UW News

December 23, 2015

Documents that Changed the World: The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 1896

UW News

The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, 1896.

The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, more popularly known as the Fannie Farmer cookbook, 1896.

A glance at his kitchen bookshelf gave University of Washington Information School associate professor Joe Janes the idea for the latest installment of his Documents that Changed the World podcast.

What he spied was his grandmother’s 1915 second edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook,” more popularly known as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. By far the most famous cookbook of its era, it is a document, to be sure, that changed the world of food preparation.

Documents that Changed the World:
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 1896

In the podcasts, Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these occasionally, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

“I had ‘recipe’ on my list of document types to look at for a long time,” Janes said, and seeing that book “made it click. And Fannie’s story is remarkable, given her background.”

As Janes describes in the podcast, Farmer was of a piece with the “domestic science” movement of the early 20th century, which brought greater attention to food and nutrition to the quickly urbanizing country. She was 30 years old, a likely childhood polio survivor, when her employer paid for her enrollment in the Boston school with the hope she might become a teacher of cooking.

“And did she ever,” Janes writes. Asked to stay after graduation, Farmer took over the school and ran it for five years before starting her own.

She published her first cookbook in 1896, containing some 1,800 recipes. Publisher Little, Brown lacked confidence in the work and made Farmer pay for printing the first run of 3,000 copies. She wisely retained the copyright, however, bringing her a handsome profit as the book went on to sell in the millions.

The very “structure and form of what we think of today as a recipe” owes much to Famer’s influence, Janes writes. She stressed the importance of exact measurements and of being methodical and purposeful in cooking, “and yet makes it all seem engaging and easy to prepare.”

Farmer’s stated aim, Janes notes, was “to elevate cookery to its proper place as a science and an art.” And in that, she succeeded magnificently.

Of course, recipes now come via apps and smartphone videos as often as they come from actual books. Janes, something of a cook himself, said, “Every time I struggle with a new recipe or technique, I wonder if there’s an instructional video that might help to supplement the written word — which I think Fannie would have heartily embraced.”

But he added, “I’d like to think her New England upbringing would draw the line at Facebook posts of meals — yikes!”


  • The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, and is approaching a quarter of a million downloads so far.
  • For more about this or any of the Documents that Changed the World podcasts, contact Janes at jwj@uw.edu.

Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series