin and to care for the appearance of the teeth. As well as instructions to make the teeth white, to “preserve the face from being deformed by smallpox,” and to treat inflammations or pimples, recipes to treat the dry skin of chapped hands and lips are also included.

Medical recipes that address the health of domestic animals are categorized under veterinary medicine. Some human remedies can also be applied to animals, such as the cure for the biting of a mad dog specifying use on humans and cattle. Other remedies are exclusively veterinary, addressing animal maladies such as measles in swine, shaking in sheep, cattle on lice, and ailments in horses.


Cookery recipes include instructions for meats, soups and stews, sweets, preserves, pastry, and bread.  Thus, there are recipes for mutton ragout, roasting a pig, and curing ham, for Hessian soup and potato soup, and for gingerbread, cakes, and puddings, leavenings for bread and puff pastry.  Recipes provide instructions for preserving food, by making jelly and apple butter and by pickling.  A recipe for “The Sugar of Milk” explains  how to preserve milk by freezing it and recommends using a derived powder mixed with water as a sweet drink. Some recipes are explicitly interested in economy, as in Dr. William James Almon’s record of a “Cheap substitute for sugar,” which he attributes to “Mr Lowitz of Petersbourg” and the 1768 recipe for “Hessian Soup” that appears in The Nova Scotia Gazette from “A Friend to the Poor.” Consistent with early modern thinking about health, some recipes are for foods characterized as both food and medicine, including one for blackberry jelly to cure gravel and stone.

Food recipes firmly integrate the Maritimes into the trade networks of the early modern Atlantic world. Hadley Chipman’s notebook, for instance, records a description of baobob, explaining that people in Senegal eat the leaves with couscous and that it healthfully regulates body temperature. There are also recipes for making parmesan cheese, which originates in Italy, and “To make Mangoes,” which describes how to pickle fruit from the Caribbean.  Trade connections between the Caribbean and the Maritimes make themselves known also in recipes for gingerbread, which specify both ginger and molasses, the latter  produced by enslaved people in the Caribbean and traded by Europeans. 


The database includes a wide variety of agricultural instructions—some of which test the limits recipe definition but meet the critieria of providing ingredients and methodologies. Recipes detail instructions for growing a variety of crops, for planting seedlings, for fertilizers—especially potash and manure—for pesticides, and for methods to prevent crop disease, such as smut.  In addition to the recipes for veterinary medicines, recipes also concern the feeding of cattle, offer instructions for bee keeping and making honey appear, and give directions for extracting and making maple syrup. Botanical descriptions that include instructions on how to grow certain plants are also categorized as agricultural recipes.


Building can require materials that need to be manufactured, and recipes provide instructions for paint, mortar, varnish, tar and other waterproofing materials in particular.  John MacDonald, writing from London, sent extensive instructions to his sister Nelly in Tracadie on how to build a house (again, stretching the limits of recipe definition, but instructional and procedural nonetheless).


The Miscellaneous category includes instructions for a range of other processes.  These include the treatment of fabrics, by waterproofing or dying, as well as directions for tanning and dying leather.  There are multiple recipes for pesticides, some in specific agricultural contexts—killing insects on plants—and others that are more general, as in the recipes to kill rats.  Taxidermy is described in another text, which promises to “To Preserve Birds with Their Natural Plumage Unhurt.”  Methods of treating water to keep it sweet are described in several recipes and is a consideration also in a instructions for transporting live fish. Directions for removing grease spots and ink from paper address what was likely another common problem, while the “Receipt for making a thorough servant” takes a more sociological direction, suggesting that a servant should follow three rules: do things on time; apply household things to their proper use; and put everything in its proper place.