Michigan State University

Corson, Juliet, 1842-1897

Juliet Corson, one of the original cooking school leaders and champion of nutritious meals for the poor, was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, the second child and only daughter of Mary Ann Henderson and Peter Ross Corson, a prosperous produce wholesaler. When Corson was six, the family moved to New York City, where she grew up. A sickly child, Corson did not attend school; she was educated in the classics by her mother, her aunts, and her maternal uncle, Dr. Alfred Upham. She read Latin and Greek history and classical poetry from the comfort of her uncle's large library, eventually growing healthy enough to join her brothers in rowing, fishing and shooting. Her mother died when she was sixteen. When her father remarried two years later, her stepmother insisted that Corson earn her own living.

She began working as a librarian at the Working Women's Library, receiving four dollars a week - equivalent to around sixty-eight dollars today - and a place to sleep, in the library. This initiation into the plight of the poor permanently affected her, and set her on her life's course. Her education served her well, and she supplemented her income by writing poems and sketches for newspapers, eventually writing a column for the New York Leader on new books and music and then landing a position as the only female staff writer for the National Quarterly Review. In 1873, she volunteered as secretary to the Women's Educational and Industrial Society of New York, recently formed to offer vocational training for women, a critical service at a time in history when thousands of young city women needed to support themselves but had never been trained for any kind of work. The society taught sewing, bookkeeping, proofreading, and shorthand free-of-charge, but soon realized that domestic service would offer more job opportunities than the professional fields, and began a cooking school. They asked Corson to teach the classes, though she had no culinary knowledge beyond making coffee and grilling a steak. She prepared herself by studying the best German and French cookbooks - "admiring the thoroughness of the German and delicacy of the French, she combined the ideas and reasons of their methods into a philosophy of her own." Originally intended to help poorer women, Corson's class attracted the attention of her upper-class acquaintances and press colleagues, who encouraged her to teach, write articles on cookery for the papers and to open her own cooking school. In 1876 she founded the New York Cooking School, open to rich and poor, charging tuition on a sliding scale so that no one would be turned away.

In her teaching, and in her first cookbook, The Cooking School Manual of Practical Directions for Economical Every-day Cookery (1877), Corson stressed thrift, setting forth a method to answer the question she poses in the Manual, "How well can we live, if we are moderately poor?" This remarkable book set the pattern Corson would follow in her lifelong instruction: how to make "the most wholesome and palatable dishes at the least possible cost." Her approach, reiterated in the free pamphlet she prepared the same year, Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Families of Six, was to 1) utilize every part of food, commenting that "in no other land is there such profusion of food . . . In Europe provinces would live upon what towns waste here." 2) serve several inexpensive dishes - soup, fish, stew, vegetables -- rather than one expensive cut of meat; 3) use homegrown herbs and inexpensive spices to add variety to basic dishes; 4) encourage the preparation of lentils, peas, and macaroni as a varied source of inexpensive protein.

Fifteen-Cent Dinners, a document that attests to the severe economic troubles of the period, was published at Corson's own expense. During the great strike of 1877, with many people in dire straits, she distributed 50,000 copies free of charge, and in turn received letters like the following:

"Kind friend Juliet, for the last six months I have not earned $1.50 a day. Times are very hard. There are plenty in our factory no better off than myself, with five to seven in a family. Please send us books."

The pamphlet was so popular because it created a balanced, varied menu for a family of six, at a cost of three dollars a week, the equivalent of approximately fifty dollars in 2003. Though her detailed advice on choosing "second quality" meats could drive one to vegetarianism, her recommendations for soups, homemade breads, fruits and vegetables, puddings, herbs and spices, and cocoa as a nutritious drink are quite appealing. She was criticized and even threatened, at the time, by some who believed employers would pay less after learning how cheaply workers could eat, but the gratitude far out-weighed the rancor. A flattering article on Corson and her school that appeared in Harper's in 1880 referred to her as "the benefactor of the working classes, for she teaches them how to make two dishes where formerly they made but one; and the friend of women, for she has shown them the way to a useful and honorable profession."

Corson's other lifelong commitment was to raising the level of attention and respect paid to cookery instruction. She was highly regarded by the U.S. Commissioner of Education, John Eaton, who sponsored lectures she gave around the country, and supported her successful efforts to introduce cooking education into many public schools. At his invitation, she wrote the influential circular, Training Schools of Cookery (1879), a Bureau of Education publication. In her many travels, her cultivated manner helped persuade educators and officials that cookery was not mere domestic work, but useful knowledge for all students. In fact, the French government in 1880 contacted Corson, wishing to learn of her cooking school management and instruction principles, in order to apply them to public school cookery in French cities. In 1886, with the support of Commissioner Eaton, Corson published Miss Corson's Practical American Cookery and Household Management (in this collection.) The idea for the book originated with a remark by Corson to Eaton, that genuine American cookery was still as "wholesome and palatable" as it was in her grandmother's day. Eaton was inspired to circulate a letter on Corson's behalf, to education leaders nationwide, asking them to send Corson information and recipes on their local cookery, foods, and market prices, to be incorporated into a book of truly American cooking. As Eaton imagined, the work was broad and detailed, with a first part devoted to kitchen design, marketing, methods of cooking, and the art of entertaining, and the second part devoted to the recipes themselves. The book concludes with suggestions for invalids' diets, a topic that Corson, like her younger colleague in Boston, Fannie Farmer (1857 - 1915)(represented in this collection), developed into an important specialty. Corson instituted a special course of instruction in cooking for invalids at the New York State Training School for Nurses, the Brooklyn City Hospital, the New York State Charity Hospital Training Schools, and other nursing schools. She published Diet for Invalids and Children in 1886, and was considered a leader in dietetics. Corson's other books include Twenty-Five Cent Dinners for Families of Six (1878), written at the request of slightly higher wage earners, Miss Corson's New Family Cookbook (1885), and Family Living on $500 a Year (1888).

Corson's health suffered in the 1890's; nevertheless, she was the organizer of New York's Cooking School Exhibit at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was awarded a medal there for her life's work. She also gave an address to the Congress of Women, entitled "The Evolution of Home." Despite the overtones of social Darwinism in its title, this idiosyncratic piece was Corson's reaction to her tour of the many ethnological and anthropological exhibits that were part of the exposition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas. She invited modern women to view these exhibits with an eye to seeing how central women-and women's work-have been to all civilizations of the past as mothers and priestesses, and as keepers of the flame, harvest and hearth. "From the canon of the Mancos, through the temples and palaces of Yucatan, wife-love and mother-love can lead us back . . . Always woman, and always motherhood . . ." As Corson had always sought to cultivate knowledge of cooking and domestic science in order to help women across lines of class, she invited women at the White City (another name for the exhibition site) to see connections between women of ancient and modern societies, and to view with a measure of skepticism the so-called superiority of modern civilization. The earth-oven of the South Pacific, she reminded her audience, is no different from the way "epicures of the Eastern seacoast cook their clam bakes." Corson's sense of the mistakenly marginalized role of traditional women's work put her at odds with more conventionally progressive voices of the Congress of Women. Although she too wanted women to enjoy greater influence in shaping culture and society, she wondered whether women, in their "strife for public equality with men," were "not in danger of losing sight of the homely virtues of wifehood and motherhood." Near the end of the nineteenth century Corson was pondering the options that women continue to face today in their shifting and often simultaneous roles as wives, mothers, professionals and public servants. "Without doubt it is sweet and proper to serve one's country in public," she questioned, "but what will result if only dull-witted ones are left to maintain the elevation of the home? . . . upon what point of vantage shall we plant the lever with which we women hope to move the world?"

Corson, who never married, spent her final years writing from her New York City apartment. Despite her success, she was never wealthy. At the time of her final illness, a tumorous growth that confined her to bed for several months, a collection had to be taken to pay for her medical care and expenses. She died at home at age fifty-six, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn.


Sources

  • The Cooking School Manual of Practical Directions for Economical Every-day Cookery. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1877.

     

  • -----Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Families of Six. New York: Juliet Corson, 1877.

     

  • ----- Miss Corson's Practical American Cookery and Household Management. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1886

     

  • -----"The Evolution of Home," The Congress of Women. Ed. Mary Kavanaugh Eagle. Chicago: International Publishing Co., 1895.

     

  • "Death of Juliet Corson," The New York Times, June 20, 1897.

     

  • Fryatt, F.E., "The New York Cooking School," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, December 1879.

     

  • The Home Queen Cookbook. Chicago: M.A. Donahue & Co., 1901.

     

  • Lincoln, Mary J., "The Pioneers of Scientific Cookery," Good Housekeeping Magazine, October 1910.

     

  • Matt, Susan, American National Biography. Vol. 5. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.

     

  • Sahr, Robert. "Inflation Conversion Factors for Dollars, 1665 to Estimated 2003," www.oregonstate.edu/Dept/pol_sci/fac/sahr/sahr.htm (March 2003).

     

  • Shapiro, Laura, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.

     

  • Wilson, Mary Tolford, Notable American Women 1607 - 1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 1. Ed. Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.