"To be a good cake maker has always been the commendable ambition of every housewife...[a cake served at the end of a meal] can be compared to a lecture, an orchestral rendition, or a beautiful soprano solo by an artist."
So wrote Mrs. Grace Osborn in her c. 1919 book, Mrs. Osborn's CAKES of QUALITY, How to make them. I first came across this volume years ago, when I picked up what is probably a prototype copy (above) at a roadside flea market in the Adirondacks. Its home-grown appearance is endearing: a bunch of typed sheets of parchment-like paper bound within brown cardboard covers by a piece of string.
Recently, on Amazon, I was delighted to find a more professionally published version (below) of the book (the fifth edition!), which is smaller and illustrated -- and not hand-typed. Both have a copyright by C.T. Porter of Bay City, Michigan.
What's so fascinating about Mrs. Osborn is that she not only instructed women on how to bake cakes, but also how to sell them for profit. And she had her own line of Osborn cocoa and vanilla. (Her cakes sold for $3 each, earning her a profit of $2.30 each -- this at a time when eggs were 50 cents a dozen, sugar 10 cents and flour 15 cents a pound.)
I'm trying to find out more about the very entrepreneurial Mrs. Osborn. Her haughty know-it-all tone (see example below) strikes me as coming from someone to whom cakes should be served, not someone slaving away week after week in front of a hot oven to earn money. I imagine that her husband left her with five young children to support, or that she otherwise suddenly found herself without enough money to live. Or maybe she just really wanted to share her revolutionary cake baking methods (putting the pans into a cold oven, among other things) with the world and make money doing so.
I called the Bay City Historical Society and was instructed to write an old-fashioned letter (no email here!) to the Butterfield Memorial Research Library and for $5 per hour, a librarian will do the research. It will take a month to six weeks -- apparently they have someone working on these requests for four hours each week.
I sent the letter yesterday, but forgot to tell them about this card (below) that I found inside the prototype book. Apparently Mrs. Osborn founded the American Culinary Society which no longer exists (if it ever did). So now, I need dig up the address again and write an addendum to my research request, to include this information. These days it's easy to forget how easy email is!
Mrs. Osborn's confidence and success is inspiring.
"Make your work PERFECT," wrote Mrs. Osborn at the end of her book, "and all the rest will be easy, even to riding in a Buick Six as I do, earned by the sale of Cakes of Quality."