The Fannie Farmer You Didn’t Know

One hundred and eight years ago today, Fannie Merritt Farmer opened the door to Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery in Boston. 

I’m sure most of you have at least heard the name Fannie Farmer and are aware that there is a famous cookbook that bears her name.  But how much do you know about the woman herself?  Fannie Farmer was a woman of keen intelligence, unusual motivation, avid curiosity and personal courage.

Fannie, born in 1857 in Medford, MA, to Mary Watson Merritt and John Franklin Farmer, was the oldest of four daughters.  Her father was an editor and printer and both parents placed a high value on education – it was expected that Fannie would go to college.  However, when Fannie was 16 she suffered a paralytic stroke and could not continue her education.  For a number of years after her stroke she was unable to walk and remained in her parents’ care.  It was during this time that Fannie developed an interest in cooking. 

At the age of 30, Fannie, who now walked (though she would have a pronounced limp for the remainder of her years), enrolled in the Boston Cooking School. This was at the height of the domestic science movement and the school utilized a scientific approach to cooking and food preparation.  It also trained women to become cooking teachers at a time when their opportunities for employment were limited.  Fannie attended the school for two years, learning what was considered the most crucial elements of the science – nutrition and diet for the healthy person, cooking for convalescents, methods of cleaning and sanitation, techniques of baking and cooking, and general household management.  During her time as a student, Fannie studied under Mary J. Lincoln, who published the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.  This cookbook was used in a number of cooking schools, most of which were established for the training of professional cooks and cooking instructors.

Fannie proved herself to be one of the school’s more outstanding students and was kept on as assistant to the director after she graduated.  During this time, Fannie started exploring the association between eating and health.  She went so far as to take a summer course at Harvard Medical School to aid in her understanding of this connection.  Eventually she was appointed school principal and then, in 1894, director.  It was just two years later, in 1896, that Fannie revised and reissued The Boston Cooking School Cookbook.  The publication of Fannie’s book was a highly significant event in cooking history.  Before this publication, ingredient measurements were imprecise, using  subjective notations such as ‘the size of an egg’ or ‘a teacup full’.  Such vague measurements made it very difficult to duplicate results from cook to cook.  Fannie’s cookbook introduced the idea of using standardized measuring utensils with an emphasis on taking care to use level measurements..  In addition to the more than 1800 recipes, the book included scientific explanations of the chemical processes that occur during cooking as well as essays on housekeeping, the importance of cleanliness in the kitchen, canning and drying produce and nutritional information.

Little, Brown & Company, who produced the book, had doubts that the book would do well and so only produced 3000 copies, which were published at the author’s expense.  However, the book proved so popular that Fannie saw twenty-one editions printed during her lifetime.  It has remained a standard work and it is still available in print today, over 100 years later.

Fannie continued to serve as director of the Boston Cooking School for eleven years, then resigned and went on to establish her own school.  Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, as it was known,  emphasized the practice of cookery rather than just theory.  Its target students were housewives rather than future academics.  Fannie also focused on developing cooking equipment for the sick and disabled.  She became a highly respected authority in this field and was invited to deliver lectures to nurses, women’s clubs and even the Harvard Medical School.  Her lectures were printed by newspapers across the country making her influence widespread and her name a household word.  She also wrote a popular cooking column for a national magazine, the Woman’s Home Companion, which ran for ten years.

In addition to the 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (Later known simply as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook), Fannie published five other cookbooks.  They are:

  • Chafing Dish Possibilities,  1898.
  • Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, 1904.
  • What to Have for Dinner,  1905.
  • Catering for Special Occasions, with Menus and Recipes, 1911.
  • A New Book of Cookery, 1912.

Later in life, Fannie suffered a second paralytic stroke that confined her to a wheelchair for the last seven years of her life.  However, that did not prevent her from carrying on her responsibilities.  She continued to lecture, write, invent recipes and travel.   In fact, just ten days before her death, she delivered a lecture from her wheelchair.  Fannie died in 1915 at the age of 57.

For those of you interested in taking a look at the original 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook here is a link to the online version

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
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21 thoughts on “The Fannie Farmer You Didn’t Know”

  1. I would love to see the recipes in the Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent cookbook! The woman sounds like she was as much scientist and nutritionist as well as cooking expert.

    Thanks for the info and happy Monday!

    Peace, Julie

  2. A dear friend gave me the Fannie Farmer Cookbook as a wedding gift. I used it all the time. It’s stained and spotted, but it still sits on top of the fridge. When it doubt, check with Fannie!

  3. What a legend and a woman of practicality. I love that she started a school for housewives instead of furthering her career among the academians of the day. She truly had a heart for helping women. And the fact that she was instrumental in starting the cookbook trend of using definitive measurements instead of a pinch of this and dash of that is wonderful. I will be forever thankful!

  4. Thank you for an interesting post. I have a Fannie Farmer cookbook, but never knew her story. I actually didn’t realize she started her career as long ago as she did. I am familiar with the old style recipe notations. My grandmother gave me several recipes that had the “lard the size of an egg” and “a handful of whatever” type directions. It is really hard to make those turn out right. I do cook that way with some dishes, but those are my creations and I’ve made them enough to know what works. I am sure that is the way the recipes in the early cookbooks were started.
    Ms. Farmer certainly didn’t let her limitations stop her. In a time when there were enough barriers for women, she overcame those as well as her physical problems. Thanks for the link.

  5. Julie – I think her own personal experiences led to her having such a burning interest in studying the ties between nutrition and good health

    Victoria – I imagine many a bride received the Fannie Farmer Cookbook as her intro into cooking. It holds up well, even after 100 years.

  6. Karen – I agree. I think all of us ‘modern day’ cooks owe a debt of gratitude to Fannie

    Patricia – Yes, Fannie was one amazing, determined lady who didn’t let physical limitations hold her down

  7. Winnie, how sad about Fannie’s health problems. She must’ve worked very hard to overcome that first stroke and regain her abilities. I love that Fannie Farmer Cookbook. It has so much interesting information in it. It’s a resource for research. I reference it quite a bit. Thanks for a wonderful blog.

  8. well i must be the only one that doesn’t have a copy of her cookbook 🙂
    course…i’m not much of a cook and stick to mostly vegan recipes…so i’m sure her cookbook wouldn’t work, lol
    very interesting and inspiring that she moved past her stroke to be so sucessful–i’m sure her books were highly coveted back in the day
    in some ways times haven’t changed much
    her recipes are probably better with “real” food instead of all the pressed ingredients these days
    and a clean kitchen is always in style

  9. Linda – You’re right about it making a great reference for research. She included a lot more than just recipes in that book

    Tabitha – LOL Idon’t think this book was targeted toward vegans. But it makes for an interesting read anyway.

  10. Fascinating! I didn’t realize Fannie Farmer led such an interesting life. And how brilliant of her to standardize measuring utensils. I certainly thank her for our modern, easy-to-read recipes. :0)

  11. Hi Cora! And yes, the standardized measurements is a no brainer today, but how clever of her to have included it in her cookbook back then. Must have wonderfully simplified the task for new housewives and cooks

  12. It’s amazing to think there didn’t used to be measuring cups or measuring spoons. That the concept of ‘level’ teaspoon was new.

    My mother in law has an old, old recipe written on a tattered card. She still makes the recipe sometimes. It’s a favorite. One of the ingredients is ‘Butter the size of an egg’.

  13. I inherited two things from my husband’s grandmother and one of them was the Boston Cook Book! I truly enjoyed hearing about the author of this book.

  14. Mary – my mother still uses recipes that say a smidge of this or a dab of that.

    catslady – so glad you enjoyed the post. And what a neat keepsake to have from your husband’s grandmother

  15. Great post, Winnie. I love cookbooks even though I dont use them much. I bought Dutch Oven Cooking after our recent wagon train trip, and also Mormon Cooking, in Utah. I definitely will do some snooping inside those pages.

    My favorite recipe of all is my Aunt Grace’s banana bread from a Russina cook book. I have tried blintzes (crepes) and nachinki (turnovers)from it.

  16. Great post, Winnie. I have the tenth edition (1959) of her cookbook, which I still use. For what it’s worth, it also has a great recipe for banana bread.
    I knew about her contribution to cooking, but not about her life and her health problems. What an amazing woman!

  17. I love cook books and especialy old cook books. While I have never seen Fannie Farmer’s cookbook but will have to take a look. I have many “just a pinch” recipies written by my grandmothers and mother-in-law but the one that tickles me the most is one that my sister-in-law gave me for a cooked frosting that says to cook and stir ‘until right’! I still have never made it ‘right’. Thank you for another interesting post.

  18. Margaret – Isn’t it fun to learn a little something about the person behind the accomplishment

    Connie – LOL on the ‘stir until right’ instruction. I’d probably be stirring for a very long time!

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