Maria Parloa, who can truly be called the founder of the Bethel Public Library, is also one of the founders of the science of Home Economics. Born in Massachusetts on September 25, 1843, she was orphaned early and began her career cooking in homes and hotels.
While working as the pastry chef at the Appledore Island summer resort off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire, she met artist and poet Celia Thaxter and her circle of creative friends, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. She enrolled in the Normal School of the Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield in 1871, at the age of 28, and completed her teacher training in two years. Miss Parloa next took a teaching position in Mandarin, Florida, where Harriet Beecher Stowe wintered, and remained there for five winter seasons.
In 1872 she published her first work, The Appledore Cook Book. Its recipe for tomato chowder may be the first tomato soup recipe! This is the earliest of all the books authored by Parloa. She left six of these books to the Bethel Public Library and they are still on our shelves as part of the Library’s Local History collection.
Maria Parloa gave her first public lecture on cooking in the summer of 1876 in New London, Connecticut to raise money for a Sunday school organ. Its success helped launch Parloa’s career as a culinary instructor. In the spring of 1877 she gave several popular lectures in Boston, and opened a cooking school there the following fall. Her lectures included courses in sick-room cookery to Harvard medical students. More teaching opportunities followed, at private schools as well as charitable schools for the poor.
Her varied cooking interests led her in many directions. In 1878, she published another book, Camp Cookery, which included instructions for setting up camp and constructing a camp stove. She toured England and France that summer, observing cooking classes at London’s National Training School for Cookery, and learning French cooking.
In 1879 Parloa became one of the original instructors at the Boston Cooking School. Her program became the backbone of the BCS, providing women with a means to a career and an independent income. That year she published a textbook, First Principles of Household Management and Cookery.
Exceedingly popular, Miss Parloa charged very high fees to lecture, so she was let go from the BCS and continued on at her own school instead. Her cooking school in Boston was thriving, but she moved to New York City, which was experiencing explosive growth. There she opened a school in 1883. In the evenings she taught immigrant girls for free.
Busy years of teaching, writing and traveling continued. In 1887 she published a home cookbook, Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion. Home Economics: A Guide to Household Management came out in 1889. 1893 brought the publication of Miss Parloa’s Young Housekeeper.
Parloa’s mention of certain brand name products heralded the age of endorsements. Eventually Parloa, like other famous cooking teachers, would lend her name to promotional recipe pamphlets, including one for Walter Baker & Company, a chocolate company. Her 8 cookbooks went through numerous editions. Among her last publications are two Farmers’ Bulletins prepared for the United States Department of Agriculture. She wrote regularly for the Ladies Home Journal, of which she was also an editor and part owner. Her articles on French living, written during an extended stay in France in 1894, are especially informative.
In 1887 Parloa cut back on her teaching and moved to Roxbury, Massachusetts. She travelled and wrote, moving once more to New York in 1898, before settling into a beautiful Victorian house at 8 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut. She lived the last six years of her life at this residence.
Having never married, she shared her Bethel home with two orphan girls. She organized the Village Improvement Society and was active in community landscaping projects. The public school grounds were planted with shrubs and many small parks were made at the intersections of streets and planted with bulbs and flowers.
In 1899, she was among the charter group that met at Lake Placid, New York, to begin the work of professionalizing home economics. Parloa was present in 1908, a year before her death, when that work culminated in the formation of the American Home Economics Association.
Maria Parloa died in Bethel on August 21, 1909 as she was preparing for another extended visit to Europe. The $2,000 she left the town enabled Bethel to establish its first Library in the front room over A.J. Lynch’s store on Greenwood Avenue. The Bethel Free Public Library opened in November 1909, with all of Miss Parloa’s own books, including the six mentioned above. Maria Parloa’s ashes were buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.
In the summer of 2008, a commemoration of Maria Parloa’s contributions to Appledore Island was held on the Island. The Bethel Public Library contributed a digital copy of the only known individual picture of Miss Parloa. The original framed photograph was recently restored by Bethel Photoworks, just in time for the Library’s Centennial.
Thanks to Michigan State University Libraries, The Historical American Cookbook Project for some of the information recorded in this article.