I thought oatmeal cookies had been around for centuries — they just seem so old-fashioned. But it turns out that this cookie was essentially a 20th-century creation, one that became hugely popular in just a decade or two.
Until recently, not many people ate oats, let alone oatmeal cookies. The grain was considered animal fodder, except in parts of northern Europe and the British Isles — particularly Scotland, where oat porridge and oat cakes were staples for many centuries.
Oats were rarely eaten by North Americans until the late 19th century. Some Scottish and German immigrants used the grain in porridge, puddings, and Scottish-style oat cakes, which contain little or no fat or sugar. But as far as I can tell, oats did not find their way into early American cookie recipes — at least not published ones.
Then in 1877, the process of steel-cutting oats was invented at the Quaker Mill in Ohio, making hulled oats (“groats”) more uniform and less floury than the stone-milled variety. The same mill then developed a roller to flatten groats, creating the modern-day rolled oat, which cooks more quickly.
The Quaker Mill was eventually combined with three others to form the Quaker Oats Company, in 1901. This company made the wise decision to put recipes for porridge and cookies on its boxes. The early boxes were square — the round version didn’t appear until 1915.
The Quaker Oats recipes circulated widely, and oatmeal cookies were soon common in households throughout the United States. There were some non-Quaker Oats recipes out there — including one in The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book that was sort of a cross between an oat cake and a cookie — but Quaker Oats’s promotional efforts seem to have been the driving force behind the oatmeal cookie craze.
A recipe for sweet cookies first appeared on Quaker Oats boxes sometime between 1910 and 1917. “Famous Oatmeal Cookies” were featured in 1922, the year that quick-cooking one-minute oats were introduced. This recipe called for Crisco vegetable shortening. I doubted whether this could really be an old recipe but was surprised to learn that Crisco was invented in 1911 (and incidentally stands for “crystallized cottonseed oil”).
“Oats Macaroons,” containing shredded coconut, went on the Quaker Oats box in 1930. According to writer Diane Stoneback, these cookies were promoted by the company as “little luxuries” during the Great Depression. “Crisp Oatmeal Cookies,” which were rolled, chilled, and sliced, premiered in 1935, followed by “Mary Alden Oatmeal Cookies,” with more eggs and sugar, as well as raisins, in 1943. Some of these early recipes were tweaked in later decades, for better or worse, and more recent recipes have added ingredients such as peanut butter and chocolate chips.
I made two of the older recipes, Oats Macaroons and Famous Oatmeal Cookies, and am listing recipes for both below. I preferred the macaroons because they contain butter, not vegetable shortening; the shredded coconut also adds a nice flavor and texture. My husband and daughter liked both, but particularly the Famous Oatmeal Cookies, which were slightly crisper (see picture at top). The macaroons are pictured below.
Adapted from a Quaker Oats recipe found in Berks-Mont News
1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine, softened
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
½ teaspoon almond extract
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups rolled oats (quick or old fashioned — I used old fashioned)
1⅓ cups (4 ounces) shredded sweetened coconut
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease several baking sheets.
2. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until creamy. Beat eggs briefly, then add eggs and almond extract to the butter mixture. Beat well.
3. Stir together the flour, baking soda, and salt, then add to the butter mixture, blending thoroughly. Add oats and coconut, and mix well.
4. Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls onto baking sheets. Bake 8 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool two minutes on sheets, then remove to a wire rack and cool completely. Store tightly covered. Yields about 4 dozen cookies.
Famous Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from Quaker Oats recipe and other sources
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¾ cup vegetable shortening
½ cup granulated white sugar
¼ cup water (omit if you substitute butter for the shortening)
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups rolled oats (quick or old fashioned)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt (optional; I used ½ teaspoon, which seemed plenty)
½ teaspoon baking soda
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, beat brown sugar, shortening, and white sugar until creamy. Add water, egg and vanilla, and beat well.
2. Stir together oats, flour, salt, and baking soda. Add to the butter mixture and blend well.
3. Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake 9 to 11 minutes until the cookies’ edges are golden brown. Remove to wire rack; cool completely. Store tightly covered. Makes about five dozen.
Note: The original recipe for Famous Oatmeal Cookies did not contain raisins, nuts, or chocolate chips, but a cup or so of any of these can be added in as a last step before baking.