"Dishing It Up" with May Irwin - Her Lost Cooking Columns

By: Emily St. Marie with Karen Killian

Volume 17, Issue 6, June 2022

[Editor's note: To say I am excited would be an understatement - Karen Killian has found a treasure and she is sharing it with TI Life readers! This will be the first of several columns to come - Enjoy!]

Illustrated Emily St. Marie ©2022

A trove of cooking columns by May Irwin (1862-1938) has been found and is being delivered to modern audiences for the first time in 100 years. Thanks to Karen Killian, an ardent preserver of May Irwin’s legacy. The columns first appeared in the New York Evening Journal on a Household page, read on the weekends by thousands of Americans in the “Roaring Twenties”.

May Irwin, Copyright 1904 by / the / Strobridge / Litho Co. / Cincinnati & New York

These articles may have been lost to time if they hadn’t been discovered and preserved by a chance meeting with Karen Killian. Karen has made it her personal mission to preserve the history of the Thousand Islands, and at one point in time, May Irwin was called, “The First Lady of the St. Lawrence”.

The Hoosier cabinet in a 1920s kitchen.

The story starts in the summer of 1995, when Karen was a volunteer at the Thousand Island Museum. They were cleaning out an old storage area and trying to get things tidied up. Karen had been there many times before because they had a small area set up with everything-May-Irwin that had been donated to the museum.

She had no idea what she was about to discover. Karen says, “There were a lot of wet boxes filled with papers inside. One of the boxes that I opened had wonderful illustrations that looked like the 1920’s. Much to my surprise they contained not only illustrations but wonderful columns by May Irwin on cooking.”

Illustrated Emily St. Marie ©2022

Karen knew immediately she wanted to save them somehow and asked if she could take them to a place that would be able to make life-size copies. Upon her return, she gave the museum back their originals along with fresh copies.

The original columns were heavily worn and decayed but Karen’s curiosity was piqued. Were all the articles written by May Irwin in that box? Karen started working to find the microfilm for the original articles and was lucky to get help from the Library of Congress. She ordered the microfilm and made copies, tracking down all 22 articles.

The next step was making them readable. The writing on the newsprint was very small, some parts were ragged and almost impossible to make out. Karen went to her wholesale book dealer who found someone who could transcribe the articles from the newsprint and microfilm copies, not an easy task. Luckily Karen found Audrey, the referral from the book dealer, who agreed to type them up.

Illustrated Emily St. Marie ©2022

One more mystery about May Irwin’s columns remains. The illustrations have no signature, and there’s no reference to who may have done the art. Each illustration is in pen & ink with beautiful glamorous women in various kitchen poses.

Since the unattributed artwork appeared in the New York Evening Journal in 1922, we started there. Nell Brinkley was a staff artist at that time, and her style seemed to match the artwork on the illustrations. Nell Brinkley (1886-1944) was referred to as the “Queen of Comics”. She replaced Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girls” with her “Brinkley Girls”. Looking at the faces of the women, the eyelashes and the noses, the ones in the column are very similar to how Nell does them. Could it be Nell? If this was Nell’s work, it wasn’t known as hers. We needed to find out more.
Karen reached out to Trina Robbins, the expert who wrote the book on Nell Brinkley, and “Flapper Queens” style of art. Trina got back to us immediately. “The illustrations you sent, although beautiful, are not by Nell Brinkley”, said Trina. When pressed to give an opinion on who it might be, she said, “I'm guessing it's a woman, but that's as far as I can go.”

Does the work hold any other silent clues? The illustrations have an Alphons Mucha vibe, with the delicate profiles and abstract shapes. Side-by-side comparisons show the similarities between him and our Mystery Artist, but it’s clearly not an exact match.

We would love to give attribution and will continue our search for the illustrator of May Irwin’s columns. If anyone reading this article has an idea who the illustrator might be, we would be very grateful.

As we prepare the columns for publication, including context on May Irwin’s life and times, we are pleased to present one of the columns here in its entirety.

May Irwin’s Ice-Cold Desserts for Hot Days

The Good Cook Gives the Housewifely Counsel That Cool Desserts Refresh the Weary Body, and Tells How Three Delicacies May Be Prepared at Trifling Cost
By May Irwin
This is the period of hot Saturdays. Anywhere except on my own island of delight people may be melting away. Even here the brass noonday sunshine is a little more polished than usual. I can hardly realize that within the space of a few months we landed here in cold Spring weather.
April 1st— I’ll never forget the date!  It had snowed steadily for three days. We had left the city and were arriving for the Summer! We ploughed through big drifts to the house and made joyful beelines for the huge open fireplace in the large living room. Three months ago!
We were awakened that night by loud reports and mysterious terrifying noises. It was the ice cracking on the St. Lawrence River. We enjoyed watching it the next morning. A west wind was blowing and the big ice cakes were racing along toward Montreal on the way to the ocean. It wasn’t hard to lay in our Summer supply.
I can never master this artificial ice system. How, just by running a little ammonia through a pipe, you can freeze water into mountainous cakes is beyond me! It’s a marvelous invention, anyway, and has certainly been the savior of millions of lives. Just imagine if there weren’t any artificial ice. No ice cream- no ice bags (though they are no longer so often needed, they say)— no use for refrigerators, as food could not be preserved— no transportation of food for long distances without refrigerator cars.
Illustrated Emily St. Marie ©2022
But let’s get to the things one can do with ice. The most important use really (for luxuries are always more important than necessities) is to put in lemonade, etc., on a hot Summer day. How a cooling drink— the ice tinkling, a mist on the glass— reduces the atmosphere! You get a fresh grip on yourself.
The wise housewife puts a frozen dessert on her dinner menus several times a week during Summer. On sultry evenings, after a hard day at the office, nothing is so refreshing as a cooling ice. Frozen desserts are simple and digestible (an important consideration in warm weather), and besides being classed as delicacies they are comparatively inexpensive.
When I was a little girl we used to think it was a huge joke when someone said, “My ice cream is too cold; let’s put it in the oven a little while.” But in this day and generation people are actually freezing cream in the fireless cooker.

These three recipes accompany the original article. Click to expand/print. Try your own May Irwin drinks, let us know how you like them!

Don’t miss “Dishing it Up with May Irwin”, follow our Facebook page  www.facebook.com/Dishing-It-Up-With-May-Irwin-103140125756629/

By Emily St. Marie with Karen Killian

Emily St. Marie is an artist and author in the Pacific Northwest. She has a B.A. in Linguistics from the University of Alberta. Her latest artwork and writing can be found in a sampler of short stories and poems called “Calliope’s Collection of Mystical Mayhem”, now available on Amazon. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook, or visit her website at www.emilystmarie.com to see her latest work.
Karen Killian is a retired home economics teacher with a B.A. in Elementary Education and a minor in Home Economics from San Jose State College. She moved to Upstate New York from California in 1968. In 1983, Karen became involved in the startup of Captain Spicer’s Gallery, which she managed for the next thirty years.  During her time at Captain Spicer’s Gallery she co-created custom 1000 Island products, along with an extensive line of beautiful stoneware by Louisville Stoneware Company.

Posted in: Volume 17, Issue 6, June 2022, History, People, News article

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