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The Staff of Life in Colonial America

Updated: May 15, 2023

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 39 No.1, March 1986

by Charity Gedney

Charity Gedney has been deeply involved as a volunteer worker in various collectors' societies for many years. She says she deplores the emphasis on masculine pursuits evident in the Chronicle but realizes that, if there is to be more attention to women's work in the American past, women must offer more articles.

When those of our early, European fore­fathers and foremothers came to North America in the late sixteenth and early seven­teenth centuries they came from a culture in which bread, made from the meal of various cereal grains, or legumes, was for many people the most important single element in their diets. They arrived in a land where sources of animal protein were plenteous in the wild state and where there were many strange new fruits, nuts and vegetables, some already under cultivation by the indig­enous peoples whose lands they immedi­ately began to take over by purchase, usur­pation and conquest. They were not above taking over much of the diet of the natives along with their land but they held strongly to their dependence on bread as a staple. This would have been difficult as soon as their small supplies of flour brought from home ran out and before they had the opportunity to clear fields and grow grain except that they found here under cultivation a grain fit to make bread. The New Englander called this grain Indian corn, 'corn' being one of the English speaker's general names for the various small grains cultivated chiefly as the major ingredient of bread stuffs. Mahiz (maise) or pagstowr were two of the Indian names for this vital foodstuff but these were mostly ignored by the English speaking Europeans.

Almost immediately the settlers made use of the Indian corn and they continued to do so, as we know, long after they had planted and harvested the European grain brought with them or subsequently imported.

The use these early settlers made of their grain crops was not very much different than it had been overseas, although at first their facilities were rather more primitive. Mills to grind meal and flour were not erected im­mediately and when they did appear were few and far between for many years. Meal was made by hand in mortars and querns. There were community ovens operated by professional bakers only in the large settle­ments and these too were few and far between.

On the other hand, every family could afford wood as the fuel for baking, a com­modity which in England and on the con­tinent had been scarce and expensive. Here. wood for burning was so plentiful that only part of it was reserved for use as fuel or for other purposes and the rest was burned on the stump to clear the fields. In the homeland faggots of brush wood, the prunings of trees and the woody growth of gorse and thorn served the baker for fuel. In the American forest such piddling stuff was hardly worth picking up. Big fires for heating and lighting the early homes were built from great lengths of log: smaller fires for cooking or for heating ovens were supplied by wood split from sec­tions of log. Only the choicest of fire wood was used.

The first baking seems to have been done with Dutch Ovens or with utensils propped at an angle before the cooking fire. Originally the Dutch oven in American usage was a cast iron baking kettle with a bail, short legs and a flanged top for holding embers. The application of 'Dutch Oven' to the tin kitchen or reflector baker appears to be a 19th Cen­tury, or perhaps earlier, originally English, usage.

Dutch oven

According to one writer, the Dutch oven came to America with the Pilgrims from Holland. Another says it got its name be­cause it was a common article in Dutch trade goods. Whatever the source of its common name, the utensil seems to have been here very early and is as likely to have come from England, where it was known as a pot oven or bake kettle at least as early as the 18th Century. On this side of the Atlantic it has been called a bake kettle as well and also a fire pan. "Kettle" appears often in colonial inventories and at least one of the utensils called by that name was probably the Dutch Oven.

To bake with a Dutch Oven in the fireplace was not complicated. The pot and its lid were placed in the fire and heated. The lid was brought just short of red heat which would perhaps have warped it; the pot was made moderately hot. After greasing the pot, it was sprinkled with flour and the loaf of dough was put into it. With its cover on it was set on a heap of hot coals raked from the fire and more coals were mounded on the lid. The coals were replenished occasionally and after an hour or two the bread was done. Related to Dutch Oven baking was the use of the "spider:" a three-legged frying pan or skillet which was nestled among the hot coals, baking its contents from bottom and sides.

Later, when the colonists possessed a brick or clay oven, the Dutch oven or other fire­place bakers were still used for 'little" bakings in between the weekly (or sometimes semi­weekly) "great" bakings.

Johnny cake board

Another type of utensil used in baking without an oven was the johnny cake board. "Johnny cake" was originally a cornbread baked on a board or other surface tilted before the fire. "Journey cake:" a cake for pro­visioning a Journey, is sometimes suggested as the origin of the name. Although journey cake is known from as early as 1775, recent opinion doubts this etymology, but offers no certain reason for the name. H.l. Mencken suggested that the origin was ''Shawnee" cake. Perhaps the most likely clue to Johnny cake is the word jonakin mentioned in 1675 as a foodstuff bracketed with mush, and ex­plained in 1850 as thin wafer-like sheets toasted on a board. In 1500 a jannock was a loaf of leavened oaten bread in England. The suffix kin attached to a noun was an early way of indicating a diminutive form. That johnny cake of maize could have derived its name from an oaten loaf is not too strange for the bannock of the North of England was originally an unleavened bread of oats or barley, baked in flat loaves. It became in New England a thin corn bread baked on a grid­dle or a board. Johnny cake, or cornbreads like it, were used up and down the Eastern seaboard. They had other names as well; one used in 1777 was "fire cake." Another, noted as early as 1745, was "hoe cake." Hoe cake was baked before the fire, not on a tilted board but on a broad plantation hoe. Such hoes, like modern mattocks and pick axes were made to slide over the narrow end of the handle and to bind tightly at the wider end. Because of this feature they could be easily de-handled, used for baking and then re-handled for work in the field.

The johnny cake board, bannock-board, or bake-board would be a rare find for today's collector of kitchen tools for their materials and construction was not such as to lead to their being preserved. These were merely squares of plank with a prop protruding from the side away from the fire. A bake-board looked very much like a plasterer's "hawk." Some, of course, did not have props but were supported by being leaned against a brick or a sad-iron.

A form of baking that required no utensil at all was the ash cake. Ash cakes were of Indian derivation and were called appoons or ponaps by their inventors. English speak­ers called them pones, cornpones or Indian pones. They were made of meal ground from Indian corn and water or other liquid agent. The flat, oval cake or pone was shaped by hand and buried in the hot ashes. Baked through, it was removed, dusted off and en­joyed with appetite.

An outdoor clay oven

Although built-in brick ovens were soon a standard feature of the colonial house, the free standing clay oven shaped something like a bee hive, was common on the newly colon­ized North American continent as it had been for centuries in Europe. Smaller versions of these were sometimes set into fire places but frequently they were erected outdoors under a small peaked roof designed to shelter the oven from the effect of rain. These ovens came here early. Called clome ovens in England from an early Teutonic word for clay, they were made in potteries and widely dis­tributed. Some were exported to America and a very early one of these has been re­covered at Jamestown in Virginia. Others were built by their users.

These ovens were so handy that hunters and other woodsmen often build them on their permanent campsites. A mound of brushwood corresponding to the shape of the interior of the oven was packed together and a thick clay shell built over it. Sometimes the shell was reinforced with a curving mat of intertwined branches between an inner and outer layer of clay. When dry, the clay structure was carefully fired until it was baked hard as brick. Sometimes ovens of this nature had a flue piercing their tops but commonly fumes from the heating of the oven were allowed to escape from the door. Outdoors this was not a major problem, but when used indoors in fireplaces the ovens were inclined to be smokey and eye-smarting unless the fireplace chimney provided sufficient up-draft to draw the smoke upwards out of the face of the person stoking it.

Fireplace diagram showing oven (upper right) and ash pit (lower right).

The built-in brick oven was a great convenience for the housewife. It was commodious, held its heat for a long period, was usually positioned at a comfortable height and produced baked goods that are still remembered as superior. It was located in the mass of brickwork that contained the great kitchen fireplace and was often below and within the chimney breast. It shared the chimney with the fireplace, either through its own flue or its doorway. It was closed during use by a door of plank or cast iron which was sometimes "luted" or sealed around by a temporary mortar of damp clay that prevented the escape of heat through cracks between the door and its jambs. The oval oven cavity was dome-shaped with a flat floor and inwardly inclining walls which met in a rounded top. Its flue, if it had one, was usually in front just behind and above the door and slanting upward into the chimney. The earliest ones apparently lacked a damper to regulate the escape of smoke and thus allow the user to control the rate of combustion, but this did not importantly affect the oven's usefulness.

The oven was heated by a wood fire built on its flat floor. Heating times given in various sources are variable but depending on size of the oven and type of fuel an hour or two may be considered usual. The beginning fire deposited soot all over the interior of the oven's dome and it was not until this soot was burned away that the heat, held in the brickwork like water in a sponge, could it be judged to approach baking temperature. Final testing of the temperature was done in many ways. If striking the brickwork with the end of a stick produced sparks, if a special stone built into the oven wall glowed with just the right heat or if flour cast on the floor charred black without burning, the oven might be ready. Owners soon developed a feel and a judgement about their ovens that made effective estimates of temperature possible in a day when gauges and thermometers were not available. A "quick" oven was a very hot one, the condition existing immediately, and for some time, after heating. A "slow" oven was one of reduced but still useful heat A well heated oven might be good for eight or nine hours of baking although obviously those foods that required less and less heat were inserted later and later in the process. Bread was normally baked immediately after heating the oven. Depending on the degree of heat and the recipe, its baking took perhaps an hour, although this could vary fairly widely.

When the oven had reached its proper heat the ashes and embers were removed with a flat bladed tool called a fire shovel or with a special hoe. The floor was cleaned with a rag mop, sometimes tied around a bit of chain fastened to the end of its pole. At least some bakers used damp mops both for careful cleaning and also because the steamy atmosphere created was desirable in some types of baking. In early colonial days housewives in New England were said to have used brooms of hemlock branches for the purpose, probably because of the scarcity of otherwise useless rags. Removing the remains of the fire and cleaning the oven had to be done rapidly or too much heat would be lost. It was an unpleasant job. The ashes, still smoking, were blistering hot and they had to be removed to a place where there was no danger of fire. Ovens often had ash pits, cavernous brick closets, built into the brick work beneath them just above the hearth. These served as depositories for the remnants of the fire from the oven and because the material in them might still burst into flames they were often provided with doors. Various writers on ovens have suggested that there were other purposes for these receptacles and there is no question that individuals could have used them for storage of utensils or for supplementary cooking in the still hot oven ashes. The weight of informed opinion is, however, that they were merely temporary containers for the refuse of the oven fire.

As soon as the oven was cleaned, the first baking was inserted using a floured "peel," a long handled, flat bladed instrument seen in use today, albeit with a shorter handle, by the pizza baker. Loaves were usually not baked in containers in early times, although such containers were known. The moulded lump of dough would be placed directly on the oven floor to remain there until baked when it was removed with the peel or the fireshovel.

In bakeries the long handled tools, peels, ash hoes, mops and so forth were tradition­ally kept in overhead racks depending from the ceiling joists. This may have been the case in colonial homes where ceiling-hung racks were not unknown, but little evidence for it has been found. Perhaps the tools were merely stood up in the corner next to the chimney.

Kitchen Utensils. Second from left, a spider and second from right, a Dutch Oven.

The colonists had yeast to raise their bread. It was often called barm or emptins and was a by-product of brewing. They had salt from the beginning. Various flours were available early, including rye, wheat, pease, Indian corn, barley and oats. These were raised at home as soon as the fields were cleared. Soon after settlement, molasses became available as did sugar. By the middle of the 17th Century cows and chickens were plentiful; milk products and eggs were commonly used in baked goods before many generations of settlers had passed. Except for such aids as patent baking powder, the basic ingredients of colonial baking were little different from our own.

For those who'd like to try some of the pro­ducts of the colonial housewife here are a few recipes.

Ash Cake (also corn pone) 2 cups cornmeal 1 cup buttermilk 3/4 teaspoon soda 1/3 cup of fat (lard, bacon fat or what you will) 1 teaspoon salt Sufficient water for a thick dough

Mix the ingredients. Draw the hot ashes of a good fire forward and make a nest open to the bare hearth. Lay your flat, oval cake of dough in the nest and leave it till it forms a crust. Cover with more ashes and embers. Bake 20 minutes to a half hour. Brush off the pone and decide whether to eat it or go to McDonald's.

Rye 'n' lnjun (the ancestor of the brown­bread of Saturday night in Boston) 1-1/2 cups yellow corn meal 1 cup rye flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1-1/2 cups buttermilk or sour milk 1/2 cup molasses

Sift together meal, flour, salt and soda. Mix buttermilk and molasses. Mix liquid and dry ingredients. Place mixture in well greased baking molds, half full. Let stand 20 minutes, then bake for 45 minutes in a moderate oven. If you want to try this in a Dutch Oven, you're on your own.

Johnny Cake (hoe cake, bannock, firecake) 2 cups corn meal (white or yellow) 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup of boiling water (or half a cup to scald the meal, half cold water to cool it for handling) 1 tablespoon of bacon fat or lard

Mix ingredients thoroughly. Shape into oval or oblong cakes. Grease skillet and prop it before the fire. Turn cakes when partly done. Try a hoe or board if you want authenticity or cook on the stove on a griddle.

Spider Cornbread 1-1/3 cup of yellow cornmeal 1/3 cup white flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 cup sour milk (or buttermilk) 2 cups milk 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon sugar (more if desired) 2 tablespoons butter

Sift meal, flour and baking soda into mix­ing bowl. Add 1 cup milk, 1 cup sour milk, sugar and salt. Stir well. Put butter in an iron skillet and place in a moderate oven. When skillet is well heated remove and pour in batter. Remaining milk is poured gently over the top. Bake 45 to 50 minutes. If you man­age it successfully in a stove, try it in the fire­place. If you don't have a spider use a skillet and trivet.

Editor's note: I second Ms. Gedney's call for Chronicle articles that explore what would have traditionally been women's work in the American past, as well as articles on tools and trades beyond woodworking. I love woodworking and woodworking-related articles as much as the next person (heck – I teach hand-tool woodworking and use planes based on 18th- and 19th-century examples) and of course wish to receive more of them — but I'd love the opportunity to include articles on milliners, chandlers, weaving and other textile-related occupations, food preparation, apothecaries, printing, leatherworking, the kitchen garden, wigmaking, brewers...the list goes on! If you have questions, or want to submit an article, please email me (Megan Fitzpatrick) at


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