Food Preservation in the Nineteenth Century

The Wylie family members, living at a time before refrigeration or the ability to transport foods over long distances, were required to preserve much of their harvest. People used a variety of techniques that required intricate knowledge of the products and methods involved. Without these practices, surviving through the cold winter months would have been nearly impossible. Meat was dried and made into jerky, fruits were cooked with sugar and made into jams, vegetables were submerged in brine and pickled; all of these methods prolonged the lifespans of these essential products far beyond their normal capacity.

The Importance of Women

Historically, almost all food preparation was left to the women of the family, who had to stay at home and do all of the necessary but difficult work of maintaining the house. These jobs were no simple task, with the wide variety of food preparation methods requiring significant amounts of knowledge and technical prowess, and often taking many hours of hard work preparing the ingredients and cooking the food using the rather simple tools at hand. This knowledge was incredibly valuable, as without it the families wouldn’t have had enough food to last through the winter. The mothers of the house, as well as their daughters, worked extensively on cooking projects, but Lizzie Breckenridge truly took the kitchen as her domain. As the only long-term domestic helper to the Wylie family, she worked extensively to prepare food for them, and her talents were mentioned in letters between family members. If you would like to learn more about the roles that women and mothers played both in the kitchen and out, visit our digital exhibit on motherhood. The importance of the work put into food preparation is often undercut in favor of more masculine roles, especially regarding the Wylie’s connection with academia, but consider the difficulty and value of this work as you learn about the various processes that the women of the house had to do.

Lizzie Breckenridge in the Wylie House Kitchen

Food Preservation Techniques

The basic theory behind food preservation is to prevent harmful bacterial growth in a food product, but there are many different routes that this can take. Maintaining a wide variety of methods allowed for the preservation of a diverse set of foods, and kept dinner interesting! A few of the most popular techniques are described below, but this is only a glimpse into the complex practices that home cooks utilized.

–  Drying: The primary concern with food spoilage is the water content, without any water there’s nowhere for any bacteria to grow. Simple drying can preserve a variety of foods from meats to fruits, creating jerky and raisins in the process.

–  Salt curing: Salt is one of the primary ingredients utilized in food preservation because it effectively extracts the moisture content during the process. Straight forward salt curing techniques are most often used for curing meats.

–  Smoking: While smoking doesn’t preserve meat completely on its own, it helps to protect the outer layers of fat from going rancid. It is often used together with salt-curing or drying to fully preserve meat products.

–  Pickling: In pickling, food is typically submerged in either a vinegar-based liquid or a brine, heavily salted water, which prevents any bacteria from growing. This technique is often used on vegetables today, but historically it was also commonly used for certain fruits and cuts of meat.

–  Sugaring: Sugaring is like the sweet alternative to pickling, where fruits are kept in sugar syrup or dried and coated in crystallized sugar. Preservation processes like this one that utilize sugar work because sugar has similar moisture drawing properties to salt.

–  Jellies: Making jelly or jam requires combining fruit, or sometimes vegetables, with large quantities of sugar and boiling them. All the extra sugar that makes jellies and jams so delicious is also what makes it last so long. The sugar helps to reduce the water content where bacteria grows.

Outbuildings

The Wylie House complex was far more expansive during the 19th century than it is today, spanning nearly 25 acres and including many more buildings than what stand today. Some of these outbuildings were constructed entirely with food preservation in mind.

This map, drawn by TAW III, depicts the Wylie homestead, with each number indicating a unique outbuilding or section of the property. A select few are described below.

3. Ice House – Before the invention of refrigeration, ice houses were used as a way to store ice throughout the year. During the coldest winter months, when lakes would freeze over, large blocks of ice would be carved out. They were kept in ice houses, surrounded by insulation such as straw or sawdust. These blocks of ice could last for many months under the insulation, sometimes even lasting until the next winter. These ice blocks were essential for storing perishable foods like milk or meat.

4 and 5. Cold Frames – Cold frames were underground storage facilities with glass roofs used primarily to protect plants during the cold winter months. Plants that were especially susceptible to the cold, such as citrus trees that supplied a vital source of Vitamin C, needed to winter in the warmer cold frames. They worked like underground greenhouses, using the consistent temperatures underground as well as heat from the sun.

9. Smokehouse – Without the ability to freeze meat, much of the family’s meat would need to be preserved. The techniques for preserving meat included salting, drying, and of course smoking. The smokehouse made smoking large quantities of meat much easier, which was imperative when whole animals from the Wylie’s farm would be butchered.

16. Corn Crib – When Theophilus III lived on the property this building was a chicken house, but prior to that it was used as a corn crib. Corn cribs were used to dry corn, which was primarily used to feed livestock throughout the year.

Beyond the buildings pictured on the map, the Wylie’s also had a pantry and a cellar in the house that were used to keep food cool throughout the year.

Primary Sources

Here at the Wylie House we use primary sources from the family in our research to get first-hand accounts of what the Wylie’s life was like. These are some of the most essential documents in our research and can be applied to many of the projects we work on, but different types of sources are utilized depending on what we are investigating. For this project two different sources were used, recipes and receipts.

Receipt from Andrew Wylie for purchases made in Louisville on September 10, 1841

This document is a receipt kept by Andrew Wylie, who maintained substantial financial records during his time at the house. While Andrew’s family grew much of their own food, the preservatives they were buying can be found on some of these documents. One of the most notable purchases here was a barrel of sugar, weighing in at a total of 279 pounds! Much of this sugar was likely used in making jams, which, alongside drying and the occasional pickling, was crucial in preserving fruit that would rot quickly otherwise.

Recipe from the Wylie’s for sweet pickled cucumbers

We believe that this sweet pickled cucumbers recipe was written by Rebecca Wylie, one of the mothers that lived in the house. It is a rather straightforward pickling recipe, describing the general techniques used for pickling that prevail today. The recipe calls for 6 lbs. fruit, 3 lbs. brown sugar, 3 pts. vinegar, 1 pt. water, and 1 cup mixed spices. The instructions read

“Scald the fruit in salt and water until a little tender then drain. Boil the spices in the water a few minutes then add vinegar and sugar and fruit and just scald.”

Other recipes from the Wylie’s can be found written in their cookbooks as well as in letters sent between family members. These recipes give us clues as to what the diet of the Wylie’s was like throughout their time at the house.

This study only offers a brief introduction into the complex world of food preparation during the Wylie’s time here. If you would like to learn about these processes further, be sure to visit the Wylie House Museum in person, we’re open from 10:00-2:00 Tuesday through Saturday!

Written by Hunter Miller, student employee