by Dr. Lori Verderame
Cookbooks have always highlighted important aspects of culture, no matter the era. Collecting American cookbooks dates back to the 18th Century and this obsession with books about food, recipes, and cooking techniques continues with enthusiasm today.
Early American Cookbooks
Pamphlets, books, and other cooking publications relating to an historic event are sought after by cookbook enthusiasts. For instance, an 1893 World Columbian Exposition collectible (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) entitled Recipes used in the Illinois Corn Exhibit by Sara T. Rorer is a prime example of a socially significant and valuable cookbook. Rorer, the founder of the Philadelphia Cooking School and editor of Ladies Home Journal put modern cookbooks on the map.
Decades before Miss Rorer’s groundbreaking book, orphan Amelia Simmons shared her expertise with a book for the 18th Century homemaker. The 1808 reprint of Simmons’ original 1796 book called American Cookery discussed dressing meats, popular dishes of the day, and specialty pies. The book is worth over five thousand dollars on the antiques book market today in excellent condition. Collecting old books of any kind, on any topic, is fascinating but cookbooks relate to kitchen collectibles and other antiques and collectibles categories making them a treasure trove of cultural information.
Cookbooks after World War II
Cookbooks, booklets, and pamphlets that focus on one aspect of cooking like grilling or baking retain high values today. Vintage cookbooks by Betty Crocker, Lila Wallace, and Fannie Farmer have enjoyed a collecting spike. And, as Julia Child brought French cooking to America with her didactic text, her cookbooks are sought after by novice and seasoned cooking enthusiasts. Of course, America’s domestic diva Martha Stewart has also impacted the cookbook collecting arena. Published in the 1980s, Martha Stewart’s debut book aptly titled Entertaining is worth $100 today. This book revived an interest in the American domestic arts during a period when most women were concentrating on careers climbing the corporate ladder. An interesting cultural study of the 1980s.
Similarly, older cookbooks–like other 1950s & 1960s collectibles–written by expert chefs and homemakers alike currently command hundreds of dollars for texts with specialty recipes and kitchen tips.
What to Look For
When it comes to vintage cookbooks, condition is a tricky issue. For instance, because most cookbooks have been used in the kitchen where spills happen, mint condition cookbooks are hard to find. Most vintage cookbooks have some remnants of dirt, minor damage, etc. A good majority of cookbook collectors realize that perfect condition is a tall order when it comes to aging cookbooks. While mint condition cookbooks will still bring high prices from collectors, don’t disregard that cookbook because of an egg yolk drip or a coffee stain. That goes with the cookbook collecting territory.
Choose popular titles by well-known authors or chefs when amassing your collection of vintage and antique cookbooks. While most people including yours truly have saved Mother’s cookbook from all those years ago just for sentiment, there are some cookbooks that are both sentimental and valuable. Consider the high prices paid–several thousands of dollars–for Irma Rombauer’s text Joy of Cooking which has sold more than 15 million copies since its publication in 1931. This is also the case for Julia Child’s world famous instructional cookbook entitled Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volumes 1 and 2 with Simone Beck published in 1976 which regularly commands thousands of dollars on the vintage cookbook market.
Specialty cookbooks like those self-published by museum volunteers, bed and breakfast innkeepers, artist groups, and women’s clubs are of great interest with collectors and bring big bucks to sellers. Obscurity like fame seems to spark interest in the vintage cookbook realm.
Unusual cookbooks geared to attract cooks who want to learn about meals from exotic cultures like New Zealand, the Society Islands, Iceland, India and Southeast Asia remain highly collectible. Niche cookbooks for those with medical issues like problems swallowing, dry mouth syndrome, and other unusual cookbooks are sought after by collectors, too. Oddities bring value.
Today’s variety of television cooking shows have offered cookbooks by popular figures such as Rachael Ray, Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa), Alton Brown, Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, Mario Batalli and others which attract collectors both with and without valuable autographs.
My forthcoming cookbook offering called Cooking with Collectibles unites my love of cooking with the joy and history of collecting antiques. Today, cookbooks are some of the most popular and desirable vintage objects on the market and on the minds of collectors.
Get an online appraisal of your vintage cookbook from Dr. Lori.