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Kitchen Science & the Mother of Level Measurements

Not sure why, but for some reason my little brain has always associated the name Fannie Farmer with candies. Am I the only one? Of course, Fannie May makes the confections, not Fannie Farmer. But until recently I couldn’t have told you the difference. Silly me.

Miss Farmer’s name showed up on a scout’s list of women who have made civilized life a little better in some way. I recognized many names (Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Ida Wells, Rachel Carson, Jane Adams, Juliette Gordon Low). Other names on the list new to me (Sara Winnemucca, Dolores Huerta, The Trung Sisters, Bessie Coleman). And then there was Miss Farmer.

What, I wondered, was the “candy lady” doing on this list? What problem had she solved? How had she made the world a better place?


Scouts are asked to choose one woman from the list above, learn more about her, and share that knowledge with others. With pleasure, I share a brief history of Fannie Farmer and her exquisite gift to the culinary arts.

Fannie Merritt Farmer (Born March 23, 1857. Died January 15, 1915.)
“Progress in civilization has been accompanied by progress in cookery.”

Early Years: The oldest of four daughters, Fannie was born into a Unitarian family in Massachusetts that valued education. An intelligent child, she looked forward to attending college until a stroke felled her in high school. Paralyzed for several years, she stayed under the care of her family.

Regaining her strength, she slowly began to assist her mother in the kitchen, exhibiting a culinary gift that helped her mother turn the family boardinghouse into a well-known secret. She eventually regained the use of her legs but continued to walk with a limp for the remainder of her life.

Middle Years: At the urging of a family friend, Miss Farmer enrolled in the Boston Cooking-School to train as a teacher. The school allowed “respectable” women of “modest means” an opportunity to train for a position that would almost certainly provide employment in hard times. Excelling as a student, Miss Farmer remained at the school as Assistant Principal, and then ascended to the position of Principal in 1891.

Bear in mind, the buzzwords for women of the day were “domestic science.” The movement viewed all the normal tasks of the everyday housewife through the lens of science, standardization, and best practices. (Indeed, the moniker that launched a million classes — “home economics” — came out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its first female student, Ellen Swallow Richards).

And until this period, cookbooks were fairly casual collections. Ingredients were measured by a “teacup,” a “spoonful,” or a “pinch.” But Miss Farmer, taking to the domestic science movement like sour cream to a baked potato, recognized the value of standardizing kitchen measurements.

And that, my friends, is her gift to the world.

Her first cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, hit the world in 1896. Convinced it would never sell a copy, her publisher forced Miss Farmer to pay for its publication and the initial run of 3,000 copies. Publishers are often wrong, however; the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (as it has come to be known), has over four million copies to generations of cooks. Because Miss Farmer paid for its publication, she retained the copyright–and the profits, making Fannie Farmer a wealthy woman.

But what made this cookbook so different? It was the first work to stress the need for standardized measurements: “A cupful is a measured level… A tablespoonful is a measured level. A teaspoonful is a measured level.” Is it any wonder that Fannie Farmer is now known as “the mother of level measurements?”

The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook was also unique for its inclusion of essays on nutrition and health. In her direct and precise preface to the book, Miss Farmer wrote, “It is my wish that [this cookbook]… may awaken an interest through its condensed scientific knowledge which will lead to deeper thought and broader study of what to eat.”

Final Years: Fannie Farmer left her position at the Boston Cooking-School in 1902 to open her own cooking academy, Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery. While the mission of the Boston Cooking-School’s was to train teachers, Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery geared its classes to housewives of young women of good repute. Her interest in cooking for convalescents also deepened, and she was a welcome lecturer at Harvard Medical School.

Traveling up and down the east coast, she regularly advocated for the a more scientific understanding of the food we eat (or should eat). She published several smaller cookbooks, as well as a regular column for the periodical “Woman’s Home Companion.”

In spite of two strokes suffered in the last years of her life, Miss Farmer continued her public appearances from a wheelchair. Her last lecture was given just ten days before her death in 1915.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: A biography is one thing, but imagine what happens when you try to recreate Fannie Farmer recipes using the same Victorian “technology” available to her? That’s just what the good people at America’s Test Kitchen did, and it’s a wonderful toast to the Mother of Level Measurements. Listen to the NPR story here.

And if you’d like to read more about Fannie Farmer, or actually try your hand at one of her recipes, check out these links:


Feeding America

Fannie Farmer on Encyclopedia  of World Biography


Fannie Farmer’s Classic Macaroni & Cheese

The Boston Cooking School Cookbook online


3 thoughts on “Kitchen Science & the Mother of Level Measurements

  1. Pingback: Blender Love: Cold Curry Squash Soup | The Big Scout Project

  2. This was a wayyyy fun read, Jean. Now I know more about the tattered Fannie Farmer Cookbook in my drawer. I used it a lot when I was first starting to cook and now it is falling apart.

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