Plain black: mourning dress announced in the first cookbooks

By Merry Post
Special for American Ellsworth

Community cookbooks from the last quarter of the 19th century sometimes include advertisements alluding to the importance of public mourning customs. The “Excelsior Cook Book,” published in 1891 by the Congregational Church in Rutland, Vermont, includes two advertisements that show the need for proper mourning attire.

The ad for the CE Ross store, which sold fabric and sewing notions, advertised “Henriettas and other beautiful black goods still in stock”. Henrietta was a finely woven wool twill fabric that suited well and was rather expensive. Black Henrietta had a matte surface and was considered dignified and appropriate for mourning costumes.

The milliner, Mrs. FC Eddy, announced that “mourning articles were a speciality”. Milliners sold other accessories besides hats. Mourning items could include black parasols, black bordered handkerchiefs and black veils to complete an ensemble.

When this cookbook was published, it was still customary in New England to observe a formal period of mourning for a deceased spouse or close relative by wearing black clothing every day. The higher you were in the social ladder, the longer you were expected to mourn and the more complicated your mourning costume. Women had to observe a longer period of mourning than men. Widows at the top of society might wear a special white cap under a black bonnet with a long black veil, black gloves, dress and cape for a full year or more before easing their mourning by wearing gray or mauve. Because mourning outfits were expensive, less well-off widows dyed their clothes black and avoided buying a new wardrobe.

The custom of wearing black daily during a prescribed period of mourning faded during World War I when the federal government discouraged the wearing of mourning dress as bad for morale. Instead, the Wilson administration launched the Gold Star program to honor families for their patriotic sacrifices, encouraging them to hang a banner in their windows with a gold star for each family member who died while on active duty. .

The ladies of the church who wrote the “Excelsior Cook Book” managed to sell advertising space to other businesses besides the milliner and the fabric store. They have published an excellent cookbook that has more recipes that fit well with 21st century tastes than most community cookbooks of this period.

One of these recipes, called “Chicken Tartare”, is an early version of oven-fried chicken. It’s lighter in calories, easier and less messy to prepare than fried chicken. The recipe can easily be scaled up and made with chicken thighs on the bone instead of chicken breasts. To make the dish healthier for the heart, you can replace the butter with vegetable oil.

Gouldsboro artist Camille Boisvert created the illustration. You can see more of his work at

Chicken Tartare

3 slices of fresh bread
½ tsp. dried rosemary
½ tsp. Dried marjoram
½ tsp. dried thyme
¼ cup melted butter
2½ lbs. half-split chicken breasts
about 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp. sea ​​salt
1/8 tsp black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place bread and herbs in food processor and grind into crumbs. Melt ¼ cup of butter. Flour the chicken pieces, then season with salt and pepper on both sides. Brush the chicken pieces with melted butter, then press the breadcrumbs down on the skin side. Place the chicken in a baking dish, skin side up, the pieces not touching. Bake for about 45 minutes or until the meat is no longer pink next to the bone.

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