Lincoln, Mary J. (Mary Johnson), 1844-1921

Titles by this author
Mrs. Lincoln's Boston cook book : what to do and what not to do in cooking

Mary Lincoln was born in South Attleboro, Massachusetts, the second daughter and one of three children of Sarah Morgan (Johnson) Bailey and the Reverend John Milton Burnham Bailey, who died when Lincoln was seven. She contributed to the family income from an early age, sewing hooks and eyes on cards, setting stones, and helping with the household work. "Although it was often hard to 'help mother' when other children were at play," Lincoln recalled in her Boston Cook Book, she prized the early training which served her so well her whole life.

Lincoln graduated from Wheaton Female Seminary (later called Wheaton College) in 1864, taught school for one term at a Vermont country school, and was married to David A. Lincoln, a clerk, in June 1865. The couple moved to Boston. In the late 1870's David Lincoln suffered from failing health, and Mary Lincoln worked as a domestic to maintain an income. They had no children.

It was at this time that the Woman's Education Association (WEA) of Boston decided to establish a cooking school - the Boston Cooking School - which would become the most famous of the first American cooking schools. As Lincoln recalled, "The determining influence in the organization of the Boston Cooking School was the return of Mrs. Sarah T. Hooper . . . she had seen the work at the South Kensington School on her way through London, and came home filled with enthusiasm to have similar work in Boston, especially for the benefit of the poor and those who would work out as cooks." Hooper, an active member of the WEA, became the first president, and hired Joanna Sweeney and Maria Parloa to teach classes. Parloa, also represented in this collection, was a popular cooking lecturer who had founded her own cooking school in New York City, and charged the WEA high rates for her services. Lincoln, recommended as a teacher in the fall of 1879, by a friend of her sister's, had no prior cooking school experience and declined the offer at first; but after taking several lessons with Sweeney, and attending a lecture by Parloa, Lincoln felt she could do the job. She reported that she boosted her confidence with thoughts of her up-bringing: "I must simply be my natural self; work in my own way, just as I do at home. Thanks to my mother's wise training, I knew that my way was one of which I need not be ashamed." Though students did complain of Lincoln's lack of experience, she persevered, enrolling herself in Parloa's course for cooking teachers the second year, and eventually replacing Parloa in her third year.

The WEA's faith in Lincoln was justified by the Boston Cook Book (1884), one of the most innovative, original cookbooks of all time, and precursor and predecessor of the most-enduring American cookbook, Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896) (also represented in this collection). One reviewer at the time wrote: "It is the trimmest, best arranged, best illustrated, most intelligible, manual of cookery as a high art, and as an economic art, that has appeared." Lincoln prepared the book from her accumulated experience teaching young ladies, housekeepers, nurses, medical students, pupils from a school for the deaf and dumb, impoverished students, and prospective cooking teachers from all parts of the country. She knew the demands such a cookbook would have to satisfy:

[Recipes] must be clear, but concise, for those who are already well grounded in first principles. They must be explained, illustrated, and reiterated for the inexperienced and the careless. They must have a word of caution for those who seem always to have the knack of doing the wrong thing. They must include the most healthful foods for those who have been made ill by improper food; the cheapest as well as the most nutritious, for the laboring class; the richest and most elaborately prepared, for those who can afford them physically as well as pecuniarily.

Such a blueprint for a cooking school book, or any comprehensive cookbook, still applies. Lincoln's methods, often referred to as "scientific cookery," required cooks to understand systematic measurements, nutrition, digestion, and the chemistry of cooking, as well as the basics of keeping an orderly kitchen and serving as a gracious hostess. Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cooking School Cookbook contained everything one would need to know not only to graduate from a cooking school, but to set up a school of one's own, including examination questions, necessary equipment, topics for lectures, books of reference, and the course of instruction used at the Boston Cooking School.

Some historians track the rise of "scientific cookery" as the fall of good-tasting, simple food. Fannie Farmer, Lincoln's student and successor, had a particular fondness for whimsical foods, and rich desserts - and a knack for understanding that many society women who could afford to pay full tuition shared that fondness; cooking schools, in their heyday, would extol the virtues of nutrition, but spend hours demonstrating decorative salads and heavenly desserts. When Lincoln addressed the Congress of Women at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she was well aware of this: "I have for a long time felt, instead of teaching my pupils how to prepare elegant dinners of many courses, and to compete with chefs and caterers, I should spend more time in teaching them to prepare the essential dishes perfectly, and until they can do that to give no time to elaborate menus." Her address is remarkable in that it notes succinctly how women of the late nineteenth century were growing ignorant of cookery, and often extolled their own ignorance. Lincoln objected, not because the wife and mother had a duty to cook, per se, but because she had a duty to recommend to her family a combination of foods that, based on scientific study, would best maintain their health and energy.

Lincoln resigned from the Boston Cooking School in 1885, after the death of her sister. From 1885 to 1889 she taught classes at Lasell Seminary in Auburndale, Massachusetts, and prepared her Boston School Kitchen Text-Book (1887) for use in the Boston Public Schools. The Text-Book and her Boston Cook Book became the basis for courses offered in public and private schools throughout the United States, Canada, England, and elsewhere. Lincoln capitalized on her success, taking to the lecture circuit where as many as 500 women would attend her talks at department stores, cooking schools, colleges, and women's clubs. In 1894, the year her husband died, she co-founded the New England Kitchen Magazine, later called American Kitchen Magazine. As culinary editor, she ran a popular syndicated column, "From Day to Day." From 1889 until her death, she was active in the prestigious New England Woman's Press Association, and continued to write for periodicals, publish books, and devise a great number of advertising pamphlets for food and cooking-equipment companies.

Her celebrity status made her a star of the burgeoning industry of brand name foods and the inseparable field of advertising: she endorsed brand names for olive oil, salt, flour and baking powder, and was a principal in Mrs. Lincoln's Baking Powder Company in Boston.

In her lifetime, Lincoln exerted a remarkable influence on American cookery. "Mrs. Lincoln was one of a talented and influential group of women who codified America's cooking and eating habits a century ago," writes Jan Longone. Lincoln died in Boston at the age of seventy-seven, following a cerebral hemorrhage. She was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Attleboro.


  • DuSablon, Mary Anna, American National Biography. Vol. 13. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.
  • Lincoln, Mary Johnson, Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book: What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884.
  • ----- Boston Cooking School Cook Book. A reprint of the 1884 classic with a new introduction by Janice B. Longone. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996.
  • -----"Cookery," The Congress of Women. Ed. Mary Kavanaugh Eagle. Chicago: International Publishing Co., 1895.
  • -----"The Pioneers of Scientific Cookery," Good Housekeeping Magazine, October 1910.
  • 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. 2. Ed. Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Written by Anne-Marie Rachman