Thursday, June 17, 2021


 By Jo-Ann Roberts

Cooking was much more complicated in the 1800s than it is in our modern world. Many people take for granted the conveniences that are in their kitchens. It is easy to feel superior when thinking about days gone by.


Nineteenth Century Western Kitchen

History shows us that in the past it took a lot of work and a lot of time to put a meal on the table. But if a modern-day family was transported back in time to a pioneer kitchen, they might be surprised to see some of the wonders that kitchens contained.

In my soon-to-be-release, Grace-Brides of New Hope Book Three, Grace Donegan is the baker at Caroline's Cafe in New Hope. Turning out pastries, pies, and desserts keeps her busy, especially working with some of the modern gadgets of the day.

Sugar and Sugar Snips

Sugar was brought to the grocer in cone shapes called "loaves".  The woman of the house or proprietor of an establishment would cut up the loaf using sugar nippers to break the hard substance into smaller, usable parts for the table. The loaf was such a common sight until the later 19th century that everyone knew what it looked like. Even the paper it was wrapped in played a part in domestic life. Loaves from the Americas were wrapped in blue indigo paper which was recycled as a source of dye for yarn or cloth.


Sugar Snips

Sugar Loaf

The nips were tongs with a flat surface at the end suitable for lifting pieces of sugar. But they were also sturdy and tough. Nips used for cutting sugar were often made from steel. However,  decorative tongs for table use by wealthy families were often made from silver with elaborate engravings matching the family's silver service.

When powdered sugar was called for in a recipe, the cook had to use a mortar and pestle. Some sugar boxes had compartments for powdered sugar as well as lumps. Tongs, boxes, and casters (sugar sprinklers) were fashioned in silver for the wealthy, but there were many wooden sugar boxes, too.

Silver Sugar Box

Wooden Sugar Box

Rotary Egg Beater

Invented by tinner Ralph Collier of Baltimore, in partnership with A.S. Reip, a tin and iron war manufacturer, the first U.S. patent for a rotary egg-beater was submitted in 1856. But at that time it wasn't yet clear what the best design for the job would be. This patent describes how useful the new invention would be for hotels and restaurants as well as for ordinary households hoping to speed up a "laborious and fatiguing operation".

Rotary beaters with a handle worked best, but they came in different forms. Some early ones were fixed inside a pot, and couldn't be used with the cook's choice of mixing bowl. Some were developed by the same inventors who designed small hand-cranked butter churns.


Egg beater in a bowl

However, in 1873 the Dover egg beater emerged on the scene and even the most skeptical of cooks was quite taken with it. This invention did pave the path for easier cooking.

"The Dover egg-beater saves much time and trouble in beating eggs and will bend the yolks into as stiff a froth as the whites."  The Northeastern Reporter, 1879.

Dover Egg Beater

In the early 1870s, the cost of an egg beater could run a family $1.50. Less than ten years later the Dover could be purchased for $1.25. As time went on and egg beaters became more common, the price came down and by 1912 a housewife could pick one up for $.05!!



Scottish in origin, the first documentation of use in cooking was noted in 1528. The word, spartle was a Northern English word meaning "stirrer".  In the Germanic languages. a spurtle refers to a flat-bladed tool or utensil.


Made from the straightest tree branch which could be found, the utensil was peeled and used for flipping oatcakes on a griddle, and not for porridge, stews, or soups which is common today. Traditional Scottish spurtles have a thistle end, in homage to the national emblem of Scotland, whereas contemporary spurtles have a smooth tapered end. There are some tall tales about the spurtle which is not surprising given that it is in the shape of a magic wand. The most famous of the customs is when using a spurtle you must always stir clockwise and always with your right hand..."Lest you invoke the devil".

I first came across a spurtle when I was doing research for Lessie-Brides of New Hope Book One. Eli MacKenzie, the MMC (male main character), presents Lessie with several gifts following their wedding, one of which is a spurtle. Bearing a Scottish heritage, this fits in perfectly with his backstory.  Here's a brief excerpt:

He placed his hands on her waist after setting the gift in front of her.

“Eli, you’ve already given me so much. I really don’t need anything more.” Lessie brushed away a tear that remained. After she untied the strip of rawhide, the burlap fell away to reveal a long-handled wooden stick, resembling a spoon, that flared out at the bottom. Something similar to a cornstalk was carved at the narrowed top. “Thank you, Eli.” She tilted her head and inquired, “Is this your way of asking me to cook something for you?”

He ran his hand down the stick. “This is called a spurtle. In Scottish families, it is a traditional gift given to the bride with the hope that it will bring her good luck cooking for her new husband.” He indicated the top portion. “Burt Davis made it in his shop and carved a thistle on the top. The thistle is the national emblem of Scotland. In many ways, it reminds me of you.”

Lessie arched an eyebrow. “That’s not a particularly flattering comparison, Eli. I am not prickly.”

Eli chuckled. “That isn’t my interpretation at all. I see you as a thistle because, like that bloom, you symbolize bravery and courage in the face of adversity. And those spiky painful thorns suggest endurance and fortitude. I don’t know a single woman who would have carved out a life for herself after enduring a bloody war, traveled to an unknown town with nothing but a scrap of paper from a stranger who disappeared after marrying her, with a baby and a few trinkets wrapped in a quilt. Nor do I know of any woman who had the foresight to chart her own path as a midwife and transform a neglected farm into a place to be proud of.”

Sieves and Strainers

The word "sift" is derived from "sieve".  In cooking terms, a sieve or sifter is used to separate and break up flour and dry goods, as well as to aerate and combine them. A ladle with draining holes or a strainer is a form of a sieve used to separate suspended solids from a liquid...think an egg separator.  

Early wooden sieves used tin or horsehair for the sieving. The widths of a wooden sieve were made from fir or willow, American elm being the best choice. The rims would be made of fir, oak, or beech.


Miscellaneous Gadgets


Cake Separator


This tool was widely used for cutting angel food cakes and other soft cakes, as the delicate tines wouldn’t crush or compress the cake under pressure. Cake breakers were so popular that you could even find one in your silver pattern.

Herb Cutter

Herb cutters came in different styles than this one. For example, some herb cutters had a handle on both sides of the blade for each hand.

Herb Cutter


Coffee Grinder


By the mid-1800s, various coffee grinders were present in almost every home. Most grinders had a grinding handle on the top of a box that was set inside a bowl-shaped holder of roasted coffee beans. The bottom of the box had a drawer that held the coffee beans after being ground.


While most pioneer cooks had all they could do to put three meals a day on the table, some

cooks experimented with tin molds. In Mrs. Beaton's Book of Household Management (1861) recipes for jellied delights and other molded foods meant that many people aspired to have devices with which to make ordinary dishes extraordinary. Cooks back then would have also had several pitting, chopping, and peeling tools available since they had to process all their foods by hand.



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  1. What an interesting post. I have a couple of those old utensils that I've purchased at antique malls. I never knew what the cake separator was used for.

    1. Bea, thanks for the kind words. My mother-in-law collected antiques and gave me several which we displayed on a barnboard wall in our kitchen, so my love of baking and antique kitchen gadgets was a natural fit.

  2. I have some of the items you pictured. I'd seen sugar snips but didn't know what they were. I have a spurtle but didn't know it even had a name. I loved this post. Wishing you many sales of your new release.

    1. Caroline, thanks to you for your help in putting up my posts. This was such a fun blog to write as I love to bake and enjoy incorporating historical gadgets of all sorts in my writing.

  3. Wonderful tidbits from the past! They fit right in with my upcoming post about summery eats from yesteryear.

    1. Lyn, what a great coincidence! I love to bake and have several antique kitchen gadgets in my house so this was such a fun blog to write.


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