The Chronic Collector – May/June 2017 Issue

By Jim Trautman

According to historical records the first cookbook was created in 1500 BC. It was written on a clay tablet. Another very early cookbook is The Art of Cooking that dates back to the first century and it is still being employed in many European kitchens, which I find to be quite amazing.

When you walk into any bookstore or second-hand store it seems there are thousands of cookbooks on the shelves. On a recent visit to my favourite second-hand book store in Guelph the owner was sitting reading – but it wasn’t a murder mystery, it was a cookbook he had just purchased.

If you have a few spare dollars and are a cookbook collector you may want to search out and purchase the one entitled “American Cookery.”  It was written by Amelia Simmons in 1796. The book has recipes for pumpkin pie, Indian pudding and slapjacks. It should be noted that in the 1700 and 1800’s sugar was as valuable as tea and homes had a special locked cabinet for their tea and sugar. An original copy of the book has sold for over $30,000. If you don’t want to spend that amount of money search for the 1937 reprint edition which sells for only $50 or more.

Not very many years ago, Toronto had a bookstore that only sold cookbooks. The original cookbooks into the 1800’s were written not for the cook, but for the wealthy lady of the household. The lower servant classes generally had no reading or writing skills. The lady would pick the recipes, and sit down with the servant and relay the information and even sometimes do some of the measuring. In the later 1800s the basic skills of reading and writing were taught to the masses. The lady left the cooking to the servants, but the daily menu was still dictated by the owners of the house. Close watch was kept on how much flour, sugar and other ingredients were being used.

If there was one major event that shaped the rise of cookbooks it was the World War One that began in 1914. Large volumes of food were required for the millions of troops that were being trained or overseas. In fact, one of the key factors of winning the war was the fact the Allies were able to provide more and better food to their armies.

Governments issued strict regulations and many items of food were rationed. Cookbooks were issued by the government on the Home Front with new recipes, which included items that could be a substitution for rationed ingredients and serve the same purpose in the recipe as the pre-war version. Publishers began to put out their own cookbooks with new recipes. The war years were difficult, but attempts were made to make food as appealing as possible. Propaganda posters appeared, proclaiming; Victory is a Question of Stamina;” “Food Will Win the War;” Boys, Girls, Raise Pigs and Join the Pig Club.” There were meatless Mondays and if we believe being told to “eat local” is a new concept go back and read material from World War I. Recipe books and magazine articles contained whale and porpoise meat. If you had no eggs you could try vinegar and water, and hearty salads were the order of the day. Crisco was invented, and recipes included dry peas or cottage cheese instead of meat. One poster proclaimed, ““Cottage Cheese – You Will Need Less Meat.””  A postcard could be mailed to subscribe to recipes that would come in the mail.

Eating habits changed and continued to do so during World War II in the same manner. The majority of cookbooks in the 1920s until about 1970 were issued by specific product companies, attempting to reach their consumers. The book or booklet provided recipes that included the ingredient that was being sold by that firm. Starting around that time companies began to pay radio, movie and well-known sports figures to advertise on their cook booklets. With the increase in magazine sales starting in the 1920s and ‘30s magazines like Life, Better Homes and Gardens, MacLean’s etc., became a major source of recipes and information on how to order free booklets.

Jell-O sponsored the Jack Benny Show, featuring him and his wife Mary Livingstone, in the 1930’s and when listeners were given the opportunity to order a Jell-O Recipe Book with the celebrity couple’s image on the front. Hundreds of items were marketed in connection to the famous 1939 movie Gone With the Wind including a cookbook of southern recipes which has been re-issued over the years.  The popular movie broke box office records despite the fact that it was during the Great Depression.

Pebeco toothpaste sales skyrocketed when they introduced a cookbook give-away for the purchase of their product.


Cookbooks became a giant seller in the late 1960’s into the early ‘70s. This was attributed to one major factor; the Baby Boomer generation was getting married in record numbers. My wife, Tina, purchased the Betty Crocker’ Dinner for Two Cookbook. What a sign of the times. Inside the front cover Betty Crocker addressed her readers (with a then-newly updated photo), “”Dear Friend, if you are a new bride, business girl, career wife, or a mother whose children are away from home – this book is for you.””  The book not only provides recipes, but the pages also show table settings, glassware, and how to entertain friends.
Cookbooks are an interesting historical document.  The pictures show a time long past and give us a glimpse into home decor fashions like popular patterned wallpaper and coloured telephones that were popular at that time.

Another book that demonstrates how times have changed is the BetterHomes and Garden book of Fondue and Tabletop Cooking. Oh, those good old days when we would have friends over to dip into the cheese pot and drinking Sangria wine. (There was always someone who double-dipped.)

Old cookbooks are a great snapshot into past generations, showing us popular trends in the way people lived and ate. Tina and I ate Cornish rock hens in our first married years. Later, when we mentioned this to our daughters they inquired why they never had a chance to try them.  The answer was simple; we were a young, newly married couple and had disposable income. Once the girls were born a book out on baloney recipes would have been utilized more often than one featuring Cornish rock hens. For us as a family, at times, Sunday dinner was a chunk of baloney and pineapple. By the way, Newfoundlanders eat more baloney than fish, and Hawaiians are the largest eaters of Spam in the world. McDonalds even has a Spam burger there. The reason for Hawaiians eating so much Spam goes back to World War II when the islands were major military outposts. The Hormel Company has made and reprinted a Spam cookbook many times.

Many collectors like to search for the smaller recipe booklets that were issued
by companies. There were several issued for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, Heinz and its famous 57 products –  many now gone –  and also for Borden’s Milk. (I once visited the burial plot of Elsie the Cow in Bordentown, New Jersey. She is buried under a large oak tree.) Knox Unflavoured Gelatine, Ralston Purina, Robin Hood Flour, Fleischmann, Minute Tapioca, Carnation Evaporated Milk, Hershey, Pillsbury, Star Kist Tuna, Domino Brown Sugar, and Planters Peanuts all published cookbooks. The list is endless. My all-time favourite is United Fruit Company, which in 1944 created Chiquita Banana. Pillsbury sold cookbooks based on their Bake-Off applicants’ recipes starting in the late 1940s.

The small booklets are often more collectible for several reasons; they are more compact and easier to store, and often they have beautiful graphics on the front covers. The search for cookbooks will keep any collector busy as limited numbers have been published by the various Women’s Institutes, almost every church at one time, 4H Clubs, Girl Guides, and even wives on military bases during World War II. It would be almost impossible to have every one ever published.

After each Christmas Tina and I would go through the recipes and she wouldsay “that we should throw out any that we would never make.” After many hours we usually reduced the pile by one recipe – and after all that it usually received a reprieve.

You might recall breads/cakes that were canned, like I do. I recently asked a grocery store employee if they had date/nut bread in a can and he looked at me rather strangely. He had never heard of brown bread in a can, either. Fortunately the Mennonite bakery up the road still sells it.

Warm weather means hibernation is over and yard sale season has begun. Good hunting, hopefully you will find some new recipe books.

Footnote: Not to date myself, but when I attended Junior High School in New Brunswick, New Jersey in the late 1950s the boys were required to take cooking and sewing, and the girls, wood shop. Since I am the Chronic Collector I probably have the apron I made in a draw somewhere.