Over the past couple of years we’ve had themes for weekly blog posts throughout the year, beginning with the very popular 52 Weeks of Fantastic Bindings, and followed by 52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations. While we were musing about what theme to choose for the next series, our Manuscript Archivist Maia Sheridan was cataloguing a manuscript recipe book from the 1830s (msdep137/7) and came up with the idea of cooking some of the recipes, documenting the experience, and writing it up for the blog. Other people then started saying how they would love to use patterns from books in the collection for embroidery and knitting, or retrace walks found in old journals, or create images using early photographic processes. So the idea for the new series was born: 52 weeks of Historical How-To’s, engaging with our collections in a much more practical and tangible way than is usually possible.
This theme draws on the rich collections of manuscript and printed cookery books, household advice books, instruction manuals for servants, illustrated journals such as the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, and leisure publications held by Special Collections. As well as following instructions and recipes we also hope to recreate activities such as a hill-walk following a route from an early Mountaineering Club log book, singing from old musical scores, and perhaps sitting an early examination paper.
The first post will be a Halloween special: a lighthearted recreation of a ghost tour given by W. T. Linskill, inspired by his book St Andrews Ghost Stories (1911). The next few weeks will cover some recipes, experiments in photogenic drawing by our resident expert in early photographic processes, a comparison of different types of blacking for shoes and boots, and probably more recipes as we are all quite obsessed with food and cooking.
We are planning a Christmas party featuring historic food and drink, parlour magic, party games and Christmas decorations. There will also be a ‘Great Mince Pie Bake-Off’ in December pitting different mincemeat and pastry recipes from manuscript and printed sources of various dates against each other.
An on-going project throughout the year will be to document what we are doing in an archival quality scrapbook. Each historical how-to will have a page or two for photographs, pictures, newspaper cuttings and any other relevant memorabilia, following the many examples of nineteenth-century scrapbooks held in Special Collections. The pages will then be bound by members of our own team into the finished scrapbook and it will be added to our collections.
In a similar fashion we are also going to create a commonplace book during this year in which we can all write or draw whatever has caught our attention: favourite poems, sayings, pithy thoughts, illustrations, again in imitation of earlier versions. Ours will probably have less Latin and Greek and perhaps be less erudite than our scholarly forebears but the sentiment to create a lasting record of collective memories will be the same.
The rules we have set ourselves is that each activity must engage with at least one item from St Andrews Special Collections and the blog post should include background information about that item, as well as a commentary on the experience of following the instructions or the process of recreating something. We will aim to be historically accurate where possible, but where an ingredient, for example, is unobtainable (such as spermaceti oil) we will make a best guess at a reasonable substitute. None of us are professional food or social historians (though the department does contain a very talented historical costumer, a lace maker, enthusiastic home brewers, and a qualified vet) and our aim is to highlight perhaps unexpected or neglected holdings from our collections, and to see what we learn from interacting with them in this (for us) new and very direct way!
Rare Books Librarian (Collections Research)