Food and Material Culture in the Classroom

Today, we’ll explore an easy way of incorporating food and material culture in the classroom. I’ll be using a specific case study from my recent What the Founders Read course. Blending food and material culture together provides students a way of considering the global economy during the eighteenth century. Thinking about food and material culture together provides a way of demonstrating how slavery touched many of life’s aspects. This approach is especially useful when the pieces we read don’t specifically mention slavery.

The inspiration for this post comes from a chocolate-drinking Snake.

Sheridan
Portrait of Sheridan at The Frick Pittsburgh

When first entering the world of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, readers meet Lady Sneerwell and Snake. Snake is a dubious character that supplies periodicals with scandalous rumor-mongering “paragraphs.” At the start of the play, Sheridan provides a rather curious stage direction: Lady Sneerwell at the dressing-table, Snake drinking chocolate. It is an oddly specific detail in a play that includes few details about its staging. When I reread the line describing Snake as drinking chocolate, I recognized a moment in the text where students could think beyond what is happening on stage. They could use this space in the text to engage with the economy of the Atlantic World and slavery. Additionally, considering this brief line would invite students to think about how plays might be staged. What sorts of decisions might a director make in order to capture the world of the play?

In a previous post I wrote about the problems of my What the Founders Read course. In my original post I detailed how I made choices driven by ensuring that the class would make and that the class would receive approval as a cross-listed course. Over the long-term, I wanted to introduce students to complex issues regarding Founders Chic, marginalized voices in the history of the United States, and the topic of slavery. I could not jump into all these topics right away because I needed to build an incremental narrative. However, surveying students early in the semester revealed that there was dissatisfaction with how the course was progressing and telling some of these narratives. As the creator of the class I had the benefit of knowing what I was thinking and I could see the long game I was planning. Still, I needed ways to foreground aspects of the class that touched on slavery. The opening anecdote of Snake drinking chocolate provided a way of thinking about the ramifications of a global economy and slavery.

book cover.jpg

I wanted to use the opening of The School for Scandal to invite students to consider drinking chocolate and the accoutrements one would need in a play— or in real life— to enjoy their chocolate. I asked students to think about drinking chocolate and its ingredients. I explained what this particular chocolate drink was like, and then I asked them to think about the possible ingredients. Once they came up with ideas I shared with them the drinking chocolate recipe from Walter Staib’s A Sweet Taste of History. I shared with students the ingredients from Staib’s modernized version of eighteenth-century drinking chocolate. I drew their attention to chocolate, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Next, I asked students to take some class time to research each of those ingredients and identify where they were sourced, specifically especially in the 18th century.

ingreds

Next, I drew a (very bad) map on the board. I marked ingredient sources on the map as students revealed them. The map provided a way for students to see the economy of the eighteenth century. As the map began to fill up, I identified how these ingredients were obtained, produced, sourced, and sold within this economy. It provided a way to draw attention to the fact that many of these ingredients were not possible without the systems of slavery.

table
Tea Table, The Met

Once we had a sense of what actually went into the recipe for drinking chocolate, I invited students to consider all of the objects that one would need in order to drink chocolate. We would need a cup one student said. Another added a pitcher. It was harder to tease out a table and chairs, but we did. By considering the objects needed to enjoy drinking chocolate students had a way to consider the role of material culture in the period we were studying and the play itself. I’d already defined material culture in a previous class as part of a quick introduction to book history. I spent some time explaining the role of mahogany in the production of furniture, along with its connections to slavery. To further illustrate these objects I shared with students images of silverware and furniture from the digital collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

my cookies

This unit sounds like I did a lot of leading. There was some leading with what I did. However, I did interject an element of excitement into the classroom because I served chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. In a perfect world, we’d have made drinking chocolate. Instead, we settled for cookies. The cookies allowed me to highlight similar ingredients found in drinking chocolate such as chocolate, sugar, and vanilla. I’m including the recipe I used here.

This is a very low stakes way of approaching the use of food and material culture in the classroom. I have not done a lot with food and recipes in my own classroom. In part, my approach was one of these responses of: what am I going to do in tomorrow’s class? And it was surprisingly easy for me to implement. The important thing is that our day with chocolate bore fruit for many students. It opened up new avenues of discussion. It provided students a way of thinking about the texts we read differently.

I’m not an expert on using food in the classroom. As I wrote and revised this post I decided to go with the language of teaching with food instead of recipes. The students in my class thought about ingredients, not necessarily the recipe itself. In closing, I’d like to direct your attention to resources on teaching with recipes in the classroom. On these sites you’ll find a lot of background, history, delicious recipes, and excellent resources for incorporating recipes and food in the classroom.

The Recipes Project

Cooking in the Archives

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Takin’ Care of Business: Exploring the Early American Book Trade

We spend so much time in the classroom discussing the value of literature as an artform that sometimes it’s easy to forget that literature is an industry and books are commodities. Most authors depend on sales as a source of income and a guarantee that their messages reach audiences.

I first recognized the importance of addressing the economic side of literature several years ago when discussing Susanna Rowson’s sentimental novel Charlotte Temple, first published in the United States in 1794. When I mentioned that Charlotte Temple is considered the first American “bestselling” (to use the term anachronistically) novel, several students asked questions like “What made a novel a ‘bestseller’?” and “How many copies needed to be sold?” These questions then led to broader questions concerning the early American book trade, such as “Where did people buy books?” and “How much did books cost?”

Charlotte Temple

Although it’s difficult to establish a complete picture of how the early American book trade looked, due to lacking records and missing sales figures, much concrete information does exist on the subject. I recommend James Gilreath’s article “American Book Distribution” (1986) and Cathy N. Davidson’s chapter “The Book in the New Republic” from Revolution and the Word (1986, revised 2004) as useful and comprehensive introductory resources on the history of the early American book trade.

Revolution and the Word

What follows is an outline of key points Gilreath and Davidson address in relation to the most common questions my students have posed about the book trade. Ideally, these bite-size factoids can be easily integrated into classroom discussion.

What role did printers play in the creation of early American books?

According to Davidson, “The printer’s main business, in short, was to turn the author’s manuscript into a salable commodity and then to sell it” (79). Printers decided which texts should be published and determined both the quantity to produce and the cost to the consumer.

Davidson also reveals the collaborative relationship between printers and authors: “The printer’s artistic control usually began with his deciphering the original handwritten text, for rarely would he query the author about smudged, illegible words or problematic passages” (79). Printers then proofread and edited manuscripts when converting them to print.

Additionally, printers were responsible for the “physical layout of both the page and the book as a whole,” selecting the typeface and utilizing various type sizes and spacing to emphasize certain passages (Davidson 79). Davidson notes, “A fairly innocuous sentence could easily be given a more sensational cast by strategic italicizing or capitalizing of words such as SEDUCTION or INCEST” (79). Such strategies helped to sell books.

American printing press 1780s

How were early American novels sold and distributed?

Distribution problems were huge obstacles in the sale of early American novels. Since methods of transportation were often limited or unreliable, the distribution of books in the 18th Century was usually local and centered around major cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The distribution of books gradually increased with the improvement and further development of roads and canals. Also, large quantities of books were imported from England in the late 17th and 18th Centuries. Printers developed cooperative networks of distribution with other printers both domestically and overseas.

Davidson and Gilreath identify four major methods for the distribution and sale of books in early America: bookstores, libraries, book agents and hawkers, and subscriptions.

Bookstores: Bookstores existed in both major cities and rural areas. Gilreath notes, however, that bookstores often “depended on the sale of nonbook items for a substantial portion of their income” (516). Gilreath continues: “In urban areas the nonbook goods were stationary materials; in rural areas such goods were general store stock such as shovels, seeds, and dry goods” (516).

Libraries: Both Gilreath and Davidson emphasize the increasingly important role of libraries, specifically in relation to the distribution of fictional works. Davidson explains that by 1800, “most larger cities had several libraries catering to different classes and different tastes; even small towns generally boasted of at least one library…[making] books both accessible and affordable to a rapidly growing and largely new class of readers” (88). Early American libraries came in three varieties: social libraries, institutional libraries, and circulating libraries. Students are often surprised by the way some of these libraries differ from modern-day libraries.

Benjamin Franklin founded the first social library in Philadelphia in 1731. By 1800, 376 social libraries existed in the United States. According to Davidson, social libraries typically charged a small annual membership fee and sometimes required the purchase of shares, which could cost up to $20.

Institutional libraries were usually academic libraries linked with colleges; therefore, they weren’t accessible to the general public. According to Gilreath, such libraries “were built by the donation of estates rather than by an aggressive book-purchasing program that sought to measure its clients’ reading interests” (524).

Davidson defines the circulating library as “a commercial library (typically owned by a bookseller) that stocked the most popular books of the day and rented them at terms affordable even by common laborers” (89). Major circulating libraries, such as the Philadelphia Circulating Library, charged $6 annually and “frequently allowed subscribers to pay their subscriptions by the year, half-year, quarter, or even month—a concession to those who might not have much ready cash on hand” (Davidson 89). Gilreath notes that since circulating libraries often carried a high number of fictional works, it “suggests that Americans were interested in imaginative literature but did not think that it had enough permanent value to justify the purchase of these books for personal collections” (525). Novels were often perceived as a “commodity that could be leased for a brief period and then returned to a vendor,” and such an attitude, Gilreath believes, played a major role in the “struggles of the American writer” throughout the 19th Century.

Book Agents and Book Hawkers: Agents and hawkers were essentially travelling salesmen who ensured that books reached the reading public outside of major cities. According to Davidson, the difference between agents and hawkers is in areas of distribution. Agents concentrated on “larger and more accessible country towns” (83) while hawkers “supplied booksellers in little towns or villages or dealt directly with individual buyers who otherwise had no ready access to the book trade” (82).

Book Hawker

Subscriptions: For printers, the preferred method of book distribution was subscription publication, which entailed consumers advance ordering books, so printers could accurately assess how many copies of a book to print based on the preestablished demand. Printers could also determine whether there was even enough interest in a book to merit its publication.

Discussing post-Civil War publishing, Gilreath describes the benefit of subscription publication as follows: “ Although traditional publishers characteristically printed only about 2,500 copies of a book and kept large numbers of titles in print, subscription book publishers concentrated on fewer titles but issued them in numbers far exceeding those published by traditional trade” (554).

Often book agents and hawkers were responsible for travelling from town to town seeking subscriptions for upcoming publications. According to William Powell, “Subscribers to books undoubtedly considered themselves patrons of the press and were fully aware of the fact that only through their common support could the books be issued” (qtd. in Gilreath 535-6). In the 19th Century, Mark Twain even commented on the importance of subscriptions in the sales of his novels: “When a subscription book of mine sells 60,000, I always think I know wither 50,000 of them went. They went to people who don’t visit bookstores” (qtd. in Gilreath 557).

How much did novels cost in early America?

Early American novels were expensive, which accounts for the dramatic rise in popularity of libraries. According to Davidson, the average late 18th-century novel would have cost about four times more than a hardcover novel today. Davidson adds, however, that a “more meaningful measure” would be as follows: “In 1800, a carpenter in Massachusetts earned $1 per day, an unskilled laborer half as much. A pound of sugar cost $.13, a pair of leather shoes $.80, and cotton cloth $1 a yard. A novel typically cost between. $.75 and $1.50” (85). For the cost of a $1 novel like Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn, the average day laborer could purchase a bushel of potatoes and a half bushel of corn (Davidson 85).

Davidson interestingly highlights what book costs would mean specifically to schoolteachers. Davidson uses the example of one 18th-century schoolteacher who kept comprehensive accounts of his finances. Ethan Allen Greenwood earned $3 a month at his first teaching job and $14 a month at his second, and his estimated expenses (including $.37 per dinner at a local tavern, $.20 per week for his laundry, $2.75 per month for firewood, $1.12 for a stagecoach ride) left little room for buying novels. However, records reveal that Greenwood “read nearly a volume a day even during his poorest student days” since he, as Davidson explains, “largely borrowed these books by joining three libraries” with low membership fees (87).

The cost of novels didn’t substantially decrease until the rise of mass printing technologies and the development of cheap, easily accessible paperback editions of novels in the 1830s and 40s.

Printing Press 6 Cyl

What made a novel a “bestseller” in early America?

Since the term “bestseller” didn’t actually exist until 1902, seven years after the first “list” of high-selling books was produced (Sutherland 17), applying a term like “bestseller” to early American novels really just means that a novel sold a much higher number of copies compared to the average.

The average printer in the 18th Century, as Davidson notes, “hoped that [a] volume might sell several hundred copies, enough to reimburse the production costs and perhaps pay something over” (75). in 1794, Matthew Carey initially printed 1000 copies (a large run for the time) of the first edition of Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, but he had no way of knowing how popular the novel would become. By the early 19th Century, Rowson’s novel sold almost 40,000 copies, making it the highest selling American novel until the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Of course, it’s important to remember that Stowe was publishing after the advent of paperback printing.

While Rowson’s novel sold tremendously, her profits from the novel were not substantial enough for her family to live on, and she, like many other early American writers, did have to supplement novel writing with alternate means of income. James Fenimore Cooper is one of the first early American “bestsellers” who was able to live entirely on his income as a writer. Cooper sold up to 40,000 copies of his novels each year, earning an average yearly income of $6500 (Davidson 75).

 

Works Cited:

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford UP, 2004.

Gilreath, James. “American Book Distribution.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 95, 1986, pp. 501-83.

Sutherland, John. Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2007.