Civil War Cookin’: You Say Receipt, I’ll Say Recipe

This weekend I’m handing out a lot of receipts after ringing up the orders at my retail job. Earlier, my mom and I studied recipes to decide what to make for Thanksgiving. Ever noticed the “receipt vs. recipe” conflict in culinary writings from the past? It was on my mind after looking at the Confederate Receipt Book, and I decided to do a little digging in the dictionaries to see if we could unravel the sources and 1860 meanings of the words for the last of the Civil War Cookin’ posts for this year. 

I like to start word studies for Civil War culture with Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary because it gives a glimpse of the words that would have been well-established by the Civil War or the original meanings that the folks in that era would have been familiar with, even as they started inventing new meanings. So here are those “original meanings”:

Receipt – 5. Recipe; prescription of ingredients for any composition, as of medicines, etc.

Recipe – a medical prescription; a direction of medicines to be taken by a patient.

Okay, in the 1820’s a “recipe” seems to have been purely medical, but there is some room to play with the meaning of “receipt” since it involves a list of ingredients.

According to the word history section of Merriam-Webster (2018, online), Canterbury Tales by Chaucer in the 14th Century first recorded the use of “receipt” in the English language in reference to making medicine, and two centuries later “recipe” appeared – also with the medicinal meaning. By the 18th Century, however, both words were starting to be used for cooking ingredient lists and directions.

Noah Webster and his first American Dictionary sit on the timeline between the Colonial Era and the Civil War, so it’s interesting to note his preferred definitions. Probably the actual use the words would depend on the region, publications, and other cultural influences that morph words into new meanings. Around 1900 the word “recipe” gained more widespread use and then skyrocketed in the 1950’s.

In conclusion, it’s perfectly acceptable to use “receipt” or “recipe” when talking about those cooking directives from the Civil War era. For living historians, “receipt” is probably the better option and might even be a good conversation starter.

Just as our Thanksgiving menus change or slightly alter with the passing decades, language changes too. Sometimes, we have to look back and gain a better understanding of the word meanings from the past to clearly understand what our forefather and foremothers wrote about. Afterall, if Mrs. Lincoln or Mrs. Lee asked for a receipt for the cake, it wasn’t because they were shopping and needed to know how much they spent. They would have wanted a receipt so they could make the treat at home, following the ingredient list and directions.

So, did you want the receipt or the recipe – 1860’s style? Which word do you prefer?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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