In 1820, George Parkinson notified readers of a Philadelphia newspaper that he managed the Green House Tavern on Chestnut Street. Here he stocked the “very best liquors,” hosted clubs and parties, and boasted the best ten- pin alley for guests (1). Next door, his wife Eleanor operated a confectionery that in a mere few years eclipsed the popularity of the tavern. By the end of the decade, George joined Eleanor in running the sweet shop, where they became known for their quality treats, notably premium ice cream.
The Parkinson store sold all types of cakes, pastries, and ices (ice creams) to its patrons and catered weddings and parties. While Mrs. Parkinson’s name was printed on the store billheads, she appeared only sporadically in city directories, first as pastry cook and confectioner in the early 1820s and then briefly in the mid-1840s as confectioner, with husband George more frequently recorded as the proprietor for most of the 1820s and 30s. Beginning in 1840, George retired (as denoted by his gentleman status) in favor of sons, Robert and James, running the business (2). They quickly made improvements by enlarging the footprint of the shop to allow for more patrons (3). Elder son Robert remained with the business for several years before leaving to become a druggist. James continued as a confectioner for decades after and cofounded the Confectioner’s Journal, the first professional culinary journal in the United States. A third son, William, worked for a brief time in the store as a teenager, as evidenced by his signature on an 1830 invoice accepting a client’s payment, but unfortunately died young at the age of 24.
While son James is the most well-known offspring, daughter Elizabeth also followed in her mother’s footsteps. In 1847, she partnered with confectioner Griffith Jones to run the Chestnut Street shop when James opened a separate location on South Eighth Street. She traded on the family name, reminding patrons that she hoped “her efforts to serve the public for many years past in her parents’ store will be rewarded by a liberal patronage on her own entrance into business.” (4) She and Jones advertised more exotic fare, such as Turkish sherbets and treats from London and Paris, than her mother did years earlier. The partnership lasted only four years with the dissolution leading to an 1851 auction of store fixtures, implements and utensils, and furnishings that included eight imported mirrors, Brussels and Saxony carpets, London prints, French vases, and mahogany furniture made by Cook and Parkin, a successful Philadelphia firm in the 1820s known for its Classical style pieces. Quite the establishment!
What happened to Eleanor when her husband retired and her children joined the family enterprise? She may have still been involved in the store, but she also diversified and expanded her reach. Interestingly, Eleanor’s brief reappearance as confectioner in city directories in the mid-1840s coincided with the publication of her cookbook The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook, and Baker. By the time of publication, Parkinson had cultivated a loyal clientele base and a rock-solid reputation for over two decades that easily translated into strong sales prompting multiple printings over several years. Her cookbook was modeled on an English one, although with recipe modifications based on her years of experience. Among the five-hundred recipes included in the volume were over fifty for ice cream, the treat she was particularly known for.
Ice cream had been part of the American diet going back many decades, with Thomas Jefferson famously serving it at the White House after becoming a fan during his time in France in the 1780s. Street vendors frequently sold ice cream, but an inferior product made with more milk than cream—the “legitimate article,” according to Parkinson. She counseled readers of her cookbook to “obtain your cream invariably fresh from a dairyman who is tenacious of his reputation….it cannot be too good.” (5) Her section on ice cream separates the confection into three categories. Cream ices consisted of cream, juice or pulp of fresh or preserved fruit, and syrup or sugar. These ingredients, along with six eggs to each quart of cream and mostly flavored by nuts and liqueurs, composed custard ices. Cream was not needed for water ices that were made from pulp or juice of fruit, syrup, lemon juice, and water.
Eleanor Parkinson passed away in 1856. Despite her entrepreneurial history, newspaper notices of her death made no mention of her occupation and place in the Philadelphia culinary scene. Thankfully history will not forget this pioneering woman confectioner. Next time you eat a dish of ice cream, raise your spoon to Eleanor Parkinson.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, Andrew W. Mellon Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library
(1) Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, November 28, 1820, 2.
(2) Information and dates in this paragraph and several in subsequent ones were culled from various Philadelphia city directories available through the Internet Archive, accessed April 2020.
(3) Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1840.
(4) Public Ledger, May 26, 1847, 2.
(5) Parkinson. The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook and Baker. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 184