Rare Book Highlights: Cobbett’s Corn

Cobbett, William. A Treatise on Cobbett’s Corn. London: W. Cobbett, 1828.

What do you think of when you think of Iowa?

Let me guess. Corn.

Cobbett's Corn title page, printed on paper made from corn husks, 1828.

Cobbett’s Corn title page, printed on paper made from corn husks, 1828.

That is why I love to pull out Cobbett’s Corn when people come to ISU’s Special Collections and University Archives. Not only is it a rare book focused on corn, but its first two leaves are actually printed on paper made from corn husks to demonstrate the usefulness of the plant.

William Cobbett was a lively writer with strong opinions. In his “Introduction” to the book, he explains that in the book he will

“show, what a blessing this plant will be to the English labourer, and how it will and must drive the accursed soul-degrading potatoe out of that land, into which it never ought to have come” (8).

Tell us how you really feel, Cobbett!

William Cobbett, portrait in oils, possibly by George Cooke, about 1831. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Cobbett’s animated writing style was matched by a spirited personality, which showed itself in his campaigns against corruption and fiery journalism that had a tendency to run afoul of the authorities. Born in 1763 in Farnham, Surrey, to a farmer and innkeeper, he joined the army at the age of 21, which took him to New Brunswick in Canada. After his return to England and leaving the army, he accused several of his former officers with corruption. Fearing retribution, he fled to France, but, as the country was in the midst of revolution, he soon left for America, settling in Philadelphia in 1792. There, he began his career in political journalism, returning to England in 1800 after losing a lawsuit for libel brought against him by the physician Dr. Benjamin Rush. He continued his political journalism in England, founding the Political Register in 1802, which he published until his death in 1835. He spent two years in prison (1810-1812) and paid a hefty fine for criticizing the flogging of a militiaman who had protested against unfair paycuts. Through his paper, he was an advocate for the poor and a proponent of Parliamentary reform. In the midst of social unrest, the government repressed dissent, which sent Cobbett fleeing once again to the United States in 1817, where he lived and continued to publish the Register for two years before returning to England.

Cobbett’s periods in North America exposed him to the maize that is native here. In fact, it was while serving in the army in New Brunswick that he first experienced “Indian corn” and “made many meals upon ears of corn in their green state” (14). Until this time, he writes,

“I used to be greatly puzzled by that text of Scripture (St. Matthew, chap. xii., ver. 1,) which told me that, ‘at that time Jesus went on the Sabbath day through the corn: and his disciples were an hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat'” (14).

He then goes on (what I found to be) an entertaining digression for several pages of what he calls the “Scriptural history of the corn” (20), which includes little jabs at the corruption of the Church in England.

Engraving of a corn plant.

Plate 1 from Cobbett’s Corn, 1828.

The corn he suggests growing in England is a particular variety that his son discovered in France. It is a smaller variety that does not require long periods of heat to ripen, thus making it appropriate for England’s shorter, wetter summers.

Cobbett’s Corn is a less known book. He is better known for Rural Rides, in which he describes horseback rides through the country landscapes of Southeast England and the Midlands and shares his views on social reform. But Cobbett’s Corn is worth a look, as well. The bibliographer Morris L. Pearl wrote, “In this most entertainingly written treatise Cobbett skilfully blended agricultural and political advice with fascinating reminiscences. Contemptuous of his critics and enemies, he waxed lyrical at the prospect of English farm-labourers seeing ‘this beautiful crop growing in all their gardens…instead of the infamous Potato'” (Pearl, William Cobbett (1953), no. 154).


Thanksgiving, Iowa, Corn, and Some Cookbooks

Formation for 1935 4-H Girls Convention at Iowa State College (University).

Thanksgiving is now less than a week away!  What might we have here in the Special Collections Department related to Thanksgiving?  Actually, quite a lot if you are creative about it.  You could search our website to find out all the places where Thanksgiving appears in our finding aids, or pick out a diary or two and see if the writer described Thanksgiving activities.  This post, however, will highlight just one of our rare books from the TX809 call number area (which encompasses books dealing with the cooking of cereals/grains…if the photograph above has not given it away, you’ll have to read more to find out which grain this post will discuss!).

One title which caught my eye as I scanned the TX section for possible cookbooks related to Thanksgiving was  “Indian Corn as Human Food” by Mary S. Scott.  The story of how the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn for food, and was very likely served at that first Thanksgiving, helped justify taking the book off the shelf for a Thanksgiving related post.  The book, published in 1889 in Nevada, Iowa contains an interesting selection of recipes and descriptions about corn by an Iowa woman at the end of the 19th century.  Corn was then, as it is now, an important Iowa crop.  Although we may not agree with everything she writes and the views she has, the book is still an interesting read.  A biography of Mary Sophia Scott can be found here (the book, American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies with over 1,400 Portraits…, can be found in the library’s reference section under call number CT3260 .W66a).

If you believe that people’s concern with healthy living is only a recent phenomenon, then this book might help to persuade you otherwise!  One of the goals of Scott’s book is to present an alternative, healthy way of eating a very economic grain.  Scott makes this very clear in her opening chapters.  Her first paragraph states “This hand-book is more in the interest of good living than of mere economy in expenses,-meaning by good living not only by preparation of palatable food, but also food conducive to health, comfort and length of days.”  On page 4 Scott writes:  “To bring the attention of American housewives, economists and philanthropists to the possibilities presented in this immense food supply is the object of this unpretentious book.”

Above is pictured the rebound book, Indian Corn as Human Food (call number TX809.C8 Sco85i )

And another one of her reasons for writing the book was “…there is possibility of danger that some of the customs of the early days that are worth preservation may become obsolete;-and, among others, the making of the very best foods from Indian corn may finally be numbered among the Lost Arts.” (page 29).

Hopefully Mrs. Scott would be happy to know that a copy of her book is housed down the road from her hometown of Nevada here in Iowa State’s Special Collections Department!  If you would like to keep some these “customs of the early days” alive, please feel free to come to our department and take a look at this little book!  Included are recipes for a variety of corn breads, brown breads, muffins, hominy, puddings and other dishes made from corn.  There are even instructions for how to make corn ginger bread, ash bread (cooked in the hearth covered with ashes!) and how to hull corn with potash or wood ash.

If you would like to find out other items we might have related to corn here in the Special Collections Department I encourage you to peruse our website…and narrow down what you are looking for…we have quite a lot of collections and rare books related to corn since it is, and has been, an important research area here at Iowa State for many, many years!  A good place to start might be our subject guide on agricultural collections.

A corn train in 1905.  Iowa State Professor Perry G. Holden established the “corn gospel trains” in 1904 which taught farmers how to select and test seed corn throughout the state.  More on the corn trains can be found here and  in the Perry G. Holden Papers (link to finding aid).

There are also a number of other rare books in our collection specifically about cooking with corn.  In fact, another book in the section had these two tickets carefully tucked among some recipe clippings (found in Corn Products Cook Book, call number TX809 M2 H49x 1910b):

Did the owner of this book attend the Thanksgiving football game?  Or did they tuck the tickets away in the cookbook before the game, only to come across them later?  Perhaps impossible to answer, these bits of ephemera sometimes contained in our rare books, holding their own secret history, are fun to come across and wonder about!

Interested in more about Thanksgiving related items and collections in the Special Collections Department?  Last year’s Thanksgiving post was about recipes from a WOI homemaker’s show, The Homemaker’s Half Hour (scripts from this show can be found in the WOI Radio and Television Records, and throughout a variety of other collections)

For more on the history of Thanksgiving from our National Archives, you can go here to see various government documents which created Thanksgiving!