- Susan Matt
Corson, Juliet (13 January 1841?–18 June 1897), founder of the New York Cooking School and pioneer in the scientific cookery movement, was born in Mount Pleasant, Massachusetts, the daughter of Peter Ross Corson, a prosperous produce merchant, and Mary Ann Henderson. (Although most obituaries and biographical sources give Corson’s birth date as 1842, the Vital Records of Roxbury, Massachusetts, give the date as 1841.) Corson’s family moved to New York City when she was six years old. In New York her uncle, Alfred Upham, helped to raise her and provided her with a classical education. She began to support herself in her late teens after her mother’s death.
Corson’s first jobs introduced her to the world of female philanthropic and educational organizations, which would later offer institutional support and opportunities when she began her work in scientific cookery. One of her first positions was at the Working Women’s Library in New York City, where she received four dollars a week and her room. She supplemented her income by writing book reviews, verse, and articles about women. Between 1863 and 1870 she wrote for the New York Leader and the Courier.
In 1873 Corson became secretary of another female philanthropic organization in New York, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Society. Founded in response to the economic panic of 1873, the organization offered courses at a free training school for women, which was dedicated to providing them with skills to make them employable. Initially, training classes were held in Corson’s home. Leaders of the organization instructed young women first in sewing and in skills appropriate to white-collar employment—shorthand, bookkeeping, and proofreading. Soon realizing that there were not enough white-collar positions available, instructors at the school began to offer courses that would prepare young women for domestic service.
In 1874 the free training school began classes in the various domestic arts. In the cooking class, Corson lectured while a chef cooked. In 1876 Corson founded her own institution, the New York Cooking School. There she taught New York women of all economic classes how to cook healthful and economical meals. She charged for her courses on a sliding scale, according to the means of her pupils. In 1877 Corson published her first book on cooking, The Cooking School Manual of Practical Directions for Economical Every-day Cookery. She stressed economy in her classes and her recipes, reminding students in her book that “in cooking, this fact should be remembered above all others; a good cook never wastes.”
Corson believed that a central part of her mission was to teach the poor how to eat nutritiously. She wrote in The Cooking School Manual, “The question of the hour is ‘How well can we live, if we are moderately poor?’ The author of The Cooking School Manual is doing her best to answer it satisfactorily.” Her concern with feeding the poor brought her to public notice in 1877, when, responding to the railroad strikes of that year, she offered laboring men and women free copies of her pamphlet Fifteen-cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families in a 19 August letter to the editor of the New York Times. In her letter, Corson offered free copies of the pamphlet and noted that “the conflict between capital and labor, which has so lately threatened our national prosperity, is far from being settled… . The leaders of all the strikes declared that their action was taken only because they could not support their families upon the wages received by them. The question of feeding his family is the most difficult one the working man has to answer.” Corson paid for the printing of 50,000 copies of Fifteen-cent Dinners, which became very popular. She subsequently received threats from socialists who believed that if she succeeded in teaching workers to live on less, employers would further reduce their wages.
Corson was not only interested in helping poor people eat better and more economically; she also wanted to raise the status of cooking as a field. She realized that cooking was held in low regard, but she hoped to alter that image by making it a more scientific discipline with codified principles. In The Cooking School Manual she claimed, “Food is concentrated force. The manipulation of a motive power capable of invigorating both body and mind, is an occupation worthy to employ intelligence and skill.”
Corson worked to introduce scientific cooking and domestic economy into the curriculum of schools and colleges. She advised teachers on how to present these subjects in a systematic fashion and during the 1870s and 1880s offered instruction in Montreal and at the University of Minnesota, the Lake Erie Seminary in Ohio, Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut, and schools in California. The U.S. commissioner of education had asked her to spread her knowledge around the country and became a great supporter of her work. Corson succeeded in introducing cooking education into many public schools in the United States, and she lectured widely in cities such as Peoria, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and Boston. Additionally, she instructed nurses at training schools on the proper diet for invalids and also wrote a book on the topic. The French consul in New York asked her to write down her principles in order to offer them to public schools in France.
Corson received much public praise for her efforts. A glowing article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reported in 1879 that Corson was the “benefactor of the working classes, for she teaches them how to make two dishes where formerly they made but one; and the friend of women, for she has shown them the way to a useful and honorable profession.” Further recognition came in 1892, when Corson was asked to organize the New York State Cooking Exhibition at the World’s Fair. There, she received an award for her work in scientific cooking and dietetics. She died of uremia in New York City.
Although some of Corson’s ideas about cooking seem odd and outdated, many principles she espoused have been confirmed by later nutritionists. For instance, while she recommended dishes such as eggs with burnt butter, she reminded her less-fortunate readers that it was more economical to serve several dishes instead of a single costly one, and specifically suggested in The Cooking School Manual that they should serve soup, fish, vegetables, and bread rather than “heavy joints of meat.” In her other cookbooks she suggested lentils as a meat substitute and recommended pastas and polenta.
Corson addressed the daily economic difficulties of the industrial classes in nineteenth-century America. Although some of her contemporaries clearly resented her efforts and worried that her work ultimately might benefit the wealthy and not the poor, her recipes and free instruction were not offered with this aim in mind. She was a reformer, not a revolutionary, and while she could not resolve the conflict between labor and capital, she could offer advice in an effort to help the underpaid and the underfed.
The University of Minnesota published lectures that Corson had delivered as part of the university’s Farmers’ Lecture Course in A Course of Lectures on the Principles of Domestic Economy and Cookery (1886?). In addition to her books mentioned above, she published many others, including Meals for the Millions: The People’s Cookbook (1882), Diet for Invalids and Children (1886), and Family Living on $500 a Year: A Daily Reference-Book for Young and Inexperienced Housewives (1887). See also Mary J. Lincoln, “The Pioneers of Scientific Cookery,” Good Housekeeping, Oct. 1910. For information on the free training schools of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Society, see their annual reports in the New York Times, 8 Nov. 1874 and 26 Apr. 1875. An obituary appears in the New York Times, 20 June 1897.