Many American Jews today have distinct memories of using the Maxwell House Haggadah, which has remained in print since 1932, at family seders. Before that, writes Jenna Weissman Joselit, there was The Seder Service, “arranged”—as its cover states—by Mrs. Philip Cowen and first published in 1904.
Easy to read and handle, this version was used by schoolchildren and their families; by patrons of the State Bank of New York, among whom it was distributed as a gift; and by American Jewish servicemen during World War I, who received a free copy along with a ration of matzah, courtesy of the Jewish Welfare Board.
The Seder Service also found favor among both Orthodox and Reform Jews at the grass roots, bridging what many believed to be an uncomfortable divide between the two. Giving new meaning to the old adage about reading the fine print, The Seder Service made it possible for an Orthodox Jew and a Reform Jew to sit side by side at the same seder table by signaling through means of typeface and layout which aspects of the seder were not to be skipped (see: large type, full lines) and which could be passed over (see: small print, indented lines). In that way, Mrs. Cowen acknowledged, “no fault should be found with the suggestion it conveys, as he who wishes may read every line of the older service, for not a word has been here omitted.”
The Mrs. of the book’s title—a/k/a Lillie Goldsmith Cowen—was the wife of Philip Cowen, the longtime publisher of The American Hebrew, and the mother of Elfrida, who married M. Leon Solis-Cohen. A skilled typesetter in her own right as well as a deft editor who wielded a “relentless pencil,” or so boasted her proud husband, Mrs. Cowen turned her talents to modernizing the haggadah. . . . If contemporaneous accounts are to be believed, the celebration of Passover received quite a boost from the release of Mrs. Cowen’s haggadah, experiencing a momentary surge in popularity.