Tag Archives: great depression

It’s a Small World

Mrs ThorneMrs. Thorne was a downsizer. That is not to say that she took to the 1920s and 1930s the way much of America did, the way normal-thinking people of the employable class tighten their belts and make do and mend. She was not employable; she had no education. She did not need one. “Knowing how to put my hat on straight was supposed to be enough,” she recalled.

Hers was a world of entrance halls and drawing rooms, sitting rooms, ballrooms, and anterooms. Parlours. Libraries. Boudoirs. Rooms almost for the sake of the things to put in them. It all had to change, of course. It all had to end. Even the rich would have to downsize. It’s just that Mrs. Thorne took that more literally than most.

A Massachusetts drawing room, circa 1768. This room measures about 12 x 26 x 21 inches.

A Massachusetts drawing room, circa 1768. Look closely. This room measures about 12 x 26 x 21 inches.

Her downsizing was perhaps an act of nostalgia, or of curiosity, or of public service. She would take to her studio for hours, working simultaneously on dozens of rooms, and by 1932 she had completed thirty. These were put on display at the Chicago Historical Society and then at the city’s Century of Progress Exposition. They attracted hundreds of thousands of people.

Miniature room on displayThe story goes on. There was a second set of rooms shown at two World’s Fairs. Most reconstruct interiors of the eighteenth century. A handful, the nineteenth and sixteenth. Two, the twentieth. They are now housed (ha!) at three museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago. See most of the Thorne Rooms beautifully photographed and given academic context in one of the newest additions to our collection.

Miniature Rooms, b y Fannia WeingartnerMiniature Rooms: The Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago (Yale UP), by Fannia Weingartner.

The Thorne Rooms, 68 miniature models of European interiors from the 16th century on and American furnishings from the 17th century on, have entranced generations of visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago. This title showcases these rooms, featuring full-colour views of each one.

Still curious?

Why not visit the Art Institute of Chicago website where you can play the inevitable Game of Thornes. Or, watch a video about creating miniature rooms.

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Joy of The Joy: How to grieve

‘Whenever I leave home and begin to move about, I am appalled to find how many people with a desire to write feel impelled to share their emotions with the general public.’

family walking along a dirt road carrying belongings

The Great Depression upset certain aspects of American life.

Such was Irma Rombauer’s unusual start to the 1931 The Joy of Cooking. Strong emotion was no stranger to her family – she had lost her first child within a year of the birth – or indeed to many American families at that time. The Great Depression seeped like poisonous gas into cities and homes. One of these homes was Irma’s, though not in the direct manner.

[This post continues a series on the classic American cookery book, The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer, et al.]

Edgar Rombauer, a lawyer and an outdoorsman, did well enough in the decades between his marriage and his death, except for recurring episodes of depression. By 1930, he and Irma had raised to adulthood a son and a daughter. Irma had made herself well-connected in St. Louis society, sat on the right committees, joined the right causes; the family holidayed in Michigan and South Carolina; they had spent considerable time in Europe. But on February 3, 1930, Edgar made a hole in his head and a widow of his wife. His suicide was unexpected and devastating to those who loved him. But for Irma, alone and unemployed, emotions were no substitute for lost purpose and lost income.

woman standing before an old-fashioned stove

Spot the marketable skills.

What we do to transform grief, for it must be transformed if we are to live again. I don’t know how the idea came to Irma Rombauer to transform her recipe box into a book, and not just that, but to pour into the book her own spirit. It seems the idea of ordinary employment was out of the question. Perhaps she wouldn’t have been able to find a job even if she had the right sort of skills and the inclination. She had lived the life of an upper-middle-class wife; she was, should we need a model, Margot Leadbetter. (Irma was even president of the Women’s Committee of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors.) She knew how to cook and to entertain.

She had no professional training, no professional experience – nothing, in short, that would qualify her to be the author of such a book. Who would, in a down market, become the publisher of just-another-housewife? What bookstore would stock and sell the book? Self-publishing was expensive; Irma had only a small savings in the bank and no reasonable expectation of employment. Why take the risk of writing it at all?

“Stand facing the stove”

Irma Rombauer holding the 1943 edition of The Joy of CookingIn Irma’s famous words, if you want to cook, or have to cook, the first step is to ‘Stand facing the stove’. How simple an instruction, and yet how difficult it might have been for her in those months following Edgar’s death. Was The Joy of Cooking Irma’s way of grieving the abrupt loss of her husband, the sudden shift to meals for one? ‘For thirty odd years,’ she wrote in the prologue, ‘I have enjoyed cooking as an avocation …. In this practical outgrowth of a pleasant experience, I have attempted to make palatable dishes with simple means and to lift everyday cooking out of the commonplace.’ And out of the commonplace the love and commitment, the pleasant family life, the everyday tasks made sacred, joyful, in their regularity.

Pages from The Joy of Cooking showing cutout chapter illustrationHer daughter Marion designed and illustrated the book, but the clever recipe format of later editions had not yet been thought of. For the next several years The Joy of Cooking would be sold by mail order out of Irma’s small apartment. The Rombauer savings – $6,000 – went into the first printing, of 3,000 copies, by a sign company. (It was their first book.) This recognised American classic, which has been called the most important cookery tome of the twentieth century, began its existence as a small-run, self-published recipe box.

Joy of Cooking, 75th anniversary ed.The Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary Edition, by Irma Rombauer, et al. (Scribner, 2006)
In addition to hundreds of brand-new recipes, this JOY is filled with many recipes from all previous editions, retested and reinvented for today’s tastes. This edition restores the personality of the book, reinstating popular elements such as the grab-bag Brunch, Lunch, and Supper chapter and chapters on frozen desserts, cocktails, beer and wine, canning, salting, smoking, jellies and preserves, pickles and relishes, and freezing foods.

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