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Collectible Vintage Cookbooks: Which are Tasty Treats and which are Past Their Prime?

by Liz Holderman (09/09/13).

Submarine food is prepared by the finest-trained chefs in the military and is one of the Navy’s best-kept secrets. The very hard-to-find “Submarine Cuisine” adapts the intriguing recipes to family sizes.

In my business, I visit (and work at) a lot of estate sales and antique stores. It’s always amazing to see the number of vintage cookbooks that come up to the cash register. Usually, they are small and inexpensive, with recipes that were once popular but no longer fashionable (like casseroles and Jell-O salads). Often, they represent ethnic or regional foods (Czech pastries seem to be well loved). Many covers show women in the kitchen dressed in 1950s heels and pearls, with frilly organza aprons tied at the waist. When I ask why people collect them, everyone always says, “Oh, I just like to look through old cookbooks. I might find something I want to try.”

So, I wondered, what kind of used cookbooks do people look for? Why do they still buy them when every recipe known to man is available free on the Internet? And which types really don’t sell well on the secondary market? Challenged by my editor, I decided to do some research. To no surprise, I found the results were mostly like all other collectibles: buyers want the rare and unusual; they want things that are historic; and they want items that invoke a sense of nostalgia.

Some will pick up a company recipe pamphlet from the 1920s strictly for its period advertising (like Clabber Girl baking powder). And there are those who add a cookbook only because its theme fits into another collectible genre (like Barbie dolls). But the vast majority of cookbook buyers want to satisfy a sense of curiosity, hoping to find something unique with the turn of every page.

What’s rare and unusual in the cookbook world? How about recipes used on Navy submarines, where the food is notoriously superb but mysteriously made in closet-sized kitchens? Or Salvador Dali’s freakish surrealist cookbook, that includes his personal (and very bizarre) recipes along with stunning accompanying artwork. Or maybe the very first cookbook published in the United States, “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons. It appeals to foodies who are fascinated by our culinary history and the earliest indigenous foodstuffs used by the colonists. Only four copies of the 1796 first printing are known to exist.

Salvador Dali’s “Les Diners de Gala,” published in 1973, combines bizarre recipes with off-beat art.

The first cook book published in the United States is “American Cookery” printed in 1796. Only four original copies are known to exist.

On a broader scale, everyone seems to want the original Betty Crocker cookbook and, of course, Julia Child’s classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” People also look for the “White House Cook Book,” a collection of recipes and household hints that began in 1887 and was updated with each new first lady until the late 1920s. Popular cookbooks also include ones that remind us of a memorable time and place, including those with signature recipes from famous vacation lodges, restaurants and hotels. Trader Vic’s captivated the public with exotic tropical dinners in a Tiki-themed setting and invented the Mai Tai. The Waldorf Astoria and Antoine’s introduced Red Velvet Cake and Oysters Rockefeller. It’s fun to own cookbooks with original recipes for these beloved oldies, even if the restaurants themselves might be long past their primes.

Celebrity cookbooks can be hit or miss. Most cookbooks by yesteryear’s movie stars are full of boring retreads, gathered by a marketing department and sold strictly for publicity. But there are exceptions. Vincent Price was a true gourmet who traveled the world asking three-star restaurants to share their secrets. His highly-touted collection of recipes is sought-after by collectors. People love to read about the southern favorites made by Elvis Presley’s private cook. And the out-of-print “Dark Shadows Cookbook,” based on the late 1960s television show, brings high prices on the secondary market. There even seems to be a certain fascination with Frank Caro’s “The Dead Celebrity Cookbook,” perhaps because it is also full of insider gossip. Luckily, we are only subjected to one lackluster dish for each dead star (like Gene Rodenberry’s lima beans and Gloria Swanson’s “cleansing” potassium broth).

The “White House Cook Book” was printed from 1887 into the late 1920s and included a photo of each year’s first lady.

Recipes in Trader Vic’s 1946 cookbook cashed in on the campy popularity of tropical food and drinks.

But lots of other vintage cookbooks just gather dust on the shelves. Cookbooks for appliances that were once novel but now mundane (like fondue pots, pressure cookers, electric skillets and microwaves) don’t move very fast. The same is true for trendy foods like soufflés and aspics (take note, cake ball fans). And the ones touting faddish diets that are long out of vogue (anyone remember Scarsdale?) just end up in the recycle bin.

At first I wondered why quaint, spiral-bound cookbooks by small-town junior leagues, church groups and NFL football wives didn’t sell that well, until I thumbed through a few and discovered every imaginable use for cream of mushroom soup. It’s impossible to give away a chuck wagon cookbook (with the obligatory western brand on the cover). Everybody can figure out how to make biscuits and peach cobbler in a cast iron skillet. And nobody wants to do it.

Most sleuthing cooks really do want to make the recipes they discover. That’s why wild game cookbooks and novelties with weird ingredients (insects, organ meats, Twinkies) don’t fly out the door. Nutrition and history are important, but popular cookbooks don’t overdo the lectures with tedious background text.

The 1970 paperback Dark Shadows cookbook doesn’t contain any particularly memorable recipes, but is scarce and in high demand.

“The Dead Celebrity Cookbook” lets us learn about Anthony Perkins’ tuna salad and Lucille Ball’s chopped livers.

After tracking a ton of walk-up sales, I finally concluded that the runaway winners are cookbooks with large colorful photos on every page. They outsell the others by far, no matter what the subject. However, I also learned it’s important that the pictures be close-ups of the finished recipes. Stock photos of vegetables and Ireland’s rolling countryside get shoved to the back of the shelves. We want to see what Irish colcannon looks like—not the potatoes and cabbages that go into it.

As for me? I’ve got a new quest. Now I have to find that submarine cookbook.


Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.

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3 Responses to “Collectible Vintage Cookbooks: Which are Tasty Treats and which are Past Their Prime?”

  1. Jean Jarman says:

    I have a few old cook books, how do I find out there worth? I love collecting cook books and have many from way back. Regards
    Jean Jarman:)

  2. Kathleen says:

    I chuckled when I read your comments about the Navy cooks. My father in law was a Navy cook on a destroyer and made the absolute best turkey dressing and I could never get him to give me the recipe. He kept saying something about the inability to explain how he reduced it from gallons to a family sized portion! Thanks for your article!

  3. I have about 300 cookbooks, been collecting for the past 50 years. I am near the end of my life and no one wants my books in the family. Heck, I even have a signed copy of a cooking on rations cookbook! Is there anywhere I can post these so they will go to someone that will treasure them as I have? IF you know of such a place, please contact me at jaxi3@yahoo.com.

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