Wedding cakes became the specialty of baker Phebe Hart Mendall (1801-1887), widowed at age 35 when husband Elihu Mendall was lost at sea. With two children to care for, Phebe applied herself to become the finest cook she could be. She ran a successful catering/baking service from her home at 35 Seventh Street in New Bedford.
Phebe Hart Mendall (1801-1887), a descendant of early settlers of Old Dartmouth, was born on February 11, 1801, the fourth of 13 children born to Joseph Hart and Mary Smith Hart. Phebe was widowed at the age of 35 in 1836, when her husband Elihu Mendall was lost at sea. As her two children, John Thornton Mendall age 12 and Mary Smith Mendall age two, had to be sheltered and fed, Phebe applied herself to become the finest cook she could be. She started a catering/baking service from her home at 35 Seventh Street in New Bedford.
She was one of many mariners’ widows, in a town whose economy was based on the sea and its merchant and whaling businesses. Phebe was strengthened by her Quaker heritage and Quaker community. Betsey Blackburn was Phebe’s domestic helper, enabling her to generate an income and thereby manage the care of her children and home. Word of her baking skills spread quickly as she cooked for large gatherings, such as family reunions, funerals, weddings, and quarterly meetings for businesses and churches. Her wedding cakes became much desired by those marrying in New Bedford and its surrounding towns. Phebe baked in her tidy and orderly kitchen, which was accessed through a long hall in her Seventh Street home. She was soon selling sponge cakes, fruit cakes, preserves, soups and much more. She kept careful notes and recipes, a veritable fount of culinary knowledge. She authored The New Bedford Practical Receipt Book in 1858. It was published by E. Anthony and Sons. In 1870, her cookbook was published in its 3rd edition.
Because she hailed from a family of mariners and had married a merchant ship captain, her only son John wanted to follow in their path. Being naturally fearful of losing yet another family member to the sea, Phebe beseeched her son to get his schooling before signing onto a ship. However, in 1841, after only a year in school, he was hired as a first-mate for a three-year whaling voyage. He was only 13 years old at the time. Within a year of John’s return home from sea, his sister Mary died of scarlet fever at age 12 in 1846.
John later settled in New York with his English wife, Sarah Ann Warwick. He continued his livelihood as a merchant marine. John and Sarah had two daughters, Maud and Mary Mendall. When Phebe’s granddaughters were old enough, they spent summers with her in New Bedford. In 1873 John was tragically lost at sea, reportedly at Cape Horn.
Both Maud and Mary became teachers and married, always remaining a comfort to their grandmother Phebe. In 1883, Phebe wrote “My Recollections of 70 Years” for her grandchildren. Phebe was a collector of poems and family histories. She was said to be an expert on genealogical information of families in New Bedford. One of Phebe’s good friends was the up-and-coming clockmaker and artist, William Allen Wall. He painted twice for her, with one painting of son John and daughter Mary on a dock.
She lived on Seventh Street in New Bedford until 1885, then moved in with her daughter-in-law Sarah Mendall to be near her two granddaughters in New York. Phebe died on April 27 1887, at the age of 86.
Her granddaughter Maud Mendall Nelson wrote about Phebe in a pamphlet “New Bedford Fifty Years Ago: Reflections in 1913.” Phebe was also remembered in the Old Dartmouth Historical Sketches by George H. Tripp in 1917 and by Marion Hicks Campbell in 1938. Most recently, she was recognized by the New Bedford columnist and author Peggi Medeiros as a shining example of one of the “many Cape Horn widows and survivors.”
Ivy S. MacMahon
Campbell, Marion Hicks. “A Maker of Wedding Cakes in Old Dartmouth.” Old Dartmouth Historical Sketch No. 71. Trustees of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, 1938.
Medeiros, Peggi. “Desperate Housewives of New Bedford Whalemen.” SouthCoast Today, 16 Mar. 2014, www.southcoasttoday.com/article/20140316/NEWS/403160323.
Mendall, Phebe. The New Bedford Practical Receipt Book. E. Anthony and Sons, 1858.
New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library Mss 140. Akin Family Papers. Subseries 4, Box 2: “My Recollections of 70 Years.”
Tripp, George H. “Authors of New Bedford.” Old Dartmouth Historical Sketch No 46. Trustees of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, 1938.
Yentsch, Anne. “Applying Concepts from Historical Archaeology to New England’s Nineteenth-Century Cookbooks,” Northeast Historical Archaeology, vol. 42, article 8, 2013. http://orb.binghamton.edu/neha/vol42/iss1/8.