Good Form Dinners, Ceremonious and Unceremonious

Belle's Entertaining Guide, Good Form Dinners, Ceremonious and Unceremonious

Belle’s Entertaining Guide, Good Form Dinners, Ceremonious and Unceremonious

Belle Skinner fused her delight in family dinners, social discourse, music and the gracious company of women with her inherited fortune to create a welcome entrée into the parlors, ballrooms, and crystal-lit dining rooms of New York and Paris society. Guided by the nineteenth-century book of society counsel, Good Form Dinners, Ceremonious and Unceremonious, and her own sense of style, Belle hosted dinners for Vassar gatherings, actors and actresses, and weekly Sunday dinners for the family.[i] She nonetheless balanced her social life with an inner life of care, responsibility, religious devotion, and community service. Belle Skinner shared a lavish apartment with her brother on 39th Street in New York from September to April for the Metropolitan Opera season, dining regularly at French Society dinners, and gatherings for Friends of Music, as well as with college friends and women who shared her interests in charity and the plight of France’s World War I refugees. Sierra Club founder and author, Robert Underwood Johnson, reflected fondly about Belle after his time with her in New York, saying, “I saw her last at the French Treatises Banquet at the Waldorf for Mrs. [Edith] Wharton and was in love with her beautiful character and her cheerful and engaging disposition. We were also touched by her war-time and post-war-time aid to the French.”

[i] Archives. Wistariahurst Museum.

Feather Cake


 Holyoke Girls' Cooking Club, c. 1880s

Holyoke Girls’ Cooking Club,
c. 1880s

A dozen recipes were committed to paper in a young girl’s hand at the back of Belle Skinner’s French grammar notebook. They are believed to be her sister Katharine’s—either family recipe favorites or rules learned at the Holyoke Cooking Club where Katharine was a member. The 1880s photo of the Holyoke Girls’ Cooking Club shows Katharine Skinner, second row, second from left. Katharine is remembered as having more aptitude for cooking than her older sister, Belle.

In 1902, it was Katharine’s idea to organize the Skinner Coffee House, a settlement house with a state of the art kitchen, capable of serving more than 150 women mill workers in its adjacent dining rooms. In instituting the The Skinner Coffee House, Belle and Katharine continued their father’s philanthropic spirit, honored and celebrated his dedication to improvement in the lives of women and opportunities for their education and advancement. The Skinner Coffee House became a model women’s center and a thriving hub of community activity.




1 TBS butter
1 c. sugar
1 ½ c. flour
½ c. milk
¼ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. cream of tartar
2 eggs
Pinch of salt


Then stir butter, sugar and eggs together beating them  hard, then add flour in which cream of tartar is mixed, and milk by degrees, dissolve the soda in the least drop of boiling water. Just the same for jellie cake Any kind of thing can be put between this cake.

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Meet Belle Skinner

Belle’s Table – A Wistariahurst Museum Archive Fellowship

Clockwise from upper left – Wistaria in bloom at
Wistariahurst, Eiffel Tower (1905), Belle Skinner (1887),
Metropolitan Opera House (1900) New York—Broadway and 39th Street.

It’s summer. The frenzy of the last weeks of the semester turns to thoughts of my first fellowship at Wistariahurst Museum. The fellowship follows on the heels of a year of work study in the museum archives, exploring the history of Belle Skinner and her charitable food organizing efforts, family entertaining, and social gatherings during the end of the nineteenth century and into the first two decades of the twentieth. The Golden Age. The Great War. Women winning the vote.

This project will culminate with the publication of a social history publication, Belle’s Table, a historical cookbook that situates Belle Skinner in three locations. Belle’s Table tells the story of this Vassar-educated woman philanthropist and her determination to bring people together around tables. The museum publication of Belle’s Table, scheduled for spring 2014 release, explores the cuisine of the period in Holyoke, Massachusetts, New York City, and Hattonchȃtel in the Lorraine district of France.

Ms. Skinner adopted and restored the French village in the region of World War I’s northeastern battlefields; a project that began 1919 and ended at her death in 1928. The cuisine featured in Belle’s Table ranges from the Skinner family holiday table to the Gilded Age dining rooms of New York’s restaurants and French regional dishes of Lorraine—a foodmap through the life and times of Belle Skinner.

Much of the research for the project was conducted in the Wistariahurst Museum archives under the direction of museum curator, Penni Martorell (FP, 2005). Skinner family letters, diaries and scrapbooks, newspaper articles, privately published monographs, menus, and early twentieth-century photographs and video productions provided a wealth of resource material that inspired and then informed the project.

By the mid-nineteen-teens, Belle Skinner’s philanthropic interests shifted from her home city of Holyoke to the needs of war refugees in the wake of World War I. As co-founder of the Skinner Coffee House, she had offered working women and their families a “home away from home,” as one life-long club member recalled in a c.1920s book of Skinner Coffee House testimonials found in the Skinner Family Collection of the Wistariahurst Museum archives.

As president of the American Committee of Villages Libérés, Belle embarked on a reconstitution project to restore the medieval village of Hattonchȃtel, its agricultural livelihood and culture, thirty-five kilometers south of Verdun.  The French government honored Belle Skinner with the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française in 1919, and in 1920 the Consul-General of France presented her with the cross of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. A marble monument of a provincial farmwoman was erected in the village to honor the casualties of “The Great War.”  But for the Hattonchȃtel villagers, the rebuilding, christening and ringing of the restored church bell signified a return to life as they had known it, before the war.

Belle’s Table, the blog, will illustrate the progress of organizing the project and seeing it through to completion. Topics will include archival research, grant writing, organizing and tracking a targeted culinary history research project, preparing potential questions for an honors thesis, as well as more specific historical content that will (hopefully) entice the reader to explore the fun bits and the richness of Belle Skinner’s world. And recipes, of course.