Collecting cookbooks can be a most delicious pursuit! Leafing through vintage editions, you’ll be amazed by the variety of foods once fashionable and now all but forgotten: syllabubs and scuppernongs, plum cakes and nine-day pickles. Cookbooks are a ticket to time travel, opening a window into the bygone kitchens of our forebears, preserving our historic ways of eating, treating, serving and even seating.
(Facsimilies of Antique American Cookbooks, L-R:
American Cookery, the First American Cookbook by Amelia Simmons, 1796;
The Virginia Housewife, Or Methodical Cook by Mary Randolph, 1824;
Early American Cookery: The Good Housekeeper, by Sarah Hale, 1841.)
So pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and let's chat about how much fun you can have starting and nourishing your own cookbook collection!
The Accidental Collector
You’ve probably already started your own cookbook collection, as a matter of fact. On first leaving home you may have bought yourself a beginner's manual (Helen Hanna's How to Boil Water, for example); or perhaps when you married, friends and family armed you with a cook's classics (Fannie Farmer or The Joy of Cooking or Ruth Reichl’s re-edited Gourmet, depending on your generation).
(Classic American Cookbooks, L-R:
1997 reissue of Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cookbook;
recent edition of The Joy of Cooking, and
The Gourmet Cookbook, re-edited by Ruth Reichl in 2004)
Then perhaps you inherited your great-grandmother’s Blue Book (the Ball Canning bible), or your grandmother’s pamphlet on stretching war-time rations. Along the way, you probably picked up fund-raiser cookbooks to support your kids’ school or your town’s museum.
However unintentional, what you now have is a cookbook collection! And you can tap into the bookshelves of the million-something eBay sellers to build your fledgling collection in a million different ways.
- Feeling homesick? Hunt for regional cookbooks when you’re craving Tex-Mex or a New England boiled dinner or a Southern breakfast of country ham and red-eye gravy.
- Craving chocolate? (Who doesn’t?!) Cookbooks with the word “chocolate” in the title are some of the most collectible of all theme ingredient cookbooks. Other popular single-ingredient books are devoted to mushrooms, pizza, cheese, wild game, shrimp, beans … you name it. If you can eat it, there’s a cookbook out there to tell you how.
- In the mood for a bargain? Some collectors track down advertising cookbooks and pamphlets from food companies, like Pillsbury Bake-Off editions, or Jell-O or Carnation cookbooks, to name just a few that you'll find easily ... and can acquire inexpensively.
- Baffled by a kitchen tool? There are appliance cookbooks for any kitchen gizmo you can image: waffle makers, ice cream makers, bread machines, and of course for George Foreman grills.
- Want to inspire the kids? (Or just keep them busy for a while!) You'll find a wide range of vintage and modern cookbooks designed especially for children.
(Vintage Cookbooks for Children, L-R:
Miriam Brubaker's Cooking Is Fun, 1955;
Mary Alden's Cake & Cookie Cookbook, 1956;
Betty Crocker's Cook Book for Boys & Girls, 1957.)
Read It and Eat!
And what will you do with your cookbook collection? Unlike some dainty collectibles that require storage under lock and key, or in a temperature-controlled-dehumidified environment, all but the most delicate of your cookbook collection can safely live in your kitchen, handy to be thumbed through and drooled over daily.
Some cookbook mavens swear there’s nothing more relaxing than just reading a cookbook. Their idea of heaven is an afternoon in the hammock with a vintage volume. This doesn’t work for me, reading all those recipes makes me hungry. I actually cook from my collection!
And let me tell you, some of those recipes that pre-date our current preoccupation with cholesterol and fat, well, they’re just delicious as homemade sin. I get a lot of guilty pleasure from my 1949 first edition of Out of Kentucky Kitchens with its foreword by Duncan Hines, including a heavily-bourbonized rendition of Hot Wassail that nearly put my guests on the floor! (Luckily it was reprinted in 1959, and then again in 1989, in case you’re looking for a clean, economical copy of a Southern classic.)
The best part is that vintage cookbooks, compared to most other collectibles, are still wonderfully affordable. Not the earliest editions, the real antiques like Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery, of which there are apparently only 4 copies in existence. I'm not suggesting you start with museum pieces, but instead with those published since. For example:
- Advertising leaflet and pamphlet cookbooks from the 1930s and 40s can still be had for under $5, and their colorful graphics are delightful – and often unintentionally funny, to a modern eye.
(Vintage Advertising Cookbooks, L-R: 1949 "Husband Tested" Recipes from Pet,
1951 Crisco cookbook, 1964 Metropolitan Life Insurance cookbook.)
- Cookbooks from the 1960s – America’s culinary coming-of-age – are still around and for the most part reasonably priced, say $7 to $15 for a hardback in good condition (not signed, not first edition). Look for the enduring classics of the era, like those by Julia Child, James Beard and Craig Claiborne (who “discovered” Paul Prudhomme, did you know?). For example, an early edition of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking can be had for under $10, while the 2001 reissue runs $20-$25.
Fortunately, most of us can fairly judge the condition of a book without specialist training. (Is the cover torn off? Oops, it’s probably not worth as much.)
No, seriously, the condition of an antique or vintage cookbook is judged along the same lines as any other antique or vintage book. If anything, standards are a little more relaxed for cookbooks, as they were meant to be used, and most of them certainly were! Show me a mint condition cookbook, and I’ll show you a shamefully under-used kitchen to go with it.
But here's a quick overview of general used book condition ratings:
- Very Fine (VF) - A flawless, perfect copy, just like brand new.
- Fine (F) - A small bump or two on a carefully read book with an undamaged dust jacket.
- Near Fine (NF) - A little wear and one or two minor flaws (see below).
- Very Good (VG) - Light wear, some minor but no major flaws (see below).
- Good (G) - Your average used book, worn, but complete; minor and major flaws.
- Fair (FR) - Well-read, worn, minor and major flaws. Missing non-essential pages or dust jacket.
- Poor (P) - Okay for reading, not for collecting..
Damage is ranked as either minor (some writing in the book, dust jacket a little worn, a splash of tomato sauce on page 37) or major (pages missing, written all over, boards warped from where it fell into the dishwater).
When considering a cookbook, you can decide what you, as a collector, find acceptable. If your interest is in the cover design, then you’ll not want a book missing its dust jacket; on the other hand, if all you want is the recipes, you’re not likely to get upset at finding crumbs in the binding, and you might even appreciate the previous owner’s corrections and comments!
The Thrill of the Chase
If you do decide to “get serious” about your collection, or would like to sell some of your cookbooks (in order to buy more, of course!), eBay’s Search feature is incredibly informative on cookbook pricing.
- To search for cookbooks currently for sale, try “cookbook”, of course, but also “cook book” or “cooking”, or for the oldest volumes, “cookery”, as your search terms.
- If you wish to see cookbooks have sold – and for how much – in the past two weeks, use the eBay Advanced search screen and click “Completed listings only”.
- If you rely on category browsing, you’ll find the majority of cookbooks are listed under Books > Non-Fiction > Cooking, Food, Wine. But be sure to check other categories, especially Books > Antiquarian & Collectible> Cooking, Food, Wine, and also Home & Garden > Food & Wine > Recipes.
To supplement your eBay research, there are a number of cookbook collector’s guides available to help you:
- Collector’s Guide to Cookbooks, by Frank Daniels, 2005. (This is my current favorite: the prices are Internet-based and up-to-date.)
- Vintage Cookbooks and Advertising Leaflets, by Sandra J. Norman and Karrie K. Andes, 1998.
- A Guide to Collecting Cookbooks: A History of People, Companies and Cooking by "Colonel" Bob Allen, 1998.
A word of caution: while these collector’s guides are wonderful for identifying books and pamphlets, especially the obscure, bear in mind that the price information they list may be of limited use. The focus may be regionally limited, or it may be out-of-date; your eBay search work will yield more accurate and timely results on market prices.
Fads affect pricing, too. For example, Clementine Paddleford was a well-known and well-respected food editor in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Since then, her books went out of print and her name was seldom heard outside esoteric foodie circles. Well, this year, an article in Saveur magazine touted Paddleford’s 1960 masterpiece, How America Eats, as one of America’s great and overlooked regional cooking gems. Lo and behold, while last year a copy commanded about $50, this year it’s going for $90 to $250 … if you can find one at all!
And this is when a collector’s guide really comes in handy: there’s another edition of Paddleford’s classic cookbook that isn’t the same book! Paddleford’s publisher reissued it under a different title, The Best in American Cooking, in 1970. While the recipes themselves are the same, Clementine’s wonderful commentary was largely edited out. The reissued book might have the same worth to a cook as the original, but to a collector, it’s not even close.
- Finally, your finest resource can be other collectors. Find birds of a feather in the eBay Special Interest Group devoted to Antique & Vintage Cook Books, for "Lovers of Old Cook Books"!