Collectible vintage cookbooks span centuries as one a copy of Bartolomeo Scappi’s 1570 “Scappi Cucina,” a guide to managing a well-run Renaissance Tuscan kitchen, sold for more than $2,000 on eBay
You may not consider yourself a collector of these, but I know you have some. In fact, if you live in the “average” American household, you have 15 of them: cookbooks.
Whether they were purchased, inherited or given to you as a gift, they are accumulating on a shelf in your home. Even the least able cook leafs through each book he or she gets and won’t toss it out, at least not immediately.
According to “The Bean Counters Cookbook,” three-quarters of the folks who receive a cookbook keep it for years; 65 percent of those who don’t, pass them on to a close friend or relative. Then, there are the rest of us who collect, read, cherish and perhaps even create cookbooks … and assign each one a value.
That price usually isn’t the $2,037 paid on eBay July 1, 2012, for Bartolomeo Scappi’s 1570 “Scappi Cucina,” a guide to managing a well-run Renaissance Tuscan kitchen. The 10-day auction started at 99 cents; it soon went into the hundreds and in the final day more than doubled to that fantastic sum. This book is a treasure. Modern paperback reprints under the title “Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi” translated by Terence Scully are available in paperback for under $40.
Price guides and websites abound for vintage cookbooks. My recent tracking of online auctions and price lists has uncovered factors which generally turn up the bidding heat.
Professionally Published Cookbooks
The value increases if the book is a first edition, in excellent condition, was published before 1950, contains elaborate and colorful covers with many period photographs and quaint illustrations, contains specific recipes with both lists of ingredients and preparation instructions, and also contains additional cultural or historical information regarding the cuisine, cooks or recipes.
The collectability of star authors (Vincent Price, Julia Child, Miss Piggy and Barbie) will also whip up the value.
Several cookbooks intended for children to use continue to attract buyers. Admittedly not as valuable as standing and watching grandmother work in her kitchen, little books like the “Fun to Cook Book,” “Jolly Times Cookbook” and “Barbie’s Easy-As-Pie” all recently sold on eBay for just under $15 apiece. The rarity and desirability – just like Beluga caviar or white truffles – sends the price up.
The above rules also apply with certain additional leavenings. Customer support of the charity, church or club that organized the effort is an attraction. Popular cuisines such as those from Southern Louisiana, New Mexico, Amish Country, pioneer times, and Old Cape Cod all have interested enthusiasts. Additionally, the price for vintage community cookbooks goes up for pre-template issuances.
In the 1970s, several companies began to “help” nonprofits raise money by providing formats into which groups could insert their recipes. Look around. You’ll find identical covers and dividing pages being used by a church guild in North Carolina and a Woman’s Shelter in Michigan. These books are worth less than the older, cruder, locally printed, saddle-stitched efforts (no plastic gbc or spiral bindings). The authenticity and uniqueness of the cuisine (River Road Recipes by the Junior League of Baton Rouge) and the usefulness of a cookbook theme (Canapé Caprice by the Columbus, Ohio, Symphony Orchestra) attract gourmands.
Yes, there was a time before Crisco! The manufacturers of condensed milk, self-rising flour and Spam needed to train the public to use their products. So they provided shoppers with recipe booklets which demonstrated the deliciousness of these items. The same can be said of freezer manufacturers, appliance makers and cooking utensil companies. All new items needed to tempt buyers with some excellent carrot recipes to dangle before us horses. Look around on your shelf and you might own a book published by Kerr canning supplies, Sunbeam Mixmaster or The Lorain Stove Co. Keep looking and you’ll probably unearth ones by Carnation evaporated milk, Campbell’s Soup, Grandma’s Molasses, Rumford baking powder and others.
The pricing rules noted above apply, especially when these handy little pamphlets contain charming period illustrations. A lone Crystal Baking Soda pamphlet with a vintage mom-in-the-kitchen on the cover from the 1920s went for $18.50. The price will definitely go up when you not only own the Mirror Aluminum Cookie Press from the ’50s but also have the recipe booklet that came with it.
To save time and add attraction to your online sales, list the more modern items in lots. Buyers will often purchase the entire lot just to get the one they grew up with and have lost. A recent auction on eBay for 25 of these little usually free booklets brought the seller $51.
The Pillsbury Flour Co. is the undisputed champion of food manufacturer-issued cookbooks. Through the many years of challenging cooks from America’s Heartland to invent and share new “Bake-Off” recipes, Pillsbury created an undeniable demand for its excellent products.
My most cherished book from this series dates from 1960. It features Leona Schnuelle, a bespectacled farmer’s wife from Crab Orchard, Neb., who won the top prize of $25,000 for her “Dilly Casserole Bread.”
In the “Bake-Off’s” prime, hundreds of winners, television host Art Linkletter and Mrs. Schnuelle herself gave hope to millions. The everyday chore of putting delicious food on the table could now also provide national notoriety and a fat cash prize, plus the well deserved gratitude for a job well done. A case can also be made that the televised final rounds of Pillsbury’s Bake-Offs were the original reality television show.
Cleverly, Pillsbury documented all the winning recipes and issued them in a long series of checkout-line cookbooks. The first “Bake-Off” recipe book dates from 1950 and the final one in 1978, but other books continue the tradition today.
The 1974 Pillsbury’s Best Bundt Cake Recipes book, originally priced at 99 cents, contains 100 great recipes. It sold on eBay recently for $21.50. That’s 20 times the original price in just 38 years. These booklets are very collectible because they contain delicious recipes, idiot-proof instructions and beautiful photography.
A Sticky Point
Whenever I leaf through a used cookbook, I try to find some evidence of what the former owner tried to make. More than occasionally, I’ll find a cookbook that has written commentary. “Great but double it.” But usually, I find no written word, only tell-tale fingerprints that show that the banana nut bread recipe on page 128 of GE’s “Cooking with a Food Processor” is a winner.
Antique dealers and used book sellers have been trained to price according to pristine condition. But a buttery smudge, dried bit of batter or remnant of ancient flour dust on one or more pages in a cookbook escalates its value to those of us searching for something good to make.
Real cooks want to know what tastes delectable not what looks nice on the shelf.
Recently, a pencil-written notebook of 122 pages from a Bethel Church in rural Missouri sold for $167.50. Debbie, the eBay seller, had found it in a box of miscellaneous items she bought at an estate sale. There were also several Bethel Churches in the surrounding area so she couldn’t trace it to any one of them. Its tattered cover showed signs of use. The first page contained these charming sentences: “This little cook book is composed by the Ladies Aid Society of Bethel Church with the aid of a few friends to whom we feel very grateful. You will find index classed on last page and you have 150 good tried recipes. We think too you will be pleased.”
Similarly, a three-ring binder of more than 500 clipped recipes, prepared by a cooking enthusiast, sold for $41.99. A certain minor class of hoarding sickness does apply here. Many of us feel that a recipe is a free gift and it shouldn’t just be thrown away.
These two examples demonstrate the value of used cookbooks and private recipe collections. Scribbled down recipes in the margins or blank spaces of other cookbooks, add value rather than detract from it.
Dr. Chase’s 1888 Cookbook, by the way, just sold for $78.88 on eBay. It was this helpful home manual that guided homemakers in improving life around the house.
So, take a look at the cookbooks on your shelf and value them for what they can help you do, in addition to how pretty, rare or interesting they are.
Joseph Truskot is a collector and freelance writer based in Salinas, Calif.
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You may be interested in this vintage cookbook collecting resource
Antique Trader Collectible Cookbooks Price Guide
By Patricia Edwards and Peter Peckham
A Perfect Recipe for Nostalgia and Values
Whether you’re a seasoned connoisseur of culinary literature, or a beginning collector fortunate enough to inherit grandma’s collection of cookbooks, you’ll find Antique Trader Collectible Cookbooks Price Guide to be a valuable resource in identifying, pricing and learning more about this fantastic piece of culinary history.
This exciting and authoritative resource contains:
- Details on nearly 1,000 cookbooks (published between the late 1800s and the 1970s)
- Color photos for easy and accurate identification
- Interesting historical insights and intriguing background about cookbook authors, publishers and food companies
- Helpful tips for collecting and care of cookbooks
Authors Patricia “Eddie” Edwards and Patrick Peckham are the creators of OldCookbooks.com – one of the largest online bookstores specializing in hard-to-find and rare cookbooks.