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Cooking from the Collections: James Smithson’s Gingerbread and more

Welcome to our monthly Cooking from the Collections feature! This month, our intrepid recipe testers tried their hand at old fashioned sweets.  The treats included Martha Washington’s recipe for sugar cookies, a boozy 1950’s  rum pudding, and a gingerbread cookie that might have been a favorite of James Smithson. Who do you think would win the holiday bake-off? The founder of the Smithsonian, our very first First Lady or an aspiring June Cleaver? Today we showcase a recipe from a cookbook owned by James Smithson. Stay tuned for more recipes next week!

James Smithson's Gingerbread Cookies

Like many well-reared gentleman and natural philosophers of his day, James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian Institution, was given to penciling annotations (notes, corrections, commentary, preferences, etc.) into his books.  Marginalia, as we call it in book circles.  Poking through his copy of Hannah Glasse’s cookbook, The art of cookery made plain and easy (1770), I found two recipes for “ginger-bread”.  Gingerbread as you may know can refer to either a cookie or cake (beware though that in the 18th century “cakes” could also mean cookies!).  In Smithson’s copy there is an “x” gently penciled next to the cake-like (or quick bread) version, and a dog-ear on the page with the cookie recipe.  It left me wondering if Smithson was trying to distinguish his preference for the cookies over the cake. 


Art of Cookery Gingerbread.jpgGingerbread recipes from James Smithson's copy of The art of cookery. Note the very faint "x" in the bottom left corner of the top photo and the dog-ear crease in the top right of the bottom photo.


To further Smithson’s initial mission of the Smithsonian Institution as an establishment for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”, and in the holiday spirit, here is the recipe for the gingerbread cookies Mr. Smithson may have preferred from his own copy of Glasse’s Art of cookery. I’ve halved the recipe and adapted it for modern consumption though you will need a kitchen scale.  Below is an image of the original recipe.  For all you food historians and 18th century English scholars out there, I encourage to comment on my adaptation and interpretations. 


Smithson Gingerbread-collage.jpg Making the cookies. From L-R: A few ingredients (including treacle), beating the ginger, cutting the cookies.



Ginger-bread cakes [i.e. cookies]

Adapted from Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery (1770)


  • 1 ½ lb. flour
  • ½ lb. sugar
  • ½ lb. butter, at room temperature
  • 1 oz. fresh ginger, peeled and beaten fine*
  • ½ nutmeg seed, grated
  •  ½ lb. treacle (i.e. golden syrup*)
  • ¼ c. heavy cream



  1. Preheat oven to 325°*.  Have ready two cookie sheets either lightly butter or lined with parchment.
  2. In large bowl, rub together with finger tips flour, sugar, and butter into a fine meal.
  3. Rub in nutmeg and ginger.
  4. Stir together over medium heat cream and treacle until warm (not hot).
  5. Add warmed cream/treacle mixture to flour mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon or sturdy rubber spatula until dough is a stiff mostly unified mass*.  If there are stray crumbs, don’t worry, they can be pressed in to the dough when forming discs.      
  6. Form dough into three discs.  Roll out on a lightly floured board until about 5 mm. or 3/8” thick.
  7. Using a small glass or cookie cutter, cut dough into desired forms and transfer to prepared cookie sheets.
  8. Bake one sheet in the middle of the oven at a time for 11 min. or until light brown at the edges.  Or two sheets at a time, in the top and bottom third of the oven, rotating sheets halfway through baking.
  9. Let cookies rest for at least 2 minutes on sheets before transferring to cooling racks.


*Notes on recipe interpretation, and other observations:

  • A “slack” oven was called for, which loosely translates as “moderate”.  I took that to mean 300-325 degrees.  My oven at home runs a little cool, so I baked them at 325.  For authenticity I chose to use unlined baking sheets, but did opt for a bit of butter to prevent sticking even though the recipe did not mention greasing the “tins”.
  • Since the type of ginger (dried or fresh) was not indicated, I assumed Ms. Glasse meant fresh, since an ounce of “beaten” dried ginger would be *a lot* of flavor.
  • For the dough, I found that “stiff” correlated to dry, like shortbread dough.
  • In North America, golden syrup can be found in the British international section of specialty grocery stores. It is readily available in England.


Making James Smithson's Gingerbread Cookies

The art of cookery was written in “plain and easy” manner for literate servants.  It was one of the most popular cookbooks of its time among the British elite because it freed the lady of the house from having to explain recipes to the household help.

—Daria Wingreen-Mason


  1. Catherine S

    You didn’t tell us how they tasted! They look delicious and the ingredients sound tasty (I love ginger and nutmeg). One thing, I think I would use a microplane grater for the ginger rather than the mortar and pestle–I’m just guessing it would make much quicker work of pulverizing the ginger. I’ll definitely try these if I can get my hands on the golden syrup easily.
    Happy Holidays!
    Smithsonian Institution Archives



  3. Daria Wingreen-Mason

    Catherine, I agree about the microplane grater. I thought I’d try making them as close to as explained in the recipe when I could, and so “beat” the ginger. The nutmeg, however, was microplaned since I didn’t have an alternative grater. I hope you do try them, the were quite tasty, and easy (no chilling the dough required!). I would even put in a bit more nutmeg. If you live in DC, you can get the golden syrup at Rodman’s on Wisconsin Ave. Happy baking and happy new year!

  4. Anonymous

    Really going to have to give this a try. And I will probably go with the suggestion above to try extra nutmeg!

  5. Pamela L.

    Thank you so much for bringing 1770 into our lives!

  6. I love ginger cookies and I know these will be great. I’ll get back to you when I make they. Thanks for sharing!!!

  7. Beth Tonder

    Actually, golden syrup did not exist in the 18th century — it was a 19th-century invention. Cooks of the time would have been using what is known in North America as… molasses. It is modern British cooks who associate golden syrup with the term treacle and may have misled you.
    See the entry for molasses at:
    Thanks for the recipe!

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