Curtis, Isabel Gordon, 1863-1914
Isabel Gordon Curtis was born in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1863, the daughter of Peter and Elizabeth (Ragg) Gordon. She was educated at the Gordon School in Huntly, and Milne's Academy in Fochabers, Scotland. Her mother sent her to a caterer's kitchen to learn cookery, and she learned how to make common Scottish foods - shortbread, hot mutton pies, gingerbread, and Bath buns, but not yeast bread. Yeast bread was traditionally bought at bakeries, according to Curtis, because Scottish home ovens were not designed to reach high temperatures necessary for baking yeast doughs. Once, when a visiting cousin from Canada explained how to bake bread, young Curtis was naturally curious to try it on her own. She bought the flour and yeast when the family was out, kneaded the dough, and, knowing nothing of the rising process, popped the loaves straight into an oven as hot as she could make it. She recalled:
They never rose as I supposed bread ought to do and my hopes fell. Hours later I took the loaves from the oven; they were heavy and dark, with a crust you could not have broken with an axe. They looked like curling stones more than anything I can think of. The perplexing question was where to put them, for I wanted nobody to know of my failure. If I had buried them in the garden they might be dug up. Our wash house in the yard had a queer little attic which nobody entered, because the only entrance it had was a hole opening from the wide chimney. I climbed on the rough cobble stones of the wall and rolled my loaves into the dimmest recess of the attic. Years after, when I had utterly forgotten them, the wash house was demolished by a windstorm and among the debris were found my loaves. They were a curiosity to the neighbors, for I never told my secret. One old man declared they were meteorites, and his theory was looked upon as a possibility.
Curtis arrived in America in 1886, and entered newspaper work in Springfield Massachusetts. From 1892 to 1896 she was an editor of the woman's department at the New England Homestead, and Farm and Home, and a dramatic editor at the Springfield Homestead in 1896. She married Francis Curtis in August of 1896, and assisted him in editing the Binghamton Chronicle in Binghamton, New York. In 1900 she joined the editorial staff of Good Housekeeping magazine, answering readers' homemaking questions. Curtis writes, "No wider experience can be gained than in answering the questions that come from housekeepers to a home magazine. In learning how to solve problems for other people, you absorb a multiplicity of knowledge that cannot be achieved in one home." She left this position in 1903 to do similar work at Collier's Weekly, the Delineator, and finally, from 1907 to 1911, at Success Magazine.
Curtis published several books on homemaking and cooking. Her first was called Left-overs Made Palatable. How to Cook Odds and Ends of Food into Appetizing Dishes; A Manual of Practical Economy of Money, Time and Labor in the Preparation and Use of Food (1901). In 1903, she compiled the Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book: A Combined Memorandum Cook Book and Scrap Book, which was reissued in 1909 under the title The Good Housekeeping Woman's Home Cook Book (represented in this collection.) The Good Housekeeping cook book claimed to introduce several new ideas, including a narrow width that was an efficient space-saver when opened, as well as blank pages for notes and additional recipes, and most importantly, a collection of recipes that were guaranteed to have been tested not just by the recipe's author, but by Good Housekeeping magazine subscribers, and the New England School of Cookery. To a magazine that prided itself on keeping its readers informed on advances in the fields of health care, nutrition, and labor-saving devices, and stressed the importance of an organized, efficient approach to all domestic tasks, thorough testing of a recipe projected the very image of credibility and trustworthiness on which the magazine built its following. In 1909, Curtis also published her own cookbook, Mrs. Curtis' Cook Book, bound together with the 700-page reference work by Sydney Morse, Household Discoveries. Other non-fiction books by Curtis include The Making of a Housewife (1906), The Bedroom Book (1907), about home decorating, and an early fund-raiser published by the Binghamton Chronicle entitled American Beauties: published in aid of the Commercial Travelers' Home at Binghamton, N.Y. (1900).
After Curtis retired from Success Magazine, she put her editorial activities behind her, and concentrated on fiction writing. In the last three years of her life, she published a novel a year: The Woman from Wolverton (1912), The Lapse of Enoch Wentworth (1913) and The Congresswoman (1914). She died in 1915, at age fifty-one.
- Curtis, Isabel Gordon, The Good Housekeeping Woman's Home Cook Book. Chicago: Reilly & Britton Co., 1909.
- Morse, Sydney and Isabel Gordon Curtis, Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis' Cook Book. NY: The Success Co., 1909.
- Who Was Who in America. Vol. I. Chicago, IL: Marquis Who's Who, Inc., 1973.
- Woman's Who's Who of America. 1914-1915. New York: The American Commonwealth Company, 1914.
Written by Anne-Marie Rachman