From the Homestead Kitchen: The Mighty Force of Women’s Clubs

by Jennifer Scerra

I dunno. The history of women’s clubs? It sounds sorta dry.

That’s not fair, I remind myself. You are just internalizing sexism or something. I’m sure there’s lots of things that are interesting there.

Yeah, like what?

*staring* Ok, hold on.

There is an exercise popular in some museums where educators ask visitors to make an observation about something, and then after they answer, prompt them to continue with, “What do you see that makes you say that?” and, “What more can you find?”  

Educators call exercises like these thinking routines—simple steps that you can follow to help you learn about something. This one is useful when you are looking at an object for the first time. It might help you make sense of a painting in art or make observations about a specimen in science. And in history, it is useful for examining primary sources.  

I find myself using this particular thinking routine all the time. I did earlier this week when I first pulled out a 96-page cookbook published by the Covina Women’s Club in 1926. The book is somewhat frail, the paper of its soft cover chipping. But it’s a window into so many stories.

I think the Covina Women’s club was pretty large.
What makes you say that?
Because there are a lot of different women’s names listed next to the recipes.
What more can you find?

Citrus fruit must have been important in this area.
What makes you say that?
Because it’s got its own section right at the front of the cookbook.
What more can you find?

Did young and old women both join the club?
What makes you ask that?
There is a mother and daughter both listed here.
What more can you find?

Even simple items like a self-published cookbook can reveal a lot about the past when you really start to interrogate them. And this one has a place, a time, a building, and a people, all in spades. So, what’s the story? 

Sometime previous to its being printed in 1926/1927, a group of women in small rural city just outside of Los Angeles, CA, must have sat down and decided to put together a community cookbook. The women were members of the Covina Women’s Club, with Mrs. Mary M. Coman serving as Club President (it says so inside the book’s front cover). Another woman, Mrs. Helen Petty, was declared the Section Chairman of the Club’s Home Economics Department and presumably put in charge of the cookbook venture. 132 women (I counted) took credit for at least one and as many as 12 recipes that made it to print. A number of local businesses, including the Covina Floral Shop and Dr. E. V. Rice, a dentist, were persuaded to advertise and their brief messages can be found in the back cover and on the bottom page margins. 

(What more can you find?)

Today, in 2021, the Covina Women’s Club is headquartered in a 1960s era building, but in 1926, they gathered in a Tudor Revival style structure a few blocks from their current location. Their first clubhouse opened in April of 1905 and was designed by the renowned Los Angeles architect, Arthur B. Benton. Benton gained fame from his work a few years earlier as the designer of the original wing of the ornate and eclectic Mission Inn Hotel in Riverside, CA. Benton designed at least two other women’s club buildings around that same year—for the Monrovia Women’s Club and the Long Beach Ebell Club—which speaks to both the growth of Southern California and of women’s clubs as institutions (see the Chandler Museum’s collection of Benton artifacts).

The original name of the women’s club in Covina was the Monday Afternoon Club. It was founded in 1898 and their first president, a Mrs. F. M. Douglass, went on to eventually serve as the chairman of the Club’s building committee. A newspaper article was posted in the local Covina Argus newspaper at the time of the clubhouse’s grand opening in 1905, which detailed the history of how this came to be. The clubhouse cost $5,000 dollars to build (the article says) and was constructed on land generously donated by a Mr. Douglass (would that be Mrs. Douglass’ husband?) and a Mr. Ruddock. 

The article then goes on to describe the growth and scope of the women’s club movement itself, which it calls “a mighty force.”

The uncredited author waxes poetic about the mission, purpose, and accomplishments of women’s clubs throughout the nation. 

“It is impossible to estimate what the clubs have done for women in widening their mental horizon, in developing unsuspected talent, and in breaking down the barriers between different sects and classes.” Covina Argus, April 29, 1905.

Women’s clubs might have claimed to welcome both, “women of wealth and leisure and women who earn their daily bread,” but immigrant women, for example, were probably more often served by Settlement Houses and the social opportunities that they provided. But while we can recognize today that women’s clubs were rarely as diverse as they promised to be, they did represent a significant change that was happening in American progressive era politics and society. 

(What makes you say that women’s clubs represent change in American society and politics? What more can you find?)

Like their elder sister organizations, such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and abolition societies, women’s clubs could be an opportunity for groups of women to unite together for social betterment and political change. To quote the Covina Argus article again, 

“The work which is set before the organized intelligent womanhood of today, namely: ‘to create a healthy public spirit’, is akin to that of the poet. Is it not at least as a high a privilege, as noble a mission, as that of the law maker? Is it not indeed, the root and source of all legislation?”  

They make political engagement sound very elegant. But it makes some sense then that the club used a surprisingly formalized structure, with women serving parliamentary rolls. The article cites a Reception Committee and a Club Board of Directors. The cookbook lists a Cookbook Committee and a Section Chairman. They took organization seriously.  

The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (also mentioned in the article) represented more than 800,000 women by 1910. And between the time when the Covina Women’s Club first built their clubhouse in 1905, and published a cookbook in 1926, the United States finally ratified the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote in national elections. Suffrage was still divisive up until the amendment, but by the time it passed, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs threw its considerable heft to the cause

Together, women and women’s clubs could be a mighty force.

All the members of the Covina Women's Club who contributed recipes: Mrs. Charles A. Leighton, Mrs. David S. Watson, Mrs. J.N. Wilson, Mrs. L.L. Ratekin, Mrs. C.H. Shaw, Mrs. Harry R. Webber, Mrs. W.M. Warren, Blanche S. Anderson, Mrs. Elmer L. King, Mrs. J.P. Overholtzer, Mrs. E.L. Christopher, Emma L. Hawks, Mrs. Harry Upham, Edna B. Hanna, Mrs. D.J. Pitzer, Mrs. William Seal, Mrs. W.M. Griswold, Marjorie Traweek, Mrs. Sherman Gail, Mary M. Coman, Mrs. W.B. Broadwell, Mrs. Martin Wood, Mrs. C.E. Crawford, Mrs. W.S. Sides, Mrs. C.A. Plant, Ilo Freet, Mrs. Thomas Traweek, Mary C. Lyman, Miss B. Edna Galvin, Mrs. Edward H. Walters, Mrs. Henry Stebbins Phillips, Mamie Cook, Mrs. George Leonardy, Mrs. H.N. McClain, Mrs. David Unrich, Mrs. J.E. Ricketts, Mrs. A. Lunde, Mrs. J.J. Moyle, Mrs. Clinton Hutchinson, Mrs. Chas. E. Varney, Mrs. Myron W. Crawford, Mrs. J.B. McClure, Mrs. Franh Randack, Mrs. Paul Custer, Anna D. Dudderar, Katharine Jobe, Mrs. C.E. Paige, Mrs. C.E. Bristow, Mrs. J.C Pearson, Molly B. Webber, Mrs. Wm. B. Thorne, Mrs. Chas. A Bull, Mrs. Arthur Lee, Madam Ellen Beach Yaw Cannon, Mrs. M.F Perritt, Dorothy Kimball Taylor, A friend, Mrs. Closson, A.E. Dwelle, Mrs. E.B. Patton, Mrs. Edwin E. Sanders, Mrs. C.G. Elliott, Mrs. Frank Everett, Winifred Bronson, Mrs. H.E. Bonner, Mrs. W.A. Griffith, Mrs. A.E. Harnish, Mrs. Alice M. DeForest, Mrs. C.D. Griffiths, Mrs. John H. Lindley, Mrs. William Crook, Mrs. JK Strosnider, Mrs. Joe Wilke, Mrs. A.R. Bryan, Mrs. A.G. Gilbert, Mrs. W.H. Brandon, Mrs. R.E. Laws, Mrs. C.T. Graves, Mrs. Alice S. Clapp, Mrs. Jane Wheeler, Bertha L. Phillieo, Mrs. Helen A. Petty, Mrs. F.L. Douglas, Mrs. Almo R. Taylor, Mrs. A.M. Pence, Mrs. Clay Beattie, Mrs. E.P. Warner, Edna B. Hanna, Lilian M. Douglass, Mrs. G.C. Mosher, Mrs. B.V. Randack, Mrs. W. LeRoy Carter, Mrs. M. Havlin, Mrs. W.H. Brandon, Carli-Belle Gail, Mrs. B.L. King, Augusta Sanders, Mrs. Von der Lohe, Mrs. Seth I. Colver, Mrs. Frank Gillett, Ethel H. Shirley, Mrs. Sitton, Mrs. F.W. Carter, Mrs. S.S. Aschenbrenner, Mrs. L. Ralph Richard, Mrs. Ralph Crook, Clydia Rice, Lola B. Clark, Mrs. Seth I. Clover, Miss CA Sanborn, Mrs. Julius Jorgenson, Mrs. J.M. Whistel, Mrs. E.F. Gloege, Mrs. Lilian Wolfarth, Mrs. Herman B. Allison, Mrs. J.L. Matthews, Mrs. Wilson Hall, Mrs. Hal Cook, Mrs. L.G. Daniels, Mrs. Vina M. Taylor, Mrs. I.W. Everett, Mrs. Irven G. Reynolds, Minnie L. Thurber, Mrs. Thomas, Carrie E. Nash, Mrs. R.K. Adams, Mrs. J.D. Fields, Mrs. Ralph Frost, Mrs. S.M. Stead, Mrs. A.O. Clark, Mrs. W.P. Custer, and Mrs. George S. Phillips.

When I was going through all the names in the cookbook, I looked specifically for the last name Douglass, just to see if the original president of the club was still around and contributing in 1926. Mrs. Douglass’ obituary says that she lived until 1929 and was an active supporter of the Women’s Club and her church until the end. She does not however, appear in the cookbook. But instead, I did find a Lilian Douglass, who census records revealed to be her daughter. Excellent, I thought. I will cook daughter Lilian Douglass’ Cheese Soufflee (Miss Douglass, bless her heart, gave us 12 recipes, more than any other individual) plus a recipe submitted by the president of the club in 1926, Mrs. Mary M. Coman, for Orange Biscuits.  

Cheese Soufflee [sic]

Cheese Soufflee
Make white sauce of 1 T. butter, 1 T. flour, ½ C. milk, 6 T. grated cheese, dash cayenne, ¼ t. salt, 3 eggs beaten separately. Stir yolks into mixture and then fold in beaten whites. Bake about 20 min. Lilian M. Douglass.

Lilian Douglass’ Cheese Soufflee.

Notes on the recipe:

This recipe is light on instruction, so since I’ve never made a soufflé (or a soufflee, as Lilian calls it) I just made some best guesses. When she asked for a white sauce, I assumed that she meant to make a roux, cooking the butter and flour together in a saucepan for a few minutes before adding in the milk and letting it thicken. After it had a nice gravy consistency, I added the cheese, salt, and cayenne and set it to the side to cool slightly while I prepped the eggs. As she instructed, I separated the eggs. Then I beat the egg whites until they held a medium peak. Then the egg yolks went into the mixture, followed very gently by the egg whites. To bake, I used an ungreased Pyrex cooking dish and put it in the oven at 375 (a temperature widely quoted by other souffle recipes online). I poked it with a knife to test at 20 minutes, but since it still seems sort of soft, I let it go another five minutes.

Family recipe reviews:

Kid 1: “Good flavor, good texture, two thumbs up.
Adult 1: “That’s some good, fluffy, really good scrambled eggs. This is better than the soufflé I’ve had before.”
Adult 2: “It’s so fluffy!”
Adult 3: “I like it. I think cheddar cheese would have been better than Jack, but the recipe seems solid.”

Orange Biscuit

And now, Women’s Club President Mary M. Coman’s Orange Biscuit recipe from the citrus section of the book. Both the Coman family and the previously mentioned Douglass family list variations on “orchards” or “orange groves” as their profession in federal censuses around this time.

Orange Biscuit
Put in sauce pan: 2 T. butter, 4 T. sugar, 2 T. orange juice, 3 T. grated orange rind. Stir and cook slowly until thick. Sift two C. of flour with 1 t. salt, 4 level t. B. P. and rub unto flour, 4 T. Butter. Mix with ¾ C. milk. Work to a smooth dough, put on slightly floured board, flatten to oblong strip ½ in. thick. Spread with the cooled orange filling, roll like jelly roll, cut in ¾ in. slices and bake 15 min. in a moderate to hot oven (370-400). Mary M. Coman.

Notes on the recipe:

This was a great little biscuit recipe.

To make the orange filling (a marmalade?) I mixed the butter, sugar, orange juice, and two oranges worth of orange rind on a low simmer in a saucepan. The instructions were vague on how long to cook it for, so I just left it for as long as it took to put together the dough part of the recipe. I probably could have let mine go a little longer, but even though the sauce was more of a syrup than a jelly, the end product turned out just fine.  

For the dough, Mary describes rubbing the butter into the flour, which was not a technique I was familiar with. Luckily the BBC has a nice, quick tutorial. After the dough came together, I flattened it into a rectangle about the size of a keyboard, drizzled the filling, and then rolled it up. The filling ran out somewhat, but I was able to scoop most of it back in place, and once baked, the sugary syrup gave the bottom of each roll a lovely, caramelized glaze.

To bake, I used a convection oven set at 375 and pulled the pastries out at about 20 minutes. I was worried because they never browned much or looked particularly golden from the top, but they were definitely cooked and had a nice biscuit texture.  

A few concluding remarks. Eaten warm from the oven, I really liked the mildly sweet, breakfasty citrus flavor of this biscuit, but I could see how someone could be unpleasantly surprised by the lack of sugar and strong bitter flavor of the orange filling. There is no sugar in the biscuit itself, and the orange rind has a grapefruit-like level of bitterness when eaten in this quantity. I really liked it and everyone in my family did too, but if you are a bitter sensitive eater, you may want to swap a different jam for inside. 

Family recipe reviews:

Kid 1: “They taste like a biscuit. Do you know why I said that? Because I have had a biscuit. I like it. It’s good.”
Kid 2: “Mmm.”
Adult 1: “That’s tasty. I want to eat it with coffee.”
Adult 2: “I think they are pretty good.”
Adult 3: “I like the bitter jam. Mmm. I was afraid it wouldn’t be sweet enough, but I like the flavor.”
Adult 4: “They are as promised, biscuits with orange.”

So, what did you think? I ask, wiping orange biscuit crumbs from my mouth.

Yeah, it’s pretty neat to see people changing the world. And the food was great. But you could have dug more into the orange industry. And I can’t believe you got all the way to the end of this post, totally ignoring Madam Ellen Beach Yaw Cannon and her lima bean recipe. 

Wait what?

Madam Ellen Beach Yaw Cannon. Page 29. She’s on your list of recipe contributors. You know she’s got a cool story with a name like that.

Throws up my hands. Dang. There is always more to find.

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