December 15, 2016

Quakers, Quilts, and Domestic Cookery

Historically, Friends did not mark holidays such as Christmas as big events since all days were regarded as equally holy.  However, opportunities to gather for Meetings or social occasions were often cause for special, caring preparation.

Visiting Friends stayed in homes (and still do) when gathering for the Quarterly and Yearly meetings which lasted for days.  One member of Hopewell Monthly Meeting in Frederick County, Virginia, charmingly described her childhood impressions of Quarterly Meetings that occurred circa 1900.

"There was a cyclone of house cleaning, silver polishing and arraying the best china.  Beds were made up.  The children often were banished to the attic or slept on pallets on the floor. Cakes were baked, cookies, doughnuts and choice Virginia hams were cooked.  Kids loved it!  Mothers sank back into utter exhaustion afterward."  (Memories of Hopewell . . .)

Interior of a home inhabited by Hopewell Friends, Frederick County, Virginia,
c, 1900.  Courtesy of Ellen Berry.
As we know from letters and diaries, one of the most popular home cookbooks used by historical Friends was self-published in 1845 by Elizabeth Ellicott Lea (1793-1858).  She was born into a prominent Quaker Maryland family.  Interestingly, some of her recipes specify a Maryland affiliation, like her "Maryland Corn Cakes", while others, such as "Virginia Pone," and "A Virginia Hoe Cake" give a nod to a state where she had close acquaintances.  

Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers eventually
went through nineteen printings in twenty-five years.  Photograph of a copy owned by
Mary Holton Robare.
Elizabeth Ellicott Lea.  Image scanned from the frontispiece of A Quaker Woman's Cookbook:
The Domestic Cookery of Elizabeth Ellicott Lea by William Woys Weaver.
There are several historical Quaker quilts associated with members of the cookbook author's family.  The Pidgeon Family Quilt (see our posts of July 14, 2012, November 11, 2012, and December 1, 2015) contains several blocks inscribed with initials that, most likely, represent Beulah Iddings Lea and her sister-in-law Deb Lea.
The Pidgeon Family Quilt, c. 1850, details.  Collection of the Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation.  Photographs by Mary Holton Robare.
"Deb Lea, 1849" is inscribed in ink on a block containing a chintz-work wreath of brown, blue, olive, and mustard-colored chintz.  On another identical wreath placed in the overall pattern of the quilt in symmetrical relation to the first are the initials "B.I.L."  Both quilt blocks contain a quilted oak leaf centered on the inscribed initials.  The quilter seemed to be emphasizing an association between the two blocks.
After extensive cross-referencing of census records, wedding certificates, Meeting records, and social histories a close relationship was revealed between individuals who were, most likely represented by the inscriptions.  "B.I.L.," Beulah Iddings (1824-1906) and "Deb Lea,"  Deborah Ann Pierce (1816-1894), were daughters-in-law of the cookbook author as they married her sons, Thomas and Edward Lea.  They were also contemporaries of the maker of The Pidgeon Family Quilt, Sarah Chandlee Pidgeon.
Another chintz-work block on The Pidgeon Family Quilt bears the embroidered initials, "R.R."  That alone would not be enough to suggest an identity, but it is not an unlikely deduction that the initials represent one of the quilt-maker's daughters.  The quilt's maker, Sarah Chandlee Pidgeon, who grew up in Lea's Maryland community, named her third daughter Rebecca Russell Pidgeon, very possibly after Lea's nurse.
The Pidgeon Family Quilt, c. 1850, detail.  Collection of the Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation.  Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.
Rebecca Russell (1786-1888) was a Quaker nurse who came from Pennsylvania to care for Elizabeth Ellicott Lea's ill husband.  When he died shortly thereafter, she stayed on with the family -- for another fifty-nine years!  It is known from William Woys Weaver's revised edition of Domestic Cookery that Lea tested and developed her recipes with the help of her husband's former nurse.  Presumably, the recipes passed all taste trials for safety since Russell lived to over the age of one hundred years.
As William Woys Weaver explained in the "Introduction" of his Revised Edition of Lea's book, ". . . the bedridden authoress was obliged to shout down recipes and corrections to Rebecca Russell or the family cook, whose duty it was to execute them properly."
Weaver discovered that before being self-published in 1845, Domestic Cookery was originally produced as just two manuscripts: one for the author, and one for her daughter, Mary Lea Stabler whose initials, we believe, were also embroidered on a block of The Pidgeon Family Quilt.
The Pidgeon Family Quilt, c. 1850, detail.  Collection of the Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation.  Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.
Yet another quilt (among others) is connected to Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, attributed to her sister.  The "Martha Ellicott Crazy Quilt," dated 1838, is considered the earliest form of a crazy quilt known to exist.  It is in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society and you can see it on their web site at
We could share one of Elizabeth Ellicott Lea's recipes for this holiday season, such as her "White Cake."  It begins with instructions to: "Beat the whites of twenty eggs, wash the salt out of a pound of butter," and ends with "prepare an icing , flavored with rose water, put it on the top and sides."  Instead, consider ordering a copy of Weaver's Revised Edition of Lea's cookbook to enjoy learning much more.
We wish you all health, happiness, peace, and prosperity
through the holidays and in the coming year.
Notes and Sources:
Although difficult to read, the name of "Deb Lea" decipherable when compared to her signature on the Wedding Certificate of Sarah Chandlee to Samuel Pidgeon.  Copy held by Mary Holton Robare.
Davis, Nancy.  "The Kaleidoscope Quilt".  In Eyewinkers, Tumbleturds and Candlebugs: The Art of Elizabeth Talford Scott.  Maryland Institute, College of Art, January 1998.
Friends General Conference at  Accessed 12/13/2016.
Lea, Elizabeth Ellicott.  Domestic Cookery, 1845.
Memories of Hopewell, Published in Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of Hopewell Friends Meeting 1734-1984.  Frederick County, Virginia.  Hopewell Monthly Meeting, 1984, no. 6.  Copy held at the Handley Library Archives, Winchester, Virginia.
Robare, Mary Holton.  "Quaker Networks Revealed in Quilts."  In Proceedings of the Textile History Forum.  Cherry Valley, NY: Textile History Forum, 2007.
Weaver, William Woys.  A Quaker Woman's Cookbook: The Domestic Cookery  of Elizabeth Ellicott Lea.  Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2004. 
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare





1 comment:

  1. I was particularly struck by the photo of Elizabeth Ellicott Lea. I think id is the only photo from that era that the person in the photo is actually smiling. She looks to be a very happy person which never comes across in early pictures.

    I have been enjoying reading about the Quaker quilts & I am always amazed about the information that can be gleaned from the signatures on these friendship quilts.

    Dawn Cooper