Rosina (Black) Uniacke (c. 1807-1858)

A Woman's Life with Recipes

Rosina (Black) Uniacke (c. 1807-1858) was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, John Black, and wife to James Boyle Uniacke, barrister and politician. The lives of these two men have been well recorded, but little information remains about Rosina. What has survived are a few of her belongings and a book of handwritten "receipts" (recipes) presumed to be hers. Together they offer clues about her upper-class life in nineteenth-century Halifax.

Rosina Jane Black was born to John Black (c. 1765-1823) and Catherine (Billop) Black (1777-1839) and baptized January 19th, 1808. Around 1819, John Black had a stately home built on Hollis Street, signifying his wealth and status. The house had ten fireplaces, a front façade made of granite brought over from Aberdeen, Scotland – John's birthplace – and gardens through to Pleasant Street (later Barrington Street) next to the Governor's Mansion (later Government House).

A few of Rosina's childhood belongings are preserved at Uniacke Estate Museum Park. Her sampler from 1819 shows she was proficient in needlework by age eleven, and her book of sheet music for the pianoforte labelled "Miss R. Black" indicates she learned to play the instrument. These skills were likely a product of Rosina's domestic education – "accomplishments" appropriate to her class that would demonstrate her gentility to prospective suitors. As part of her education, Rosina may have read books on housekeeping and cooking. Many upper-class homes at the time employed servants to do most, if not all, domestic work including the cooking. Despite this, Rosina's granddaughter, Geraldine (Uniacke) Mitchell, described her as "well-versed in the Culinary Art" – meaning, Rosina may have learned to cook.

In the 70-page receipt book inscribed "R. J." – presumably for Rosina Jane – the penmanship changes halfway through. The latter thirty pages match Rosina’s known handwriting as an adult with some pages dated 1849. The first forty pages are written in another style of penmanship. One theory is that they were penned by a young Rosina, possibly recipes she copied from cookery books for use in her future household. The pages detailing "Rules to be observed in pickling" suggest the book was intended for a novice cook. That being the case, it seems the young Rosina had entertaining in mind for her future. At the start are recipes for fruit wines and liquors, some calling for ingredients that were uncommon in nineteenth-century Nova Scotia. For instance, her recipe for orange wine calls for 12 lemons and 50 oranges, both of which would have been imported seasonally and expensive to buy – a drink for Christmastime? Rosina’s recipe for “Vermicella” (vermicelli) on page 39 is another remarkable inclusion, since at the time, most pasta was brought in from Italy. She writes at the bottom: “this [recipe] far exceeds what comes from abroad, being fresher.” If these recipes were penned by a young Rosina, she was aiming to signify her wealth and worldliness through the food she served.

When Rosina was 15, her father died, and the estate passed to his family. In 1832, Rosina married James Boyle Uniacke (c. 1799-1858), a barrister and elected member of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. Rosina brought with her considerable wealth, which, according to some, was the reason James married her. The couple took up residence in the Hollis Street house. In 1838, James Uniacke was appointed to the Executive Council of the House of Assembly, and in 1848, he became the leader and Attorney-General of the colony's first representative government. Rosina and James had several children, their youngest and only daughter, Florence, born in 1847.

Life in the Uniacke household was said to be lively if not indulgent. The couple was known for hosting balls and dinners for people of status and wealth in the garrison town. Rosina may have played her ornate piano for guests, which they purchased in 1842. The recipes Rosina penned around this time reflect the Uniackes' lifestyle. Many are for baked goods – cakes, biscuits, buns, doughnuts, and puddings – that call for pounds of butter, flour, and sugar. By the mid-nineteenth century, sugar was affordable even to middle-class families, thus recipes for sweets began to dominate women's receipt books. Rosina's recipes are no exception. She was known for her gingerbread and worked to perfect her recipe, given how many she penned. A few of her baking recipes credit other women – Lucy Marshall or Mrs. Belcher, for instance. This speaks to Rosina's desire to keep her menus current inasmuch as impress her guests with an abundance of sugary delights.

The family's good fortune was not long lived. James' health was poor and he lost much of their money in a bad railroad investment. In 1854, James stepped down as Attorney-General. Around this time, they sold the Hollis Street home to Rev. Herbert Binney, who later divided the property and erected Saint Matthew's Church. It is unclear where James, Rosina, and their children resided after this. James' health continued to decline and he passed away "in Halifax" on March 26th, 1858. For reasons unrecorded, Rosina passed away six weeks prior to her husband. Florence likely kept some of her mother's belongings, which made their way to Uniacke Estate where she spent time with her brother, Rev. James Uniacke, and his family.

Rosina’s receipt book can be viewed online, part of the Nova Scotia Archives' "What’s Cooking?" collection.