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 been 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. Collecting vintage cookbooks broadens our knowledge of history of how food is an integral part of our social fabric. You may already have a few treasured cookbooks or recipes from your family, but want to add to your collection. You may just be a food adventurer and like the challenge of figuring out how to make old recipes with modern equipment. Whatever your reason for being here, 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 (I'm a broke college kid, remember?). 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.
1950 edition Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book
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.
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
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
Garage or Yard Sales
Flea Markets and Swap Meets
Library Book Sales
Abe Books or other web sellers of out-of-print books
Find inspiration for vintage recipes online with videos
The Mystery Chef's Own Cook Book
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)
“Domestic”, “housekeeper”, or “home” terms used in the 1800’s for books on women’s domestic duties, including cooking.
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 me 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. His recipes are very "chefy", meaning they are intricate and require some skill in the kitchen, but they are delicious!. My great-grandmother's book is signed "The Master 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?
TIP #4: Identify 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.
Hidden gem: a ledger book filled with recipes from 1848 to the 1900's
TIP #5: Learn to recognize old handwritten recipe books
Look at the book in the first picture above. Does it look like a cookbook to you?. 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. It was in a giant pile of books that littered the floor of an old house. It just looks like a plain old ledger book. The first couple of pages had entries from 1848 detailing the accounts of a farm for labor and the sale of sheep and wool. But the rest of the entire book was filled with handwritten recipes. I later sold it on eBay for nearly $400. Why? It is a rare, handwritten book of recipes dating from as early as 1848, and up into the early 1900's. 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, most people selling them have no idea of their value.
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
...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 for humans 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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Diane Cass
Tell us about your favorite cookbook
Delia on May 14, 2015:
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.
Angela F from Seattle, WA on September 10, 2014:
I love the handwritten one from the 19th century. Definitely a great find!
Virginia Allain from Central Florida on February 19, 2013:
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.