Lucretia Mott: 19th Century Foodie

Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College

When I was hired to digitize collections for PACSCL’s In Her Own Right project, I was most excited to work with the Lucretia Mott papers. Mott (1793-1880) was a Quaker minister, abolitionist, social reformer, and one of the igniters of the women’s rights movement, and I was eager to learn more about her. One thing I did not expect was for Lucretia Mott to make me hungry. Though she was a tiny woman, she certainly enjoyed a good meal, and she often included the details of the fare she served or was served in her correspondence. She also touted her cooking skills, which her granddaughter Anna Davis Hallowell confirmed were excellent in the biography she wrote of her grandparents.

Lucretia Mott included a lot of detail in her letters, much of which was rather mundane, but I always enjoyed when she described a meal. In 1849, while travelling through New York, she attended a dinner party in the home of abolitionist and politician Gerrit Smith, where she was served boiled ham, barbecued chicken, boiled macaroni, potatoes, salad, coconut pudding, strawberries and cream, tea, and bread and butter. A few days after this event, she supped at the home of her daughter, Ann Mott Hopper, and was served lamb, string beans, squash, new potatoes, peas, raspberries, stewed blackberries, and milk. Additionally, at one point during her travels she mentions getting so hungry that she “demolished” part of a fruit cake, an anecdote that I found delightfully amusing.

At a dinner party in 1868, Mott served a “grand meal” of lobster salad, beef steak, ham and tongue, cucumber preserves, bread and biscuits, and dessert of tea, coffee with cream, cake, and strawberries. When Mott had “the Jeffersons” (possibly descendants of Thomas Jefferson) over for dinner in 1879, she served them fried oysters, oyster patties, ham, salmon salad, coffee, tea, and orange and vanilla water ice (water ice is the name for Italian ice used by Philadelphians).

In a letter from 1869, Mott wrote at length about her the vegetables accumulated from her garden, which included corn, tomatoes, blackberries, lima beans, eggplant, and beans. The corn was dried on the roof, the tomatoes canned, and the rest were put into vegetable soup. She made another humorous comment in this letter when she complained about one of her household employee’s cooking, describing her seasoning as “salt as the ocean, or no salt at all.”

Some of the dishes that came up most often in her letters were oysters, ice cream, and corn pudding. In fact, Mott was so fond of the latter that when the United States Gazette published a corn pudding recipe regarding the ingredients as “glorious stimulants to the dyspeptic stomach” (dyspepsia is another word for indigestion and was an affliction Mott suffered from), Mott was compelled to send an oppositional letter and sample of her own homemade corn pudding to the editor. He responded by retracting his satirical comment and admitting that Mott’s dish was both palatable and nutritious. Perhaps corn pudding activist can be added to Mott’s extensive list of achievements.

Though I certainly enjoyed Mott’s inclusion of great detail when it came to her meals, it also became frustrating because she often included more information about the food that was served at a dinner party than what was discussed at these meals, many of which had very important people present. I suppose, though, that this is a reflection of Mott’s modesty, for she was not one to brag about her achievements. She sought to make the world a better place, but she was not one to seek accolades for her accomplishments. Nonetheless, her collection of correspondence contains a wealth of fascination information about the petite powerhouse that was Lucretia Mott, and I am so excited to have helped catalog it and make it available for everyone to access online.

Ready to explore? Visit collections related to this exhibit in In Her Own Right: Mott Manuscripts, SFHL-MSS-035.