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«Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, September 2010, Number 9. ISSN 1832-2522. Copyright © Alison Wishart. ...»

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Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, September 2010, Number 9. ISSN 1832-2522.

Copyright © Alison Wishart.


The Turbulent History of Our Cookery Book

Alison Wishart


In 1916, Melbourne's George Robertson published Our cookery book by Flora Pell. It was

so popular that it remained in print until the 1950s and went into at least twenty-four

editions. However its author, a long-serving employee of the Victorian Education Department, became a victim of departmental officiousness and was reprimanded and punished for showing initiative and skill. Our cookery book was also censured by the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) as it contained recipes with alcohol, even though its author shared the same social and moral goals as the WCTU. The vexed history of Our cookery book, which brought to an end the thirty-five-year teaching career of Miss Pell, is documented in the correspondence, memos and departmental marginalia of a Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) file that is deceptively named 'Red Cross Special case'.

Article Miss Flora Pell, Teacher and Author Flora Pell was born in Melbourne on 12 March 1874 and commenced work as a probationary teacher when she was only fifteen years old. She passed her teacher's exams and became an Instructor in Cookery at schools in Geelong, Bendigo and then Carlton. This prepared her to organise the cookery section at the State Schools Exhibition in 1906. 1 A cookery demonstration at the State Schools Exhibition in Melbourne,

1906. From CR Long (ed.), Record and review of the State Schools Exhibition...

1906, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1908, facing p.

68. Copy in National Library of Australia.

When Pell was appointed Supervisor of Cookery at the Melbourne Continuation School in 1908,

her superiors stated that:

[Pell] has undertaken the training of the first cookery teachers. Exceedingly hard-working, capable, interested, reliable, enthusiastic, tactful. Miss Pell is a valuable public servant. 2 Miss Flora Pell, Instructress in Cookery at the Melbourne Continuation School, 1906.

From CR Long (ed.), Souvenir book: the aims and work of the Education Department, [Education Department], Melbourne, 1906, facing p. 24. Copy in National Library of Australia.

–  –  –

Collingwood Domestic Arts College, where Pell taught cookery and was headmistress from 1915 to

1924. Photograph courtesy John Young.

While she was in charge of this school, Pell seized the opportunity of a meeting in Melbourne in June 1918 of all the State Education Department directors and organised for her cookery students to prepare and serve a four-course luncheon. The Victorian Premier, Minister for Education, Director of Education, and Mayor of Collingwood also tasted the students' achievements and were most impressed. 3 Pell knew that good cooking could be persuasive and strategic.

Flora Pell's career followed the expansion of systematic instruction in cookery - one of the technical subjects that broadened the emphasis of schooling beyond basic literacy. Judging by the annual reports Pell submitted to the Director of Education, it appears that she oversaw the development of cookery and sloyd centres (woodwork was called sloyd then) in state schools around Victoria from 1912. In 1914 she reported that there were forty-seven centres in full working order and that sixteen new centres had opened in that year. 4 These centres were usually attached to the local high school. In 1924, Pell was appointed Inspectress of Domestic Arts Centres throughout Victoria, a position she held until her retirement due to 'ill-health' in 1929 at the age of 55 years. 5 The domestic arts movement was actually a transnational one, and however isolated Australia may have seemed in a geographical sense, the movement was not removed from developments elsewhere. The United States as well as England provided inspiration and models, and the interplay between external influences and local experiences is apparent in Pell's own work. In 1923, she embarked on an 'extensive tour of America' to examine the domestic arts schools in that country. It is likely that Pell organised and funded the tour herself, as there is no information in the Education Department records to indicate otherwise. She concluded that while the equipment and facilities in American colleges were 'magnificent', schools in Melbourne had 'nothing to learn' from them. However, she did think that Australians would benefit from incorporating aspects of the American diet, which included salad with almost every meal, far less red meat, and 'dainty' breakfasts of 'grapefruit or oranges and freshly made rolls and coffee'. 6 As she toured the United States, she gave lectures about cooking and Australia.

In 1916, Our cookery book was published by George Robertson in Melbourne. By this time Pell had been teaching cookery in Victorian schools for nearly twenty-five years. She felt there was a need for a cookery textbook to replace the recipe cards that the students (all girls) invariably lost and to provide more recipes and information. Our cookery book became the informal cookery textbook and at least twenty-four editions were published between 1916 and the 1950s. New editions of the book continued to appear even after her death in 1943. 7 By 1925, Flora Pell's reputation had grown to the extent that her publishers (now Specialty Press) thought it would be profitable to issue a book with her name in the title: Miss Flora Pell's tested cookery dishes and valuable home hints.

Pell's reputation as a cookbook author continued to grow and led to the Victorian State Dried Fruits Board asking her in 1926 to compile a recipe book with fifty recipes containing only dried fruits. The result was A sunshine cookery book.

This cookbook was distributed free of charge to encourage Australians to eat more dried fruits.

Australians were only consuming about one-third of the fruit grown in the country, much of which was cultivated by returned soldiers. These two publications created more demand for Pell and she soon found herself being invited to speak to women's, business and charity groups. 8 From 1925 to 1928 she had a regular spot on Melbourne's 3LO radio where she discussed cooking tips and domestic economy. Her ideas were often aired in the press, particularly by her friend Mrs Stella Allan who used the pseudonym 'Vesta' to write the weekly 'Women to Women' column in the Argus. Pell was on the airwaves, in print and in the papers. She may have been Australia's first celebrity chef!

Cover of Miss Flora Pell's tested cookery dishes and valuable home hints, Specialty Press, Melbourne, 1925. Copy in National Library of Australia.

–  –  –

Cover of the 8th edition of Our cookery book, published about 1924, cover illustration attributed to Christian Waller (née Yandell). Photograph by Alison Wishart.

–  –  –

The WCTU started in the United States in the 1870s and spread to Australia in 1882. It attracted middle-class women of modest education from Protestant Christian backgrounds whose churches generally opposed alcohol. 21 The motto of its newsletter, The white ribbon signal, 22 was 'For God, Home and Humanity', which showed its strong Christian roots. While prohibition of alcohol was its main goal, over the course of its history the WCTU also campaigned for women's suffrage, women's right to stand for political office and to work as Justices of the Peace, Aboriginal land rights, and peace, and opposed the vices of gambling and tobacco. 23 It was closely aligned with the National Council of Women and the Housewives Association, which also supported the temperance movement, and members sometimes belonged to all three organisations. 24 The membership of the Victorian branch of the WCTU nearly trebled during the 1920s from 3,118 members in 1920 to 9,776 in 1930, making it the largest state branch. 25 Their political power was evident after they successfully campaigned for the closure of Victorian hotels and public bars at 6 pm in 1916 and helped to convince 47% of adult Victorians to vote for the reduction or abolition of liquor licenses in a referendum in 1920. 26 When they agitated from 1926 to 1928 for the removal of recipes containing alcohol from Pell's cookery book, they had an expanding supporter base that politicians and bureaucrats would have been foolish to ignore.

Ironically, Flora Pell's reports for the Education Department and the preface or introduction to her cookery books indicate that she subscribed to the ideals and principles of the WCTU and the Housewives Association. All three encouraged women to continue in their traditional domestic role and elevated the importance of the housewife. Pell realised that 'the housekeeper is in a position to wield a tremendous influence on the mind and body, hence upon the family, society, and the nation'. 27 Values of thrift, efficiency, stewardship of resources (for example fuel, cloth, food), fidelity, hard work and fair dealing were promoted by the Housewives Association and by Flora Pell. 28 Pell argued that women and girls did not have an innate knowledge of the skills required for their 'heaven-appointed' mission to be a 'wife and home-maker' and that they needed to be trained in the 'scientific and business principles needful for the organization of the modern household'. 29 This was becoming increasingly important as more girls moved out of domestic service and into factory work from the 1890s onwards. 30 Both the WCTU and Pell were seeking to describe and empower women as 'nation builders'. In 1897, Elizabeth Nicholls, speaking at a WCTU convention, said that the members of the WCTU who were 'the representatives of the organised motherhood and sisterhood... are equally entitled to the name of "Nation Builders"'. 31 Pell also believed that nation-building started in the kitchen and wrote in 1906: 'the teaching of domestic economy is to be the power that makes the happy home, and the happy home means a prosperous nation, because, from the home, we must recruit our citizens'. 32 Pell called on the government to protect 'the integrity and dignity of home life... as a factor of national prosperity'. 33 This is precisely what the WCTU was seeking to do through the prohibition of alcohol.

Flora Pell, the WCTU and the Housewives Association were all proponents of 'domestic feminism' and upheld socially conservative gender roles. When Pell gave her farewell address at the Vere Street Domestic Arts Centre in June 1924 (she had been promoted to the position of Inspectress of Domestic Arts Centres in Victoria), she stated that girls were 'the guardians of the future'. She believed there was a link between training girls to be wise mothers who ran efficient and effective households and who cared for the physical, mental and moral health of their children, and the prevention of juvenile crime. 34 Women might be allowed to work outside the home in a limited range of occupations but their most important work would take place in the home.

While Pell was espousing the moral steadfastness of a continuing education for girls in household economy and domestic science, community leaders in Melbourne and the WCTU were concerned about the return of soldiers from World War I with venereal diseases who drifted in and out of employment. 35 They feared that young girls, who finished school in their fourteenth year but were not allowed to start work in factories until they turned fifteen, and the returned soldiers would drift towards each other. Programs that trained girls in the principles and practices of motherhood were seen as one way of helping to control the spread of VD. 36 To prevent young girls from developing lazy, and possibly even immoral habits, Pell advocated that girls should be kept under the control of the Education Department and made to attend domestic arts centres for at least a couple of days a week. 37 However, as secondary education grew in the inter-war years, more girls chose to take up academic rather than domestic arts/science courses in senior years. 38 The WCTU was also concerned about the moral education of young girls and established the Frances Willard Club for girls and the daisy chain 'recruit a friend' campaign. 39 Pell and the WCTU thus shared the same moral values and Christian principles, but the latter was the more politically powerful and believed prohibition was the best way to achieve a society characterised by justice, peace and purity.

The popularity of Our cookery book, in schools as well as homes, was once a source of pride, pleasure and profit for Pell and her publisher. It now became a nightmare. It was the catalyst for the end of her forty-year teaching career. After the WCTU had alerted the Education Department to the continued use of Our cookery book in schools, the new director, Mr NP Hansen, questioned how the book came to supplant the recipe cards, and whether Pell had the right to receive royalties for a book that was published using her departmental title of 'Supervisor of Cookery, Education Department and Headmistress, Domestic Arts School' and later 'Inspector of Schools'. The department was annoyed that 1,900 sets of its recipe cards were sitting unused and unsold at the Government Printing Office, while Pell and her publisher were reaping rewards.

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