The "'Philadelphia Revely' Commonplace Book Project"

Click here for a brief summary of what is known about the book so far.

Click here to see PCRB imaging.

                The objective of this project is to present students from many disciplines with a genuine research challenge.  The book in question is an unique artifact, whose provenance and the purposes of its construction may be inferred, but that is only the beginning of what it can show us.  Part cookbook, part literature anthology, this commonplace book juxtaposes a wide range of practical, aesthetic, and philosophical texts.  Ideally, a group of four to eight students from a variety of disciplines would study the book from each student's disciplinary perspective, meeting periodically to share discoveries, problems, and resources.  Over time, the group's collaborative picture of the book's contents and significance would grow more coherent as discoveries in each discipline aided the others.

Social Sciences:   Because hand-made cookbooks reflect the cooking and eating practices of the community in which they are made, this book defines a cuisine, a "kitchen," a way of treating and appreciating food.  Because eighteenth century English households designated this realm of experience as "women's work," this portion of the book could tell us a great deal if analyzed from a Women's Studies, Sociological, or Anthropological perspective.  In addition to studying the recipes as "literature," the recipes also can be tested in actual practice.  Those whose ingredients would be considered safe by modern standards could be tested by consumption and comparison with modern equivalents.

Natural Sciences:  The book's compilation of cures for diseases with formulas for making complex meals and beverages captures the English and Continental view of food, drink, and "medicine" in the early days of the Modern era.  Science had begun to separate cures from recipes, but the germ theory of disease had yet to be articulated, and the etiology and pathology of many ailments remained the province of anecdotal folk wisdom.  Some of the "cures" may have contained active ingredients which would have been efficacious in relieving the symptoms of, or even curing, the disease for which they were recommended.  Others may have produced no relevant active ingredients, and some might even have been dangerous to the patient.  Biology and Chemistry students would be able to tell us whether the materials used have been studied as sources of pharmacologically active compounds, and whether they could produce unintended side effects.  Advanced students might be able to forensically analyze the results of preparing the recipes, using gas liquid chromatography, spectrographic analysis, and other modern methods.

Humanities: The book's literature excerpts constitute an eighteenth-century "Norton Anthology of English Literature" corresponding to the taste(s) of those who copied out the passages.  Because several of the passages are easily identified as corresponding to printed works by canonical authors, the publication dates of the earliest editions can be used to help us date the book's probable range of active use.  (Some of the recipes/cures also are datable because they are copied from printed publications.)  English Literature and History students would be ideally prepared to identify the passages and to analyze the significance of their co-location within this book.  Students with an interest in Manuscript Studies and Codicology also can contribute to the project.  The handwriting of each passage can be compared to determine how many persons copied material into the book, and especially they can be compared with the hand of Philadelphia Revely's two signatures on the front and back pastedowns to determine whether she could have written any of the passages.  The handwriting also can be compared with typical manuscript hands of the period between Philadeplhia Revely's birth (ca. 1689) to help determine the era in which the passages were copied, checking the results of the publication date research.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, repeating themes represented in the passages may begin so shed some light on the social and emotional situation in which the writers' worked.  Conclusive identification of the book's provenance probably will be impossible, but the contents, earliest and latest likely dates of use, and other evidence may indicate the likelihood that the book was used within the Smithson family circle, and especially in the households of Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie or James Macie Smithson.  Because of the exceeding rarity of surviving manuscript evidence relating to James Smithson, any new addition to that knowledge would be a valuable contribution to the history of one of America's premier research institutions. 

Political Science, Art History, Dance, and Music:  Although it is currently believed that the book contains no overtly political content, and no specific art, dance, or musical references, knowledge of the cultural trends within which the book's creator(s) moved would be a valuable addition to the team's research.  Knowledge of the book's "cultural milieu" will help shape interpretations of the content by researchers in other disciplines.  What issues were being debated in Parliament during the era in which the book was made?  What news occupied the pages of the popular press?  What trends and fashions moved through the culture?  What instrumental or vocal music might the book's creator(s) have listened to while writing?  Which classical or popular composers were currently fashionable, which were currently working during the period?  What painters, sculptors, architects, and clothing and landscape designers were active, and what examples of their work might have been most familiar to the book's creator(s)?  What dances, formal and informal, might the book's creator(s) have performed when not writing?

        If you are interested in any of the above approaches to the book, or if you have additional, different interests you would like to pursue, please contact Arnold Sanders, Associate Professor of English, Goucher College, Baltimore, MD 21204.