Literary Periods: Women’s Writing on Menstruation in Recipe Books

This fall I had the opportunity to take an English class at the University of Delaware titled, “19th Century American Women Writers and the Sexual and Racial Politics of Form.” Because I am writing my thesis on the material culture of 19th century menstruation, I was curious to discover how this topic intersected with the realm of women’s literature. Existing scholarship asserts that menstruation of the era does not have a literary reflection beyond (male-dominated) medical writing. This is largely because menstruation was taboo in the 19th century, even more than it is today. Managing literary menstruation was easier than managing the literal leaky body, and authors seem to have successfully kept it concealed, yet the taboo status of menstruation did not entirely prevent its inclusion in 19th century literature. Looking to Winterthur’s collection, I found that women’s recipe books provide one avenue through which women wrote about the menses.

Figure 1: An image from an 1868 patent for a catamenial receiver shows two views (front and back) of a woman getting into bed wearing the patented menstrual device. Libbey, H.W. Catamenial Sack. U.S. Patent 75,434 filed March 10, 1868.


Figure 2: Page 193 of the Recipe book which shows entries for “Menses Profuse” and a “cure for flooding.” Recipe Book, ca. 1829-1884, Document 1381, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum Libraries.

One recipe book in particular exemplifies how the shadow of the menstrual taboo did not darken the private, domestic sphere. The book measures 17 x 21 centimeters and is bound in leather and covered with a decorative oilskin featuring a flower and diamond design motif. The recipes in this book have been gathered from a variety of sources. Many are inscribed by hand and others are pasted from newspapers. Many pages are home to additional marginalia and staining, demonstrating that this book was well used.

A few recipes provide further evidence that the bodily management of menstruation, both its messiness and assuring its regularity, required instruction. A network of menstruation management know-how prompted informal writing by 19th century women in diaries, recipe books, and personal correspondence. The recipe book in the Downs Collection of the Winterthur Museum contains, among recipes for cleaning house and preparing meals, recipes for managing “menses profuse” and “female complaints.” Entries under these headings are attributed to various women within the book-owner’s social circle: “Get 10 cts worth of powdered nutgall . . . take 1 teaspoon ful [sic] of it – pour over it a coffee cup of boiling water—let sit until entirely cold—then use as an injection, 2 hours apart. –An excellent cure for flooding furnished by Adaline Taylor” (193). This recipe to cure menstrual flooding is pages away from a recipe for curing meat furnished by the book owner’s niece. This shatters the previous notion that women did not explicitly write about menstruation and shows that menstrual recipe writing was not cloistered away, but instead was placed alongside other, less provocative, household recipes.

In branching from material culture studies into the realm of literature, I found the different disciplines mutually informative. The unique recipe book preserves the history of an intimate female network and highlights an understudied avenue of researching the literary reflection of menstruation.


By Tess Frydman, WPAMC Class of 2019

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