The Problem with Teacups

My blog is called “Historical Nibbles” for the historical recipes shared on Mondays and the “A Peek into Our Past” historical articles shared on Thursdays. My desire is to bring to light little-known facts from American history so this knowledge our ancestors attained will not be forgotten.

I love to try old recipes from over a century ago, but these can be difficult to follow. Ingredient measurements are one of the challenges.

For instance, recipes from an 1877 cookbook can call for a tea-cup of raisins, a small half cup of butter, three cups of flour, or one and a half tea-cups of sugar.

The same recipe may call for one cup of brown sugar and a half-pint of molasses. A half-pint in modern measurements is one cup. If one cup was the same as a half-pint for the 1877 cook, why didn’t she say, “one cup of brown sugar, one cup of molasses” when writing the recipe?

Another cook wrote that “a tumbler and a half of sliced citron may be added.” How big was a tumbler in 1877? Did tumblers vary in size?

Another recipe calls for one cup of sugar and two small cups of flour. Is a “small cup” different from a tea-cup? Was “one cup” perhaps 12 ounces and the “small cup” 8 ounces?

It’s a guessing game. Sometimes I guess wrong and have to prepare the recipe a second time.

I went shopping for one last gift on Christmas weekend and found a Festive Tree Collection of 3 measuring cups at Macy’s. My thoughts immediately flew to the old recipes calling for a “small tea-cup” and “half tea-cups.”

The collection’s historic flair appealed to me and, on a whim, I bought a Christmas gift for myself. You may see a photo now and then using these measuring cups as I struggle to read the minds of historic cooks!

-Sandra Merville Hart


Compiled from Original Recipes. Buckeye Cookery, Applewood Books, 1877.