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Lesson Plans - Gourmet Chef or Fast Food Mama? Determining the validity of using kitchen inventories as a means of interpreting a housewife’s cooking habits and preferences.

NAME OF LESSON: Gourmet Chef or Fast Food Mama? Determining the validity of using kitchen inventories as a means of interpreting a housewife’s cooking habits and preferences.

11/12 Women’s History elective, but could be adapted downward for use in lower grades.


At least four class periods; modify to shorten the lesson.


Diane Morey

An Industrious People: American Economic History

SALEM in History Topic Addressed:

Women and Work in Colonial New England

Lesson Summary | Frameworks | Essential Question(s) | Lesson Objectives
Historical Background Essay | Materials List and Pre-Arrangements/Preparations Needed
Vocabulary | Lesson Activities | Student Product or Performance
Assessment Criteria | Possible Modifications | Possible Extension Activities
Cross Curricular/Interdisciplinary Links/Activities | Sources and Resources
Additional Resources for Students and Teachers


Students will examine the contents of a 17th century woman’s kitchen. They will examine a probate record to determine what they can about a particular woman’s life then examine an historian’s interpretation of that same record. Finally, each student will do a “probate-level” inventory of the kitchen of an adult woman in their life which they will bring back to the classroom for analysis in groups and send back out to the “owner” of the kitchen to determine if their analysis was correct.

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Probate Inventory. Estate of Francis Plummer of Newbury (1672). The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts. Vol II, 1665-1674. Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1917. Peabody Essex Museum.

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  • What is in the kitchen of a “goodwife” of the 17th century?
  • Given the shortage of personal written records (diaries etc) by women in this era, but the abundance of artifacts and probate records, how do historians determine the lives and preferences of 17th century women?
  • Is it possible to determine a woman’s lifestyle, cooking/food preparation preferences and domestic skills based solely on the contents of her kitchen?
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Students will be able to identify the contents of a typical 17th century woman in New England. Students will be able to reconstruct the life of a 17th century woman based on artifacts and probate records.


Students will explain how historians use probate records and artifacts to reconstruct the lives of women in 17th century New England.

Students will evaluate the accuracy of such interpretations by engaging in a modern day experiment in artifact/record interpretation.

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MA FRAMEWORK STRAND: Grade 3 learning standards


New England and Massachusetts


3.4   describe daily life, education and work of the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

3.12 explain how objects or artifacts of everyday life in the past tell us how ordinary people lived and how everyday life has changed.   


History and Geography:

4. Distinguish between primary and secondary sources and describe how each kind of source is used in interpreting history.

6. Describe ways of interpreting archaeological evidence from societies leaving no written records.



GRADE(S) AND SUBJECT(S): 8-12 History


History and Geography/Gen Econ skills:

Apply skills prek-7

3. Interpret and construct charts and graphs that show quantitative info.

Show connections causal and otherwise between specific events/ideas and larger historical trends.

Interpret the past within its own historical context

Interpret historical fact from opinion.

14. Explain how people and communities examine and weigh the benefits of one alternative over another.

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One of the most difficult endeavors in historical study is to attempt to reconstruct the lives of people who are, on the surface, “invisible” to historians looking back into the past. When an historian studies women’s history, in the era before middle and upper class women became prolific writers and pontificators, the dearth of obvious and direct information can be both discouraging and daunting. In her book, Good Wives: Images and Reality in Northern New England  1650-1750, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich attempts to reconstruct the lives of women in the earliest part of the American Colonial Era and discovers this problem. In her introduction, she discusses the difficulties of establishing solid historical evidence about the lives of women during this era, outside of “abnormal” issues that reveal themselves in court records (such as the case of Anne Hutchinson and the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692).  Assembling the lives of average women, based on the historical record left behind is difficult because “the archives contain no female diaries written in New England before 1750 and few female letters. [and] [a]mong published works there are only the brief ‘Valedictory and Monitory Writing’ of Sarah Goodhue, the captivity narratives of Mary Rowlandson and Elizabeth Hanson, and the poetry of Anne Bradstreet.” (1) The problem with this becomes obvious as the lives of these “exceptional” women skews the reality for “average” women in this time period if it is taken as the “norm.” Ulrich however, asserts that all is not lost in the battle to cull from historical evidence the lives of ordinary women. She claims, and her research supports, that there are ways to discern women’s lives based on other, indirect evidence left in “sermons, account books, probate inventories, genealogies, church records, court records, paintings, embroideries, gravestones, and the private papers of husbands and sons”(2).

            This task is not as simple as it may seem as it involves blending the details of the records listed above with the understanding of “cultural norms” for that era. Ulrich refers to this as “role analysis” which she describes, “in the sociologist’s jargon, [as] the sum total of the culture patterns associated with a particular status…thus [including]…the attitudes, values and behavior ascribed by the society to any and all persons occupying this status.”(3) Ulrich demonstrates this in her analysis of the life of Beatrice Plummer, wife of Francis Plummer, a man “of the middling sort who were the church members and the freeholders of Puritan Newbury [Massachusetts]”.(4) In examining the probate inventory taken upon the death of Francis Plummer in 1672, Ulrich was able to reconstruct what life might have been like for Beatrice Plummer by using a combination of what she knew about the “role” and the traditional customs of women and their work in that era. This is exemplified well in her conclusion that “the fine hair sieves stored with the grain in the hall chamber suggests that Beatrice Plummer was particular about her baking, preferring a finer flour than came directly from the miller.” (5) Here, Ulrich acknowledges the presence of a sieve. While she does not explicitly say as much, the reader can assume that since Ulrich has examined dozens of probate inventories from that era, the fine hair sieve stood out as an unusual item, not common among the possessions of other families, that tells the historian something that differentiates Beatrice Plummer from the other women in the village of Newbury.

              From this leap of historical faith, however, comes the question, “is it good historical practice to draw conclusions about an historical figure that are not explicitly stated in the record?” In studying 17th century women, based on household inventories, the answer to this question is a lot simpler than it would be in attempting to do the same based on a 21st century inventory of a woman’s house. In her book, Colonial Mosaic, Jane Kamensky offers this diary entry of Mary Cooper who lived in New York in 1769, “the day is forty years since I left my father’s house and come here and I have seene little else but hard labor and sorrow… I am dirty and tired almost to death.”(6) Kamesky concludes that “with subtle variations almost any woman in colonial America could have made those comments”(7) The hard work and toil of Mary Cooper when she started out as a wife in 1729, was most likely not much different from the hard work and toil of Beatrice Plummer fifty years earlier.  Indeed, in a life full of hard work and toil, one can make the logical conclusion that an item in a household inventory in 17th century New England, particularly among the “middling sort” was an item that its owner found useful, since the utilitarian culture of New England at that time would not allow, for someone in the economic situation of the Plummer family, a luxury that was not considered a necessity by the owner of the home. In the case of the fine hair sieve, Beatrice Plummer considered it a necessity that the flour she used to bake had a finer consistency than the miller provided. 

In the 21st century home of an American woman, by contrast, the use of an inventory to discern her life becomes much more difficult as, in a consumer ‘throw-away” culture, extraneous items, perhaps purchased on a whim, often provide “red herrings” for which the researcher must be alert.  A bread-making machine in a 21st century kitchen, for example, is not automatically an indication that the owner of the kitchen is adept at making homemade bread and does so as much as possible. The item may well have been a wedding gift, its insides never seeing dough mixture.  This does not mean, however, that a picture of the owner of the kitchen cannot be analyzed through an inventory, it just means that the researcher has to take care to ask the proper questions, examining the item for wear and signs of usage/non-usage and looking for other items in the inventory—in the case of the bread machine, a fresh (unexpired) supply of the ingredients necessary to make the bread—that indicate usage of the item.

Whether in 17th century America or 21st century America, the lives of the quiet, everyday Americans…those not in the newspapers for sensational crimes… can only be discerned by an examination of the “things” they left behind. Just as an historical picture of 17th Century women cannot be complete if one only examines the “written” records of the exceptional among them, the lives of the 21st century woman cannot be discerned from the “written/recorded” records left behind. There are few women living in 21st century America who would agree that domestic life, as created in Martha Stewart Living, Family Circle, and other such publications, is an accurate picture of the day to day life that they live. Through historical inquiry, however, the methods used by Laurel Ulrich Thatcher in determining the life of Beatrice Plummer, with some modification, can be used to create a fuller picture of the life of an American woman at the turn of the 21st century as well.

1 Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750.  New York: Vintage Books, 1991. (5).

2 Ibid., 5.

3 Ibid. 5.

4 Ibid. 18.

5 Ibid 19.

6 Kamesky, Jane. The Colonial Mosaic: American Women 1600-1760. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. (46-47).

7 Ibid. 47.

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  • PowerPoint presentation of items in Ward House OR Overheads of items.
  • List of inventory in Beatrice Plummer’s house
  • Excerpts from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Goodwives, pp. 18-24 as well as the footnotes for this section.
  • Handouts etc. included in materials.
  • A number of parents of students willing to allow an inventory of their kitchen and to fill out a feedback questionnaire. (although, you can inventory your own or women of your family’s kitchens as well, it just means more work for you!).*
  • A package of thank you notes for adult participants.
  • <optional> Access to computers for extension activities.


*see important preparation note in lesson activity section.

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probate records: the officially authenticated copy of a probated will

flagon: A large vessel, usually of metal or pottery, with a handle and spout and often a lid, used for holding wine or other liquors.

flock bolsters: Flock is Waste wool or cotton used for stuffing furniture and mattresses. A Bolster is A long narrow pillow or cushion.

bellows: n : a mechanical device that blows air onto a fire to make it burn more fiercely

spit: A slender, pointed rod on which meat is impaled for broiling.

skillet: a pan used for frying foods

Welsh Bill:  An implement with a curved blade attached to a handle, used especially for clearing brush and for rough pruning.

trencher: A wooden board or platter on which food is carved or served.

trammel: An arrangement of links and a hook in a fireplace for raising and lowering a kettle.

seive/sieve: a strainer for separating lumps from powdered material or grading particles

flitch: A salted and cured side of bacon

lug pole: a pole on which a kettle is hung over the fire, either in a chimney or in the open air 

huswifery: The business of a housewife; female domestic economy and skill.

fireback: cast iron plate placed attached to the back of the fireplace to protect the bricks.

betty lamp/fat lamp: an improvised candle, a container with fat and a wick that serves as a candle/ lamp.

 inventory: A detailed, itemized list, report, or record of things in one's possession, especially a periodic survey of all goods and materials in stock

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** Important pre-lesson assignment:

Before you begin the lesson (preferably as a homework assignment over the weekend) assign the students the kitchen inventory assignment (see handouts and assignment section). Explain to students that it will be a part of an upcoming lesson. Allow students, if they would like, to work in groups of two or three on the inventorying of one kitchen. The assignment should be due on DAY ONE.

As a safety precaution, you may want to do an inventory of your own kitchen. Make this inventory one of the inventories that the students examine and evaluate,  that way, if the students let you down with their family’s inventory, you KNOW you have at least one inventory to discuss on days three and four! Your inventory can also be used by the inventory takers as a MODEL of what the proper inventory should look like. <note: for future use, when this lesson is complete, save particularly good inventories and the completed questionnaires of their owners>.


Day One:

This is the introduction to the lesson. It introduces the students to the items in a 17th century woman’s kitchen. Collect kitchen inventories that were done for homework. You will have to take the inventories home overnight to assess which inventories will be most useful for the exercise on day three <note: “useful” inventories are both complete and are from students whose parents have checked off the box saying they would be glad to respond to a questionnaire, and are from students who can be counted on to return the questionnaire for the next day>. Be sure to black out the names on the inventories of the students whose inventory you will use. Label the inventories that you choose to use for this exercise “Inventory A, B etc.” and keep for yourself a record of whose inventory each one is.

Show students the images of the kitchen from the Ward House and the various kitchen implements in a standard kitchen. If you have access to the Internet, the following PBS Website offers a 360 panorama of 17th century housing. That can be found here: Explain the items in the house and their uses. Discuss what life was like for women in this era and the difficulties that they faced in cooking.

Break students into groups of three or four. Explain to students what a probate record is. Hand out the record of Francis Plummer’s probate record to each group and ask them to divide the items in the list into these categories (each student should make their own copy of the group’s list so they have it for their homework assignment):

  • tools/outdoor equipment
  • bedding items/ non-kitchen household items
  • animals
  • kitchen items
  • food items
  • miscellaneous equipment
  • we don’t know what this is

Once they’ve made their charts, discuss what was in each category and help students to identify the items that they don’t recognize.

Assign for homework Homework Assignment 1: student’s attempt to piece together the life of Beatrice Plummer.

Day Two

Check for homework. Ask several students to volunteer to read their descriptions of what they think Beatrice Plummer’s life would be like. Ask them what evidence in the probate inventory led them to believe what they stated. Ask other students to offer critiques of the volunteers’ descriptions.

Hand out the reading excerpt from Ulrich’s Goodwives book. Be sure to give the students the footnotes to this reading as well. (excerpt in handout section, full book citation in annotated bibliography). Collect homework for grading, be sure to collect their charts to check for completion as well.

Here, you have two options depending on the level of ability of the students. You can read the excerpt together out loud as a class and answer the questions together then talk about the discussion questions as a group. Or, if you have higher-level, self motivated proficient readers, you can assign the reading and questions for them to do independently at their seats, leaving time at the end of this class or the beginning of the next class to discuss the answers to the questions and the discussion questions.

Assign for homework the Homework Assignment 2 labeled for today with the question “Is this method an accurate way to determine history.”

Be sure, before you go home, to make photocopies for next day of the inventories that your student groups will be using.

Day Three

Check for homework. Start off looking for volunteers to read their answers to the homework. <collect homework for grading at end>.

Ask students the guiding questions (included in handout/discussion questions section). You might want to put students’ answers on the board as they give them.

Break students into groups of three or four. Give each group one of the kitchen inventories <it may be wise to make a copy of the inventory for each group member>  and the set of questions for this activity <make sure that each group does NOT receive the inventory that they, or a member of their group, wrote up, since this is supposed to be a blind analysis>. Tell students that they are going to conduct an experiment to determine if the method of historical analysis through probate lists is accurate enough to reconstruct the lives of the owners of the items. Tell students to choose one scribe to record the group’s findings.

At the end of class, collect the group’s findings. Ask the person who originally wrote the inventory to bring the student’s assessment along with a questionnaire home to the “owner” of the kitchen who was inventoried. Ask them to bring back the filled out questionnaire the next day. <Note: As previously stated, if you do not want to rely on students and their parents for this segment, instead of assigning students to do the inventories, you can seek volunteers among friends, colleagues and relatives or yourself to inventory their own kitchens then write up answers to the questionnaire, this can be kept from year to year. If you want to involve parents in the classroom more, it is also a great idea to seek parents who are willing to come into class for Day Four to discuss what students thought of their inventories and reveal, firsthand, how accurate/inaccurate the student assessment was>. Ask students, if possible, to drop off the parental questionnaires first thing in the morning when they arrive so that you can make photocopies of the responses.

Day Four

Discuss the accuracies/inaccuracies of the student’s assessment of the material.

Lead a group discussion about whether or not their experiment has proven/disproven this historical method.

Assign written reflection essay on the subject. <see handout section for assignment>.

As you work on the lesson, have all of the students of the class sign the “thank you” notes (purchase a package from a local stationary store, write a brief thank you in each and leave room for the students to sign) for the women whose inventories were taken <even if they were not used>. You may want to consider an additional “thank you” gift to the owners who took the time to fill out the questionnaire or who came into the class.

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  • Students will have to turn in several assignments including their original inventory (graded for completeness) and their assessment (graded for completeness and evidence)
  • Students will write a one to two page essay that evaluates the usefulness of historical inquiry/reconstruction through the use of probate records.

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Assess the work done by students in “guessing” what the kitchen owner was like not on whether they got their assessment correct but, rather on whether they gave enough evidence to support their assumptions. <Ex.: “The woman who owns the kitchen enjoys or has a family who enjoys Chinese cooking. This is evident by the presence of two Woks, a set of decorative chopsticks, herbs and spices generally used in Chinese cooking, a rice steamer…”> Be sure that students are aware that each statement they have must have specific evidence that “backs up” their assumptions.

Essay at end, see formal essay rubric attached to assignment.

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If students are younger, or are limited, you can use one inventory of your own kitchen <not telling them it’s yours until the end!> and do the activity as a group, leading them through  a discussion of what the owner of a kitchen might be like.

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  • Make a Good Housekeeping style magazine that includes advice on managing a kitchen, advertises “new kitchen gadgets” based on the tools we saw, and other advice pertinent to a 17th C. woman’s life.
  • Visit the PBS “Colonial House” website <see web resources> with the students. Have them take the quiz “Would you have Survived the Colony?” and discuss the results with the class.
  • Assign for students to read, or if technology is available to watch, the transcript or the webcast from the Library of Congress on the technology of housework.
  • Asssign gifted and talented students a larger portion of Laura Thatcher Ulrich’s book Goodwives. The first section of the book is well written and very accessible for older <upper high school> students.
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  • For younger students, the counting of the inventories etc. could be part of a math lesson.
  • Connections throughout history as you examine the lives of women in each of the era’s you’ve studied. You may want to keep a running timeline of the lives of women in various eras.
  • See extension activity above on the development of household technology. This involves issues of science and also extends the student’s view of housework beyond the narrow focus of this lesson and through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Probate Inventory. Estate of Francis Plummer of Newbury (1672). The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts. Vol II, 1665-1674. Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1917.

This is the transcription of the Plummer Probate used by Ulrich in her book. It is far more easily read than the actual original handwritten record. The spellings of things are not changed in any way so students need to be reminded to consider this when reading the probate record.


Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750.  New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

This book, originally published in 1980, was one of the pioneering books on the subject of the lives of Colonial Women. While she makes certain “leaps of faith” in her analysis of what the lives of early colonial women may have been like, the book is based on solid scholarly research that examines, in detail, probate and court records to reconstruct the lives of women in that era. It is the determination of the validity of the “educated guesses” she’s made that provides the foundation for this lesson plan.


“Colonial House”. <> [visited 7/17/2005].

This interesting resource has lesson plans based on the PBS television “reality” show Colonial House. It has a number of interactive activities and explorations that students can examine. If you have access to enough computers, it is a great resource and includes some fun interactive activities that are interesting to all age levels.

“Cooking in Colonial New England.” [visited 7/17/2005].

This article, included in the list of resources, discusses the types of food the early colonists would have eaten. It is a brief, one page article that is easily readable.

“The History of Household Technology” Journeys and Crossings, Library of Congress.  [Visited 7/17/2005].

This presentation, provided by the Library of Congress, is an excellent discussion of the history of kitchen gadgets etc. that brings the lesson beyond the era of early Colonial America. If you have access to computers for your students, the Library of Congress offers a “webcast” presentation of the history that is interesting with excellent visuals. The webcast is a classroom friendly 17 minutes long and carries the history of housework and invention of gadgets through the early Twentieth Century. If you cannot show the webcast, the transcript <included in lesson plan resources> is available at this site as well. This page also offers an EXTENSIVE list of primary and secondary resources on housework.

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“The History of Household Technology” Journeys and Crossings, Library of Congress.  [Visited 7/17/2005].

The Library of Congress has done an extensive gathering of these resources for you. This webpage (also see annotation above) offers links to online sources on this subject as well as an extensive bibliography of the primary and secondary material written on this subject.

Kerber, Linda K., ed. Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. (45-58).

This resource, which offers a variety of primary and secondary sources on women’s history, contains a very readable version of the chapter in Laura Thatcher Ulrich’s book prescribed for this lesson. The reading also covers the analysis of Hannah Grafton’s home and the notes are included at end of the article, for easier reference for the students. After the Ulrich reading, the source has some interesting primary source selections on marital law that could be intertwined easily with this lesson.

Kamesky, Jane. The Colonial Mosaic: American Women 1600-1760. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Chapter two of this book, “To Toil the Livelong Day: Working Lives” gives an excellent background that spans beyond Colonial New England and provides an excellent, and easily accessible for high school students, overview of the lives of colonial women in relation to their contribution to the economics of the fledgling colonies. For the teacher, this gives a solid, easily understood background that will round out understanding of the topic before undertaking this lesson.

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