Culinary Sleuth

Cookbook Collecting—
The American Homemaker's Number One Hobby


by Lynn Kerrigan


"Any morning in September, take 20 quarts of new milk warm from the cow and color it with marigolds..."

This beginning instruction for making cheese from what many consider the first American cookbook, The Compleat Housewife by William Parks (1742) gives you an idea of why cookbook collecting is an enormously popular sport. Before electricity, refrigeration and microwave ovens, the kitchen was a much different place. So were the recipes. Old methods of cooking and foods cooked (calf's heads and potted calf's feet) are historically fascinating. Cookbooks record culture and history via the kitchen, still the hub of the American household.

Some older cookbooks still hold valuable information. Where else can you find out how to dress a turtle? American Cookery by Amelia Simmons first published in 1796 was so wildly popular it went through dozens of revisions and editions. It has also been plagerized numerous times. A facsimile version called The First American Cookbook is available today from Dover Publications giving it the added distinction of being the longest running cookbook in publishing history. (It's labeled the first American cookbook because Amelia used solely native American foods and recipes as opposed to the Compleat Housewife derived from an English cookbook.) In the early 1980's a copy of the original sold at auction for $3,000.

In the late 1800's cookbooks were rarely housed in the kitchen nor read by cooks. Many were written for ladies with domestic servants. The woman of the house sat at her writing desk browsing through her leather bound recipe book. She'd plan that week's meals and write out the menu including how to prepare each dish. She then gave the hand written "receipt" to the servant. This explains why so many cookbooks surviving that period are in such good condition, a significant factor regarding the value of any book.


At her family's urging, Fannie Merrit Farmer, often called the "mother of level measurements," attended The Boston Cooking School. Eventually she became the school's director and in 1896 edited the classic, self-published, Boston Cooking School Cookbook (current value $400). It's reported that publishers shunned the book because it was a "basic" cookery book and contained no household hints or home remedies. This wasn't Ms. Farmer's first recipe book. In 1895 she authored the 48-page Rumford Cookbook for the Rumford Chemical Works (Current value $20.).

Many collectors specialize in one particular type of cookbook like food company publications. The Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbooks—the first published in 1950 and valued at about $50—are very popular. Early Jell-O cookbooks are actually comic books featuring celebrities whose quips often provide more punch than featured desserts. The 1904 Jell-O booklet with a mere 14 pages commands a cool $100. Advertising cookbooks or booklets are enormously popular and for good reason. Usually given away free, these slim, often lavishly illustrated volumes are worth anywhere from $4-$100 today.

Many people collect cookbooks for their colorful, artistic covers or delicately tinted lithographs. Others concentrate on a particular category of food or cooking method like baking or vegetarian recipes. You may amass an extensive collection focusing solely on celebrity penned cookbooks, cookbooks for children, professional chef-written cookbooks and even recipe books devoted to a singular subject such as apples.

Most book collecting experts agree that a specialized collection has more intrinsic value than a generalized assortment. In other words, the whole is worth more then the sum of its parts. However, the average cookbook collector is apparently unconcerned with value or collecting for investment purposes. Many seem driven by a need to amass every single recipe ever published.

Many agree the best collections, taste-wise are those published by local churches and community groups. Any recipe donated to one of these is sure to be good as quite often the donor's name gets attached. These heirloom recipes are the main reason non-profit cookbooks are highly coveted by collectors.

Where To Buy

You can find cookbooks for pennies the same place the dealers do—estate sales, thrift shops, garage sales, flea markets, church fairs and library book sales. Most important in collecting any type of book is buying the finest edition possible. Ripped, soiled or missing pages and loose, tattered covers can reduce your book's value considerably. A cookbook minus its original dust jacket can be worth a whopping 75% less than the jacketed version.

Caring For Cookbooks

House slim cook booklets in plastic, hole punched sleeves in a three-ring binder. Keep cookbooks out of the kitchen. Dampness and dirt are a book's worst enemies. If you buy a book that smells musty or contains mildew place it in a sealed plastic bag with a sprinkling of baking soda for a week or two otherwise damage from the contaminated book will spread to others in your collection. It's a good idea to insure your collection. Rarer cookbooks are often classified as fine art and antiques. Vacuum your collection regularly to get rid of dust mites and bookworms. Keep your collection away from direct sunlight. Never store books flat as this will damage the spine. Keep them upright on sturdy shelves.




Cookbook Collecting Guides

A Guide To Collecting Cookbooks
Colonel Bob Allen. 1995 Edition.
Collector Books
PO Box 3009
Paducah, KY 42002-3009
$14.95 + $2 shipping.

Cookbooks Worth Collecting
Mary Barile. 1994.
Wallace-Homestead Book Co.

H.T. Hicks Collector's Guide To Old Cookbooks
H.T. And J.M. Hicks
1994. $45.


Cookbook Collector's Exchange
PO Box 32369
San Jose, CA 95152-2369
Bimonthly tabloid
$15 year. Sample: $2.
A medium for the collector to buy, sell and exchange cookbooks. Includes historical articles and cookbook reviews.

Cookbook Collector
1443 Sunset Dr.
Bogalusa, LA 70426
Quarterly newsletter. $12 year. Sample: $3.
Reviews over 30 cookbooks an issue and includes recipes from each.


Text Copyright 1996 Lynn Kerrigan. No portion of this article may be reproduced for publication without express, written permission of the author.

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