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30 Sep
Fri / 2011

Keeping House: The Story of Elizabeth Raffald

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The abundance at our dining table might never have come together, if not for guidance from the knowing hands of Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald. The Experienced English Housekeeper, written in 1769 by Mrs. Raffald, was used as a model for the dining table in Rienzi’s exhibition. I am delighted that we are able to honor this fascinating woman, by laying out one more dinner course to her precise specifications. What the housekeeper-turned-author would have thought, if she knew that her skills would be employed in Houston, Texas, almost 250 years after her the publication of her book – I don’t know. Texas did not exist at the time Mrs. Raffald used her experience as an innkeeper and confectioner to publish a successful cookbook.

Those who admire her can be thankful that Mrs. Raffald’s long and industrious career in the service industry left behind a trail of paperwork that has allowed us to piece together a colorful and impressive biography. An edition of her book re-printed in 1997, by Southover Press, includes a well-researched and provocative introduction by Roy Shipperbottom. I would like to share a bit from that story, on the life of this remarkably entrepreneurial woman, our Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald:

Elizabeth Whitaker was born outside of Yorkshire in the early 1730s.  She was one of at least five sisters, all of whom were privileged in that they were taught to read and write.  Elizabeth went into service at an early age, writing that she spent 15 years with “great and worthy families.” She followed the example of an older sister, by training to make “confectionery,” which at the time referred to all things dessert. By 1760, Elizabeth earned a position as housekeeper at an great estate called Arley Hall, in Cheshire outside of Manchester.

At an estate the size of Arley Hall, a housekeeper would have been in charge of all the female servants, as well as responsible for purchasing everyday items such as foodstuffs: fish, lobsters, oysters, chickens and lemons. Her daily kitchen duties would have included “preserving and pickling food and making country wines, table decorations, and the necessary cakes and tidbits suitable for tea.”

It was at Arley Hall where Elizabeth developed two important connections in her life.  The first was her employer, Lady Elizabeth Warburton, with whom she maintained a relationship throughout her career, and to whom she eventually dedicated her book.  The second would become her husband, John Raffald, the head gardener at Arley.  John had also learned his trade in Yorkshire, and as Shipperbottom notes, it is entirely possible that the two had known one another previous to working there. After one year of working at Arley, Elizabeth married John Raffald and moved with him to Manchester where his family owned several market gardens. (It was customary at the time that once a servant was married he or she did not stay on working at the estate.)

Manchester was a burgeoning industrial town, thanks to the development of coal-fueled textile machines. Among other social and economic developments, new industry meant wealth in the city of Manchester. Mrs. Raffald capitalized on a rising merchant class market, by establishing a shop dedicated to providing for the needs of the newly landed gentry (new money, if you will). Her shop sold hot dishes, cakes and table decorations.  Within her business, she also established a Register Office through which employers could find reliable servants, and compiled a Manchester Directory to that same end.  Several years later, Elizabeth opened a second shop, this one dedicated to confectionary, advertising among other things, “Creams, Possetts, Jellies, Flummery, Lemon Cheese Cakes.” In a 1770 advertisement in the local newspaper, she addressed her clients personally:

“Mrs. Raffald returns thanks for the great encouragement she meets with in making Bride and Christening Cakes and those who are pleased to favour her with their commands, may depend on being served with such cakes as shall not be exceeded.”

It was during this period that Elizabeth set to work on her cookbook.  Although copyright laws were in place by 1714 in England, texts were frequently pirated by printers. This was particularly common with instructional cookbooks, many of which recycled recipes from other publications. Ever resourceful, Mrs. Raffald offered her book of original recipes by advanced subscription so as to avoid illegal copying. She notes in the title page, that her publication offers, “over 800 Original Recipes most of which never appeared in print.”

The book was a great success, and was printed in several editions before Elizabeth eventually sold the copyright. Unfortunately, the various businesses she and her husband owned along the way did not fare as well.  John Raffald was a notorious alcoholic, and the couple was often in debt as result of his vices. Although Mrs. Raffald was the founder of her family's businesses, women of this period had no legal rights, and each new venture was carried out solely in her husband’s name. It must have been well known that she was the industry behind them; however, because when she passed away, creditors immediately reclaimed the coffeeshop that she and John occupied. We are lucky to have this book so thoughtfully compiled by Elizabeth Raffald, a testament to the shrewd and inventive mind of an eighteenth-century businesswoman. 

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About Caroline Cole

Caroline Cole

Caroline Cole joined Rienzi as curatorial assistant in 2010, after completing her M.A. in the history of decorative arts and design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and Parsons School for Design in New York City, and a B.A. from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

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