Few remember Anna Lowell Woodbury, the blueblood who spent her life tending to sick soldiers and teaching poor women — including poor African-American women — to support themselves.
She never drew attention to herself, though she was a scion of New England’s famous and wealthy Lowell, Jackson and Cabot families. Anna Lowell Woodbury doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.
And yet she was a pioneer of the industrial arts movement. She founded the first cooking school for the children of freed slaves, despite the hostility from the southern city of Washington, D.C. She published a cookbook of Boston recipes seven years before Fannie Farmer got around to it.
Educators around the country knew of her work, and she became the first acting president of the National Industrial Association.
Anna Lowell Woodbury
Anna Lowell Woodbury was born in Boston on Aug. 3, 1833 the daughter of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., and Anna Cabot Jackson. Her paternal grandfather was a prominent Unitarian minister, while her mother’s father was Patrick Tracy Jackson, a founder of the Lowell and Waltham mills. Her uncle, poet James Russell Lowell, was her father’s brother.
Anna’s father ran his his father-in-law’s coal mining company, but went bankrupt in the financial panic of 1837. Her forceful mother opened a school and wrote books on education to support the family.
When the Civil War broke out, her two brothers immediately signed up as Union soldiers. Her favorite brother, Lt. James Jackson Lowell, died early in the war at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.
Anna organized the Union Hall Association, which found work for the wives of soldiers by getting government contracts for uniforms and bandages. She put her mother and Mrs. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in charge and went off to train as a nurse under Dorothea Dix.
In Washington, D.C., Anna Lowell ran the special diet kitchen at Armory Square Hospital, an old hotel that stood at the site of the National Air and Space Museum.
Anna Lowell’s fellow lady nurses included Louisa May Alcott, the niece of New Hampshire Sen. John P. Hale and the daughter of a wealthy New York judge. It was hard, overwhelming work. Alcott lasted only six weeks.
In 1864, Anna’s only other brother, Brig. Gen. Charles Russell Lowell, died at the Battle of Cedar Creek. She couldn’t be spared to attend his funeral in Cambridge, Mass., and she worked through her grief in Washington. Her fellow nurses gave her a photo album as a tribute shortly after his death.
When the war ended, Anna Lowell married a prominent doctor in Washington, Henry Woodbury. It didn’t last, and after two years they separated. When he died in 1905, Woodbury left her $10 from his estate valued at $40,000.
Gen. Charles Howard, then a Freedman’s Bureau commissioner, asked for help finding work for the former slaves then crowded into Washington. The Bureau wanted to send newly enfranchised women to Cambridge if there was a place for them.
Anna Lowell Woodbury led a committee of Brahmins to start a school to teach housekeeping to freed slaves and get them jobs. The school received 200 requests for domestic help before it opened its doors in a rented Cambridgeport building. Most of the women didn’t stay long for job training, preferring to work right away, according to The Newetowne Chronicle.
Through today’s eyes, the idea of a wealthy white women teaching African-American children to be servants seems at best condescending. But the Post-Civil War Era offered few opportunities for ex-slaves, and African-American leaders like Booker T. Washington saw training for the jobs available as a necessary survival tactic.
Return to Washington
Around 1880, Anna Lowell Woodbury rented a plain, three-story brick house at 1228 N St. NW, in Logan Circle. It had the words “School of Cookery” on the western façade. That first year, the school taught 12 girls plain cooking and the elements of good housekeeping, while “trying to elevate their intellectual and moral standards,” the Boston Transcript reported.
Her mission was to teach the basics of cooking with recipes that were attractive, interesting and useful. They can be found in Lessons in Cookery (view it here). One lesson teaches how to prepare beef tea and other food for the sick, about which Anna Lowell Woodbury knew a great deal.
By her own account and newspaper reports, Anna Lowell Woodbury opened the first mission school of cooking to a hostile reception. Cookery schools, she said, were viewed with great distrust. But perhaps it was teaching African-American children that did not go over well in that southern city.
It cost $10-$15 a year to teach each student, but tuition was free. Woodbury quietly financed the school. She had help from renters on the upper floors, donations from Bostonians, paid classes for advanced students and the sale of cakes and breads from the school’s ovens.
The public schools in Washington, D.C., began to teach women to cook. By 1888, eight years after it started, the School of Cookery and its teachers taught 900 students.
The News Spreads
Woodbury started getting letters about her work as news of it spread throughout the country. She then held a meeting at her home in Washington to form the National Industrial Association, which promoted vocational training in the schools. The Civil War had left many poor widows and orphans who needed a way to support themselves.
Anna Lowell Woodbury became the NIA’s acting president and ran its first annual meeting in 1888. The next year, she published her Lessons in Cookery manual for Washington’s public schools.
(You can get it on your Nook here or your Kindle here.) Reading the book gives you a good sense of the school’s methods. It starts with instructions on how to make a fire. Then it has a recipe for Tip-Top biscuits “to show the pupils how to mix and handle dough lightly and quickly.” A recipe for sugar cookies then follows a lesson on blacking a stove.
The Boston Evening Transcript praised the cooking school in a story on June 13, 1898. The newspaper reported that it had done more in proportion to its means than any other institution to elevate the poor and unfortunate.
The National Industrial Association was among the earliest, if not the earliest, associations in the United States to promote of industrial education, wrote Isaac Edwards Clark in his book Art and Industry (1892): Industrial and manual training in the public schools.
Silently but unobtrusively, the National Industrial Association spread the gospel of vocational education throughout the country, Clark wrote.
Woodbury, probably unintentionally, also spread New England cooking to the South. Lessons in Cookery had recipes for Boston brown bread, New Bedford pudding and codfish balls. Read some recipes from the cookbook here.
Anna Lowell Woodbury died on June 5, 1906, and is buried with her family in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
With thanks to Anna Lowell and the Mystery of a Civil War Nurse’s Photo Album, by Dever Powell, Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 2, 2012.
Learn more about Cambridge history by visiting the website of the Cambridge Historical Society. Anna Lowell Woodbury’s brothers are buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark. Read Charles Russell Lowell’s biography by Carol Bundy. In Washington, D.C., the site of the Armory Square Hospital is now the National Air and Space Museum, just across the National Mall from Julia Child’s Cambridge kitchen in the National Museum of American History. This story about Anna Lowell Woodbury was updated in 2022.
Images: Armory Square Hospital Washington, D.C. Patients in Ward K of Armory Square Hospital. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, 1865. [August] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2018667080/.