Agents of change

The abundance of advertising in the pages of “The Green Mountain, White Ribbon Cook Book,” published in 1895 by the Vermont branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), shows how savvy New England women had become in raising funds for charitable causes.

The ads document social history. For example, commercial powdered gelatin was an exciting new convenience that eliminated hours of boiling calves’ feet for aspics and jellies. A powdered gelatin dessert with the unfortunate name of Bromangelon featured in one ad. An ad for Grandma’s Flavoring Powders targeted temperance advocates. These powders were an alternative to alcohol-based liquid extracts of vanilla, lemon or orange.

The cookbook also included ads for books published by the WCTU. Most of these were tracts exhorting temperance, but one quirky book by Frances Willard shows how the bicycle became a vehicle to advance the women’s movement.

Frances Willard, the author of “How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle,” served as the WCTU’s president from 1879 until her death in 1898. She had serious difficulty in learning to ride a bicycle, which she attributed to decades of sedentary living. She recalled in a memoir how her days as an active tomboy came to an abrupt end at age 16 when she was required to don a corset and long, heavy skirts and to put her hair up.

Willard was 53 years old when, after many hours of practice, she finally succeeded in riding a bicycle unassisted. She wrote about her experience as an allegory of how achieving social reform requires overcoming numerous setbacks.

Willard’s problems with balancing on a bicycle were compounded by her clothing. She modestly raised her skirts a few inches for pedaling and wore a close-fitting jacket and a hat with feathers. Her conservative bicycling costume was consistent with her public persona. Although she broadened the WCTU’s mission to address other social reforms, such as improving prisons and labor laws and lobbying for women’s suffrage and women’s rights, Willard did not defy social conventions while she advanced liberal reforms.

Outwardly, she conformed to the Victorian ideal of woman as domestic goddess. She pushed for temperance laws as measures to protect women, children and the home. She cleverly lobbied for women’s suffrage as a way to increase the “home protection” vote.

The newly invented safety bicycles spurred female dress reform and gave women more independence in transportation. A woman with a bicycle did not need to ask a man to harness horses and drive her where she wanted to go. She could race away from chaperones and could meet male cyclists on more equal terms. So bicycles became a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement.

The green mountains in the cookbook title refer to Vermont, and the white ribbon was the symbol of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The book contained interesting bread recipes, including the following one for oatmeal bread. The generous amount of sugar is typical of late 19th-century cooking. You can cut the sweetener to ¼ cup and substitute honey or molasses if you prefer.

Oatmeal Bread
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Oatmeal Bread
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  • 4 tsps. active dry yeast
  • ½ cup granulated sugar, divided
  • ¼ cup lukewarm water
  • cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
  • 2 Tbsps. unsalted butter
  • cups hot water
  • 2 tsps. kosher or sea salt
  • cups milk
  • 6 cups all purpose flour
  • Extra butter for bowl, bread pans, and top of dough
  1. Put the yeast in a small bowl with 1 tablespoon of the sugar plus ¼ cup lukewarm water and stir well to dissolve the yeast. Set the yeast mixture aside in a warm place until it is foamy. Place the rolled oats, butter and the remainder of the honey in a large bowl and pour the hot water over.
  2. You can use a stand mixer with a dough hook. Stir to blend ingredients and melt the butter. Stir in the milk and 1 cup of the flour. Check the temperature of the oat mixture; when it is lukewarm, stir in the yeast mixture. Add the flour a cup at a time, stirring after each addition.
  3. Turn out the dough on a floured board and knead by hand for about 10 minutes, sprinkling a little flour on the board as needed. (A mixer would require about half that time.) The dough should be smooth and elastic and only slightly sticky. Butter a large bowl, turn the ball of dough around in the bowl, cover loosely with a tea towel, and put in a warm, draft-free place to rise until it passes the finger poke test.
  4. Check the rise by poking a finger gently into a corner of the dough. When the dimple made by your finger poke rebounds halfway, the dough has risen enough.
  5. Punch the dough down, knead it a few times, and cut in half. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes, then shape it into two loaves. Place the loaves in buttered loaf pans, brush the tops with melted butter and cover loosely. Allow the dough to rise until almost doubled.
  6. Again check the rise with the finger poke test. Immediately preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 190 degrees F.
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