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Collecting Antique and Vintage Cookbooks

Updated on September 10, 2014
Diane Cass profile image

Diane is a lover of all things beautiful; music, art, antiques and nature. Her guides bring insight to topics she cares passionately about.

5 Tips for Collecting Antique and Vintage Cookbooks

Cookbooks and recipes connect the generations of a family like nothing else. Whether it's grandma's secret recipe for lemon bread, or a treasured cookbook that has passed down through the family, making those recipes remind us of who we are, where we have come from, and the love we share together. You may already have a few treasured cookbooks or recipes from your family. I'll show you how to find and evaluate antique and vintage cookbooks for your collection.

The Story of My First Vintage Cookbook

The red and white Betty Crocker cookbook in the photo above was my very first vintage cookbook. It is a First Edition, second printing dated 1950, and it is my mother's cookbook...or rather, one exactly like it. My mom made so many wonderful recipes from this book all during my childhood, that when I grew up and started cooking on my own, I wanted one too. The book was nearly 30 years old by then, and I thought I would never, ever find one.

One weekend, when I was home from college, I went with my mom to a local thrift store. While my mom conducted business with her friend, the owner, I browsed the shelves, boxes and displays all around the store. I stopped dead in my tracks when my eye fell upon a familiar red and white book. I couldn't believe it! There it was! My mother's cookbook! I never thought (in the age before eBay and the internet) I would ever find this old cookbook, and I know my mother would never give up hers.

I quickly grabbed the book and brought it to my mom to beg her to buy the book for me. There was no price on it, so I was worried that it was going to cost a lot. I nearly screamed with joy when the lady said, "That will be .50 cents please". My mom gladly paid the half buck and I went back to school with my own "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book". I've been baking fabulous recipes from this book ever since. It still has the best recipes for pecan pie and waffles than any other recipe I have ever tried.

This was the first vintage cookbook of my collection, but not the last.

Vintage Betty Crocker Cookbooks

Starting a collection of vintage cookbooks is as easy as looking for your childhood. Most of your mothers and grandmothers had at least one Betty Crocker cookbook in the house. Mine is from the early 1950s and has the best cake, cookie and pie recipes ever.

Enthic Cookbooks in My Collection by Diane Cass
Enthic Cookbooks in My Collection by Diane Cass

TIP #1 Collect Vintage Cookbooks on What You Love

What is your passion? Do you love to bake, grill, or slow cook? Do you enjoy ethnic foods from your heritage, or exploring the foods of other cultures? Whatever your cooking passion, there is a cookbook for it. Once you become proficient at finding great cookbooks about your passion, you can expand your collection to other kinds of cookbooks.

Category Ideas:

Ethnic - Thai, Italian, French, Indian, Cajun

Regional - New England, Tex-Mex, Gulf Coast, Mid-Western, states, cities and towns

Cooking Technique - Baking, grilling, slow-cooking, pickling

Advertising from food or equipment manufacturers- Jell-O gelatin, Hersey’s chocolate, Runmford baking powder, Ball or Kerr home canning

Celebrity - Political leaders, radio, movie, stage or TV personalities

Historically Significant people or places or events - Fanny Farmer, White House, WWII rationing

Family Heirlooms - Handwitten gems or books passed down through the family

Famous Restaurants/Hotels - Waldorf Astoria, Savoy, Chez Maxim’s

Periodicals - Almanacs, magazines, newspapers

Cookbook Stands and Bookends

Display your favorite vintage cookbook with a pretty cookbook stand. There are many kinds to choose from; some decorative, some with clear covers to preserve the pages and keep them from getting stained. Another way to display your collection is with a set of beautiful bookends.

Cookbook Stands for Displaying Cookbooks

Demonstration of a Recipe from a Vintage Cookbook

My Collection of Regional Cookbooks by Diane Cass
My Collection of Regional Cookbooks by Diane Cass

TIP #2 Collect Vintage Cookbooks Everywhere

Finding vintage cookbooks can be as easy as a trip to your local antique shop, or a quick search on eBay or other online out-of-print book sellers. Finding them can be an adventure all it’s own, and nothing beats the feeling of coming home with your prize. My favorite places to look for vintage and antique cookbooks are:

Barnes & Noble Used Book Secton

Estate Sales

Garage or Yard Sales

Flea Markets and Swap Meets

Auctions

Thrift Stores

Library Book Sales

Church Bizarres

eBay

Abe Books or other web sellers of out-of-print books

My second cookbook from my great-grandmother by Diane Cass
My second cookbook from my great-grandmother by Diane Cass

TIP #3 Know the Keywords for Titles and Searches

What we now know as a “cookbook” has been called other things over the years. Knowing the correct terms can help you spot an antique or vintage cookbook among piles of books at an estate sale, or for searching on the web.

Besides the word “cookbook” use and look for terms like:

“cook book” (two words)

“recipe or recipes”

“receipt or receipts” (recipes used to be called receipts)

“cookery”

“Domestic”, “housekeeper”, or “home” terms used in the 1800’s for books on women’s domestic duties, including cooking.

“dining”

“menus”

This photo is of the title of my great-grandmothers cookbook, "The Mystery Chef's Own Cook Book", published 1938. It is the second cookbook I collected, in the form of it being passed down to my by my mother. The Mystery Chef was a popular radio personality in the 30's and 40's who taught his audience how to prepare and present fabulous food as an artist...not just a cook. My great-grandmother's book is signed "The Myster Chef", by the author, who never used his real name...thereby preserving the "mystery". His actual name was John MacPhearson. Notice the spelling of "Cook Book" as two words. be sure to use both this and the more current term "cookbook" when doing online searches for vintage cookbooks.

What Kind of Cookbooks do You Collect?

Tell us about the kinds of cookbooks you collect.

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Vintage Cookbooks by Ingredient by Diane Cass
Vintage Cookbooks by Ingredient by Diane Cass

TIP #4 Know the Condition of Vintage and Antique Cookbooks

There are accepted standard grades for the condition of books. Knowing what these terms mean can help you make intelligent decisions during your purchase. A very rare book in poor condition may be worth grabbing up at any price for it’s content, but don’t expect to make much for it if you try to resell it. Current terms for book condition are:

MINT - In brand-spanking new condition, as if just published

VERY FINE - Near mint, with few noticeable flaws of any kind

FINE - Nearly new, but can have slight smudges or a turned corner or two

VERY GOOD - Fairly clean, may have a few turned corners, but no tears or damage

GOOD - Slightly soiled cover, turned corners minor damage, but no tears or missing pages

FAIR - Soiled cover, minor damage, discoloration, slight mice or worm nibbles okay, small number of slight tears, foxing, no missing pages

BAD - Very soiled, lots of damage (mice, discolorations, tears, some mildew), loose, but still attached cover or spine. Evaluate whether it is really worth buying. If it is old and rare, perhaps buy it for the content, but you shouldn’t pay a lot for it

POOR - Missing or dethatched cover, missing or detached title page, soiled, damaged, mildew. Only the rarest of books is worth buying in this condition, and you shouldn’t pay much for it.

eBay TIP: Ask questions of the seller. Most sellers are just trying to get rid of something to make a buck. They don't do research or try to understand anything about their items. Most don't know these terms and that when you say a book is in "Good" condition, that that actually means something. Look at the pictures, read the descriptions, and ask questions BEFORE you bid.

TIP #5 Learn to Recognize Old Handwritten Recipe Books

Look at the book in the picture. Does it look like a cookbook to you? It is. Not only is it a cookbook, but it is a very VALUABLE cookbook. I purchased this little treasure at an estate sale for under $10. I later sold it on eBay for nearly $400. Why? It is a rare, handwritten book of recipes dating from as early as 1848. Some of the recipes actually had measurements using "teacups", or "coffee cups", since there were no standard measuring devices until the early 1900s. I've gotten pretty good at spotting these little gems, as this is the third one I have found. Here are my tips on finding truly old and rare handwritten recipe books.

Cookbooks did not become widely available until the early 1900’s. Prior to that, recipes could be found in periodicals like almanacs or women’s magazines. Many home cooks either kept clippings of these or wrote down recipes. Unless these were carefully preserved by the family over many generations, most of these treasures have been lost to time.

Paper was expensive and scarce prior to the late 1800’s, so most of these booklets are in the form of bound journals or ledger books. The covers are usually marbled pressboard or in some cases, leather. I have found them primarily at estate sales, buried in piles of books, in auction box lots, or at antique stores. I have never paid more than $10 for them. Pick over old books carefully to spot one of these treasures. Most of the time, the people selling them have no idea of their value.

1848 Handwritten Cookbook photo by Diane Cass
1848 Handwritten Cookbook photo by Diane Cass
Dr. Chases Recipe Book photo by Diane Cass
Dr. Chases Recipe Book photo by Diane Cass

A Recipe Book is Not Always a Cookbook

Many antique recipe books are not cookbooks at all, but recipes for medicines or things to use around the house, like making soap or silver polish. Most households had to make their own useful products out of things they had on hand...like pine sap, fat rendered from cooking, or herbs. One of my favorite really old recipe books is...

Dr. Chase's Recipes:

Information for Everyday

an Invaluable Collection of

ABOUT EIGHT HUNDRED

PRACTICAL RECIPES...

...and the title goes on and on. Old books have REALLY LONG titles.

This book was published in 1865, the last year of the American Civil War. It contains recipes for medicines, both human and for animals, household cleaners, and a large section for saloon owners for making beer, ale and mead. Make sure when you are looking for old books that you don't pass up great books like this. They are a treasure trove of history and lost lore, as well as some really great recipes.

One of the most valuable books in my collection is not actually a cookbook, but a book for women on how to be domestic called, "The American Woman's Home", by Harriot Beecher Stowe and her sister. Yes, that is the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin", the famous book that contributed to the emancipation of the slaves. She was the original "Martha Stewart", trying to write a manual for how to keep a home. This book is considered a "cookbook" by collectors of cookbooks, as it was the first to treat domestic duties seriously enough to write an actual book about them. A copy in good condition (which mine is not, sadly) is worth over $300. Consider adding historically important books like this in your collection.

Do you collect cookbooks? What is your favorite? Which one was your first? How did you get started collecting cookbooks. We would love to swap stories, so please join in the conversation.

Tell us About Your Favorite Cookbook

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    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 2 years ago

      I've been wanting to sell my vintage and real old cook books that I've had for over 50 years...great advice here for selling on eBay.

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 2 years ago from Seattle, WA

      I love the handwritten one from the 19th century. Definitely a great find!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 4 years ago from Central Florida

      I had the same feeling as you when I found a vintage copy of the black-covered Searchlight Cookbook, just like my mom's. Alas, I don't get my cookbooks out very often, since we don't try new recipes much. It's a comforting feeling to know they are there when I want to check a recipe.

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