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Vintage Cookbooks: Time Traveling In the Kitchen

by Michelle Staley (12/09/13).

The “War Meal” and suggestions that wives making vegetable compound would reduce in “far fewer childless homes” offer glimpses into the past.

I am a book lover, and collector and cookbooks are a large part of my collection. There is just something endearing and comforting about old cookbooks. At a glance, you can tell which recipes were used most often because the pages are dog-eared, stained and often have notes in the page margins.

It is such a thrill to open an old cookbook and have little pieces of paper come wafting out—little treasure troves of history. My 1935 edition of “Magic Chef Cooking” cookbook is filled with newspaper-clipped recipes, margin notes, comments and old package inserts such as one from “Delrich Margarine” telling us the margarine is now made with “sweet whole milk” instead of skim milk.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons compiled the first cookbook printed in America. Prior to this publication, all of the cookbooks available were imported from Britain. The cookbook is commonly called “American Cookery,” but the full title of the cookbook is “American Cookery, Or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, From the Imperial Plum to Plain Cake: Adapted to This Country, and All Grades of Life.” Whew!

“American Cookery” was extremely popular and was printed for more than 30 years. In 1808, along came one Lucy Emerson and her bright idea of writing a cookbook. She fully plagiarized “American Cookery,” the only changes she made were to the title where she removed the words “American Cookery” and inserted “The New-England Cookery.” The rest of the long title remained the same, as did the entire content of the book.

Lorain and Magic Chef both issued successful cookbooks.

The historic importance of “American Cookery” cannot be overlooked. As this was the first mention in print of truly American foods such as cornmeal, squash and a leavening agent later known as baking powder.

Only four first editions of “American Cookery” printed in Harford, Conn., are known to exist. You can find a free e-book edition of “American Cookery” here. It does not contain the original “long S” (which looks like an “F”) that was in the original publication. It is a very interesting read. As for the current resale value of this title, I could not find any public sale records, but I would imagine that the price would be quite high.

During the Civil War, women’s groups began creating cookbooks in an effort to raise money for victims of the war. Those efforts evolved in to the flood of fundraising cookbooks put out by church groups, bridge clubs, women’s groups, cities, towns and even states. This is a collecting genre of its own, and some of these cookbooks can sell for $20 or $30, depending upon the uniqueness and the group that compiled it.

I have one from 1975 titled “Singapore Sampler” compiled by the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Assoc. of Singapore. My mom was a member of this group when we lived in Singapore, and it is one of my favorite cookbooks.

The “Inside Baking Cookbook” presents pictures of happy families around the kitchen.

The mid-1800s also saw the onslaught of cookbooks published primarily for promotional and advertising purposes coming from food distributors, home-appliance manufacturers and the slew of “doctors” and those who manufactured remedies for anything and everything a person could possibly be sick with. One of the most ironic “remedy” cookbooks I have seen was a 1917 publication on “How to do Pickling,” compiled by Dr. D. Jayne, who had a tonic intended for children to treat “intestinal worms.” I don’t want to be gross about it, but pickling and intestinal worms are just not very appealing to me. The Philip Morris Co. promoting Benson & Hedges cigarettes had a very successful run of cookbooks, of which I own several.

Another interesting cookbook I own is from 1926 compiled by the “Lorain Oven Heat Regulator.” It claims to be the first cookbook devoted to cooking using time and temperature when cooking in an oven. I guess I had never given much thought to the fact that all gas ranges did not come with a heat setting. When perusing old cookbooks, you will even see recipes titled “The Lorain (fill in the blank).”

Tobacco company Phillip Morris published its own cookbook for customers of its female-marketed Benson & Hedges cigarettes.

I have to admit that my all-time favorite cookbook was the first one I ever received. It was issued in 1959 by the Imperial Sugar Company and is titled “My First Cookbook.” It is geared completely to children, and it is where I learned to make deviled eggs or as the cookbook calls them “devilish eggs.” Being one who has never been good at following instructions, it took a few attempts to make a batch that were edible. I tended to go pretty heavy on the salt. I believe it was my early attempts at cooking from a recipe that made me see a recipe as a guide and not a step-by-step instruction book.

I thoroughly enjoy all of my cookbooks, both old and new. I take them down often and thumb through the pages marveling at how times and cooking have changed. I enjoy looking at the less-than-appetizing photographs and line drawings, and I occasionally try one of the recipes I run across.

Cookbook collecting is a relatively inexpensive hobby, and a good cookbook is always a great gift.

The following recipe comes from a circa 1920 “Calendar of Dinners for All Occasions,” written by Elizabeth O. Hill.

Sunday Dinner; Number 26—Dessert

Pineapple Fritters

Drain a small can of sliced pineapples from the syrup and dry on a tea towel, reserving syrup. Dip slices in batter for fritters (recipe below) and fry in deep hot fat. Drain on brown paper and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Pour around a little of the syrup, slightly thickened with arrowroot.

Batter for Fritters

Sift together 1 cup flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add gradually 2/3 cup milk or water, 1 tablespoon melted butter and the yolks of two eggs, well beaten. Fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites of two eggs.

Bon appétit!


Michelle Staley, who insists that collectors are the happiest people, is an antique collector and dealer. Her shop, My Granny’s Attic Antiques, Collectibles and Memorabilia, is in Lenexa, Kansas.

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