Hannah Y’s story

Direct marketing isn’t as modern a concept as you perhaps might think. Product placement and endorsement occurred from the late Victorian times onwards, as the benefits of a media hungry and increasingly literate population came to be realised by manufacturers, and advertising their products could have a direct impact on sales.

One such product endorser was Hannah Y, from the north of England, who promoted the use of gas stoves, beef extract, baking powder, gelatine, and,… er… enemas. And she gained such notoriety that her husband changed his name to hers when they married, rather than the other way around.

Born in Birmingham in the late 1850s, Hannah’s father Cornelius was a glass mould maker in the burgeoning industries in the Midlands. She was her parents’ oldest child, and was gradually joined by a succession of siblings – many of them short lived. By the age of 2 the family had left Birmingham for the glass industry at Gateshead in the north east of England, at that point located in County Durham. Here they shared a house with another family, also employed in the glass industry, and Hannah’s mother – also called Hannah – gave birth to four children, two of whom didn’t live to see their second birthday.

With the decline in the glass industry in the north east, the family moved again – this time bringing their three surviving children to Lancashire. Here Hannah studied at school until at least the age of 12, and their family survived again by finding work at the glassworks. After school, Hannah went on to gain a first-class diploma in cookery demonstration and a special merit medal from the Berkhamsted Mechanics Institute. She would have been taught cookery and household management as part of her elementary education, and probably excelled – hence travelling as far away from home as the Home Counties to further her studies as a young, single woman. In the meantime, she gained two more brothers, one who lived and one who did not.

At some point in the 1870s her father changed jobs, first becoming a whitesmith – someone who worked tin – and then working as a gas engineer for Fletcher, Russell & Co in Warrington, who manufactured gas stoves. Gas stoves had been invented in the early part of the 19th century, but did not really take off until pipelines had been installed in most bigger UK cities. Cooking on a gas stove took a different skill to cooking on coal-fired ranges and open fires, as it was far easier to control the heat, and Fletcher, Russell & Co employed Hannah as a demonstrator of these new methods.

She ran a programme of lectures and workshops to show women how to operate the new stoves they had purchased from the company, thus endorsing their wares. This led to a cookery book that she wrote and published in 1886, with the company’s backing and blessing. Called “Domestic cookery: with special reference to cooking by gas” the book gave a selection of recipes that Hannah had developed that were plain, practical and economical, and not high class – perfect for the new owners of gas stoves. The Victorian preference for plain and simple cooking was refined and subtly developed by Hannah’s recipes, and it was reprinted many times in the years that followed.

A second book, Choice Cookery, followed in 1888 when Hannah was around 30. Like the first, this book offered further recipes adapted and refined for gas cookery, and contained adverts for gas stoves, and other appliances, alongside fine leaf gelatine and baking powder – which were used in several of the recipes – and other kitchenwares.

By the early 1890s Hannah had set up home in Sunderland, and married a Lancashire doctor. Unusually for the time, he took her surname to unite the family name rather her taking his. This meant that she did not lose the name she had been making for herself, and thus kept her notoriety and career.

After her marriage, she had business interests in Chester and ran a temperance hotel with an assistant. It was from here that Hannah took mail orders for the kitchen products that she endorsed.

In 1893 her only non-recipe book was published. This, entitled Health Without Medicine, advocates a contraption to give a self-administered enema using water – “nature’s great remedy”. Enemas were often used as a contraceptive by Victorian women at this time, but if this was Hannah’s aim it failed as she gave birth to her daughter the following year, while living in Sunderland.

Hannah’s reputation for new product endorsement led German meat extract manufacturers Liebig to employ her to promote their product in the mid-1890s. Hannah published the Liebig Company’s Practical Cookery Book, which contained many ingenious ways to cook using meat extract. She also spent time back home working in Lancashire, living next to her brother – who was also employed by the gas stove manufacturers.

Her final book, Home Made Cakes and Sweets, was published in the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, when she and her family had moved to Cambridgeshire. Here Hannah continued to sell specific ingredients and equipment from home, as well as lecturing and demonstrating cookery, alongside her husband’s work as a general practitioner.

Her daughter grew up and married a doctor, and her husband and son-in-law practiced together in Cambridgeshire, the family living together in one large house. Her husband died in the late 1940s, leaving his money to their daughter. Hannah died about a year later, aged 90.

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