Is Martha Stewart History?

Apr 5, 2013

With over thirty books published and millions of magazines devoured by fans eager to organize their homes, prepare delicious meals, and simply be crafty, Martha Stewart has become known as the most successful modern domestic advisor in the United States.  But domestic advice of the kind Stewart doles out in her television appearances, print, and internet publications is not something new.  Domestic advisors have long had a place in America’s kitchens and homes and have been providing women with guidance on how to manage their homes and cook appropriate meals for hundreds of years. 

Through April 13, visitors to the Connecticut Historical Society can see advice publications by some of Martha Stewart’s predecessors in the exhibition, “Cooking by the Book:  Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart.” These include Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796), Catharine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book (1846) and Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896).  Through their publications, Simmons, Beecher, and Farmer helped women claim the home as their domain, established the importance of household management and food preparation, and provided an outlet to address social, political, and technological change in the home.  It was through domestic advice manuals, pamphlets, and magazines that women were encouraged to educate their daughters, understand cooking innovations such as standardized measurements, and adopt new ideas about nutrition and health. 

Martha Stewart is a continuation of this tradition.  Stewart launched her career in 1982 with the publication of the cookbook, Entertaining, and expanded her influence in 1990 with the introduction of her magazine, Martha Stewart Living.  In her publications, Stewart addresses many of the same issues that Amelia Simmons, Catharine Beecher, and Fannie Farmer discussed, giving them a modern twist.  These topics include American antiques, modern kitchen design, and recipes.  Stewart, however, has made her presence in very different ways than her predecessors.  She is living in a global age and is able distribute her advice through multiple venues, including books, magazines, the television, and the web. She has been able to capture the public’s imagination with her picture-perfect dinner parties and color-coordinated linens and has achieved new heights in the spread of domestic advice.  Like those who came before her and those who will carry on the tradition, Martha Stewart helps her contemporaries to define what it means to be an American woman. 

The exhibition, “Cooking by the Book: Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart,” was created by students from Central Connecticut University and the University of Hartford, using cookbooks and artifacts from the Connecticut Historical Society’s collection to explore the changing culture and values demonstrated by cooking throughout history. The Connecticut Historical Society is located on One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, CT. The exhibition closes on April 13th. For more information, go to www.chs.org.