It was this blog post that first introduced me to Della Thompson Lutes (and Ruth Suckow, whom I'll be reading next), and for that, I am eternally grateful. I've just finished reading Millbrook, one of her six autobiographical novels, and it was truly a delight!  The book is set in a small Southern Michigan farming community in the 1880s; here is a sample that seemed especially timely now, at the very height of summer:

Summer was far too busy a season to allow for much visiting, speculation, or gossip. Women were in their kitchens. Bread to bake as well as cakes, cookies, and pies; vegetables to prepare; milk to care for; butter to churn.

They were in the gardens: fruit to pick for shortcakes, pies, tarts, preserves. They were in their poulty yards: young chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese to be fed, watered, housed, gathered in from storms; eggs to be brought in.

They washed: shoulder-sweated shirts and stiff, groin-sweated overalls; sheets yellowed by soil-stained, perspiring bodies. And in a wooden tub on a bench too low for comfort, scrubbing their knuckles on a corrugated board of zinc, using soft soap they themselves had made.

They ironed, sensibly, only the clothing that showed, and linen for the tables. Where there were girls and young women, of course, there were innumerable ruffles -- petticoats, corset covers, lawn and organdie dresses. The irons were solid and heavy (used in winter, tipped up sideways between the knees, for cracking nuts, and also heated for warming beds) and, even through the padded holder, seared and callused the hands.

They worked: Adelaide from the first paling of a morning sky until the bats flew at dusk and the night hawk dipped, cleaving the air with a downward noisy swish of his stiffly outspread wings; but her heart was light. (Millbrook, p. 258-9)

I'm waiting on a copy of the author's famed Country Kitchen, and will be eagerly tracking down copies of her other books as well. While all are currently out-of-print, copies can be found quite inexpensively online. Hopefully one day her work will again be back in print because it is truly worthy of a wider reading audience.

Though there is sadly little that has been published about her life, a wonderful introductory essay is: A Word For What Was Eaten: An Introduction to Della T. Lutes and Her Fiction by Lawrence R. Dawson. The following biography is an excerpt, also written by Mr. Dawson, from the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume 1: The Authors by Phillip A. Greasley, Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature.

Della Thompson grew up on a farm in Summit Township in Jackson County, Michigan, the only child of Elijah Bonnet Thompson, of New York state, and Almira Frances (Bogardus) Thompson, of Detroit. Completing high school in Jackson at sixteen, she became accredited to teach in country schools. Those years were the source of her retrospective writing. She taught in Jackson County and then in Detroit for a few years. In 1893 she married Louis Irving Lutes and had two sons, the older being killed in a shooting accident when he was seven.

She said that her first writing for money appeared in the Detroit Free Press. In October 1905, the Delineator began her six-part story, "Deestrick No. 5." Her first book, Just Away: A Story of Hope (1906) was promoted by the death of her son, Ralph, and dedicated "To the mothers who sorrowed with me in my sorrow." Impressed by this work, the publishers invited her in 1907 to Cooperstown, New York, to join the editorial staff of their journals American Motherhood, Table Talk, and Today's Housewife. In 1924 she became housekeeping editor of Modern Priscilla and manager of the Priscilla Proving Plant (a Betty Crocker-type institute).in Newton, Massachusetts.

Her writing was directed by her editorial responsibilities under the Priscilla organization disbanded after the 1929 stock market crash, her articles, pamphlets and books being mainly concerned with home-making topics. Still, her stylistic qualities of common sense and often pungent wit grew during these years.

The appearance of her essay "Simple Epicure" in the Atlantic of March 1935 began her success with a larger public. This essay and others which quickly followed provoked an unusually broad reaction from the magazine's readers, a great many of whom were men. These essays were collected and published in 1936 as The Country Kitchen; the book established her as a best-selling, sought-after writer and speaker. During her last years, her surviving sone, Robert, became her leg man, researching her last books. She died on July 13, 1942, at Cooperstown, New York. Her ashes were returned, as she wished, to Michigan for interment at Horton.

Significance: Della Lute's writing is significant for its rendering of the end-of-the-century cultural period, as her readers recognized when her articles and books appeared during the 1930s and 1940s. Appealing to natives of rural Michigan and the Midwest, her books brought letters of praise from every part of the nation and from other countries, including Russia. Detailing the landscapes through the changing seasons, her stories also brought alive local politics, schooling, architecture and interior decoration, moral standards, social attitudes, and, in a unique way, the food as "prepared by late nineteenth century southern Michigan farm wives" ("A Word..." 31). Her readers commended her writing particularly for its affectionate, realistic, and accurate recording of rural family life as it was lived in America at the end of the nineteenth century.

Select Books by Della Thompson Lutes:
  • The Country Kitchen (1936)
  • Homegrown (1937)
  • Millbrook (1938)
  • Gabriel's Search (1940)
  • Country Schoolma'am (1941)
  • Cousin William (1942)
A few contemporary reviews of The Country Kitchen, a wildly successful bestseller which was voted "The Most Original Book Published in 1936," can be found here:


  1. Anonymous said...
    Della is my great, great grandmother...very nice to find and read your thoughts! Thank you for sharing and helping her legacy live on. Her life and books have facinated me for my whole life!
    Kristine said...
    Anonymous - How wonderful that she was your great great grandmother! Thank you for stopping by. :-)

Post a Comment