Collecting classic cookbooks: Repasts from the past

What makes a cookbook collectible?

It’s a question we are often asked, and one for which the answer depends on who’s collecting and why. Besides those who just want to find great recipes and make good things to eat, there are those who collect books based on value, and some wanting to preserve or explore a culture, a style or a place. Others just love reading interesting cookbooks (as some do novels).

Collectible is in the eye of the beholder, whereas value, in simple terms, is more a measure of how much one is willing to pay for it.
The special charm of collecting cookbooks is that there is an enormous range of sub-categories of interest, making most cookbooks desirable, though not necessarily valuable.

Ida Bailey Allen

The original domestic goddess, America’s Mrs. Allen, nee Ida Cogswell, was born in 1885 and has been credited with bringing nutrition, world cuisine and formal cooking to thousands of average housewives (it is also said that she invented the marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole). An avid cook, “domestic science” professional and a practicing dietitian, she was the first woman in history to bring food to the masses using all available media outlets: in print, as the author of more than 50 cookbooks, including The Best Loved Recipes of the American People, and as a contributor to more than a half dozen major magazines (Good Housekeeping, Parade); on the radio, as the host of a popular radio show; and on TV, acting as television’s first female food host on Mrs. Allen and the Chef.

Confessing that the radio was “a fearsome thing,” she nevertheless went on to pioneer a popular radio show for homemakers and founded the “National Radio Homemaker’s Club,” which surprised her with its overwhelming success and delighted her with the way it united women while they “kept house.” Her power to influence was demonstrated one Christmas when she suggested that women could wear red Christmas dresses to please their children, and stores reported a surge in requests for red holiday garb.

Mrs. Allen was also the queen of the sensible kitchen, penning some of the first books dedicated solely to budget cuisine, cooking for two and efficient timesaving meals.

Peg Bracken

As a working mom in the ’60s, Bracken struggled along with her female coworkers and friends to balance home and work. The result was several comedic books in the “I Hate to …” series. The refreshing look at the challenges of housework for a working woman presents her angst with a frank humor that is still hilarious.

The original I Hate to Cook Book manuscript—a truly funny and revealing look at the changing domestic roles of American women, as well as a collection of easy recipes—was turned down by many male editors who worried it would offend women. It went on to sell over 3 million copies. Sassy and smart, Bracken’s cookbooks are destined for the collector’s shelf.

Advertising executive, copywriter and self-described humorist, Bracken died in 2007 at the age of 89.

Betty Crocker

The ubiquitous Miss Crocker, arguably the most famous American culinary icon, was actually invented in 1921 when a General Mills ad in the Saturday Evening Post elicited over 30,000 responses requesting recipes and asking for baking help. Who was the perfect person to answer all these letters? A homey sounding first name was added to the last name of company director, William Crocker, and Betty was born, a bouncing 30-something homemaker, filled with good cheer and cooking savvy. An authoritative yet friendly signature for signing the letters was chosen from employee handwriting samples via a company contest.

Morphing in her image portraits from a grey-haired baking expert to a contemporary cookery professional, Betty has sold over 60 million books since her full-length debut of the 1950s Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. The book set the standard for all of Betty’s (and many other authors’) future works, which were designed to make cooking easy, accessible, fun and unfussy, as she reliably remains today.
Betty Crocker’s contributions to American cooking are so prolific and iconic, a recent “biography” of Betty documents her success.
Manufacturers’ booklets and pamphlets

With the introduction of processed foods in the late 1800s, food manufacturers cooked up a new way to introduce their brands in a national marketplace: advertising pamphlets and booklets. Appliance and cookware manufacturers (mixers, refrigerators, stoves, pressure cookers, etc.) also found informative, inexpensive recipe booklets an effective way to instruct and inspire new users on the successful use of their products. For more than a century, these little publications have served as a mainstay promotional tool for introducing products and building brands old and new.

Charity cookbooks

Charity cookbooks are commonly referred to as fundraiser or community cookbooks, or as “spirals.” Regardless of what they are called, charity cookbooks are collections of recipes that have been published in America as fundraisers, for over 140 years, by churches, schools, service groups and other fraternal and cultural organizations.

While there are many commercially successful cookbooks that began as fundraisers, like The Settlement Cookbook and Junior League cookbooks, there are many more that were published in very small quantities or that were created by the hands of volunteers themselves, using whatever methods and resources they could muster (typewriters, mimeographs and copiers).

Cover and interior art is sometimes commercial clip-art, but the more endearing examples feature the artistic expressions of inspired volunteers, as is the case with the charity cookbook Like Mama Used to Make. There are many qualities that make a fundraiser cookbook desirable, not the least of which is the preservation of regional recipes. Also, look for books that are older (pre-1940s) and feature:

    Local advertisements
    Contributors noted by name
    Anecdotes or historical information
    Photos of local buildings
    Handwritten recipes
    Contributions by celebrities
    Unusual or interesting bindings
    Handmade or have exceptional illustrations

The category of charity cookbooks offers a special appeal for collectors, telling the personal stories of different eras, cultures, regions and the people who contributed to them. As you read through the recipes, essays, poems and anecdotes, you get to know the communities and the period in which these books were created.

Promotional cooking

royal camp cookery1910. Royal Camp Cookery. Kenealy, Capt. A. J.Kenealy. Royal Baking Powder Co. Stapled booklet. 32-page Advertising or promotional recipe booklet by Royal Baking Powder Co. “Specially prepared for use by Capt. A. J. Kenealy, the author of many articles and books on subjects of outdoor work and sport” Scarce. Prepared as a promotional cookbook and recounts the success of the baking powder when used by contractors digging the Panama Canal, by miners in the South African Mines, by gold diggers of the Klondyke and Cape Nome and as the only brand that can stand the heat of the jungle and the cold of the Arctic.
Value: $27-$48.

what shall I cook todayCirca 1935. What Shall I Cook Today?
Stapled booklet, 48 pages.
Desirable cook booklet promoting use of Spry vegetable shortening.
Front and back cover in cartoon format.
Undated circa 1935-1940.
No mention of Aunt Jenny, but there are “Aunt Jane’s Cookies.”
Value: $11-$19.

Cooking during conflict
victory cookbook1942, 1943. Victory Binding Of The American Woman’s Cook Book Wartime Edition.

Ruth Berolzheimer (editor), 816 pages plus wartime section. Printed in 1942 and 1943.
The 1943 printing is more desirable and contains a full-page illustration and dedication
to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Both printings have 816 pages plus additional sections devoted
to “Wartime Cookery.” Thumb-indexed. Color and black and white photos and illustrations.
Value: $88-$156.

coupon cookery

1943. Prudence Penny’s Coupon Cookery.
Prudence Penny, 128 pages.
A guide to good meals under wartime conditions
of rationing and food shortages.
Black and white cartoon-style
illustrations. Value: $27-$48.

Prudence Penny’s West Coast home radio show ran for approximately 20 years. Yet, despite the popularity of her show and the cookbooks and newspaper columns in her name, reliable information about her creation and identity remains elusive. Like Aunt Sammy and Betty Crocker, Prudence was likely a fictional home economist, offering household hints, recipes and advice on the radio and in local papers. We suspect different individuals penned her cookbooks.

She is credited as a columnist for the Seattle Post Intelligencer and for the San Francisco Examiner, and as Home Economics Editor for the Los Angeles Times.

A recipe for success

Try to buy books with dust jackets whenever possible. A dust jacket not only protects the book, but it often provides hard-to-find information about the author or the cookbook itself. Dust jackets are often missing from older cookbooks and, when intact, instantly add value.

Buy the best condition you can afford. Buying a book in “cooking copy” condition is a good idea only if you intend to use it in the kitchen, or consider it a “placeholder” in your collection.

Store your cookbooks out of the kitchen, out of the basement and out of the attic. Even the cleanest kitchens tend to be a challenging environment for a book (grease, smoke, moisture, humidity, etc.) And we’ve seen a lot of great old books ruined by insects, moisture, heat and other effects of improper storage.

If you intend to use the cookbooks you purchase, consider buying the best copy you can afford and buying another one in marginal shape for the kitchen.

Buy from reputable dealers who know cookbooks, know how to describe them and offer a money-back satisfaction guarantee.

Focus your collection on a particular sub-category or passion. This might be anything from a collection of cookbooks from your region to a collection about confections, cakes or cocktails. From a buyer’s point of view, focused and complete collections are more desirable than a disparate gaggle of books. From a collector’s perspective, it will make your treasure hunting more manageable.


Learn much more about collectible cookbooks.

collectible cookbooks price guideAntique Trader® Collectible Cookbooks Price Guide, by Patricia Edwards and Peter Peckham

Retail: $21.99/Your price: $9.50

Available at