Courtney Wiersema, University of Notre Dame and Emily Remus, University of Notre Dame | Newberry

Courtney Wiersema, University of Notre Dame and Emily Remus, University of Notre Dame

Friday, September 25, 2015

3 to 5 pm

Room 101

Center for American History and Culture Programs
Gender and Sexuality Seminar

“Kitchen Ecology: Women, Cooking, and the Nature of Class in Gilded Age Chicago”


Courtney Wiersema, University of Notre Dame


Nineteenth-century food preparation was hot, dirty, and tiresome work. Cooks contended not only with cultural dictates but also with environmental perils: decaying food, roving pests, contaminated water, and fickle fires. This paper takes seriously these non-human forces, exploring cooking as an ecological act that helped forge Gilded Age Chicago’s social order. In the decades after the Civil War, the city’s monied women defined their social position in part through their distance from the guts and grease of kitchen work. These women oversaw domestic laborers who did the dirty work of cooking and serving food, allowing the well-to-do to stay clean, coiffed, and ready to socialize. Cooks, waitresses, and other members of Chicago’s working class could not distance themselves from the earthly chaos of the kitchen, however. They remained enmeshed in a nature that the monied sought to obscure. By exploring the meaning and practice of Gilded Age cooking, this paper integrates environmental history and women’s history and seeks to understand the ways that nature-as both a cultural construct and a material force-shaped urban women’s lives.


“Sumptuary Laws and Consumer Rights: The New Woman and Chicago’s High Hat Problem”


Emily A. Remus, University of Notre Dame


In January 1897, a near riot erupted in one of Chicago’s most elegant theaters over a gender-specific sumptuary law regulating ladies’ hats. Throughout the 1890s, theater critics and playgoers had protested that ladies in elaborate millinery were obstructing the sightlines of those who had paid to see the stage. To safeguard the views of these customers, the City Council approved the first ordinance in the country prohibiting hats in theaters. The measure outraged many women and stirred conflict in Chicago’s theaters. But the law’s advocates insisted on the right of the state to protect the consuming public. In probing the battle over theater hats, this paper offers new insight into the development of early notions of consumer rights, as well as the remaking of gender codes amid capitalist transformation.


Respondent: Dr. Susan Johnson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Cost and Registration Information 

Scholl Center Seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically. For a copy of the paper, email the School Center at scholl@newberry.org. Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.