Collecting Cookbooks, from Jell-O to Julia Child

September 25th, 2008

In this interview Peter Berg discusses cookbook collecting, and the American cookbook collection he’s built at the Michigan State University Library where he serves as the head of special collections. The collection’s digital version, Feeding America, is a member of our Hall of Fame.

Special collections is where we keep non-circulating rare materials which have to be used in the reading room. Our holdings range from one of the world’s finest collections of comic art to a radicalism collection featuring material from points of view outside of the political mainstream. We also have important natural history and early agricultural texts, and a fine early veterinary medicine collection that documents the profession all the way back to the 15th century.

The Good Housekeeping Woman’s Home Cook Book Arranged By Isabel Gordon Curtis. Chicago: Reilly & Britton, ca. 1909

Finally, we have our cookery collection, featuring about 7,000 cookbooks beginning in the 16th century. We had an Apicius, which is considered the first printed cookbook that’s dated 1541. We have Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, 1798 first edition, which is considered the first true American cookbook. And we have cookbooks from literally all over the world but with an emphasis on English speaking and particularly American cookbooks.

The Feeding America project got started around 2000. The whole idea of digitizing and making virtual copies of rare library material was really getting its start around then. We decided to start with a collection that had high value for a wide variety of people, not just scholars, but also people who were interested in food and cooking. Maybe a junior-high class who wanted to know what the first white settlers ate for Thanksgiving dinner and things of that nature. We decided to put 76 of these cookbooks up on the Internet so they would be widely available to the greatest number of people.

The beginning of the cookbook collection was the result of a couple of large donations by faculty members, way back in the 1940s and ‘50s. Michigan State is a pioneer land grant institution, so the curriculum included courses devoted to food and diet and nutrition. And so there were faculty who enjoyed collecting cookbooks, and they donated these to special collections.  That formed the genesis, and over the last half century or so, we’ve been acquiring cookbooks as well as accepting them as donations.

Chocolate And Cocoa Recipes by Miss Parloa, And Home Made Candy Recipes By Mrs. Janet McKenzie Hill. Dorchester, Mass., W. Baker & Co., Ltd., ca. 1909

We now have about 7,000 cookbooks, a very representative collection which spans all kinds of cuisines in many different languages, and many different approaches to cooking. Because lately we’ve been receiving so many donations of general cookbooks, we’ve been using our endowment funds to acquire cookbooks in specific areas. One of those is Michigan cookbooks, we’re trying to collect all cookbooks with ties to Michigan, including church and charity cookbooks of which we have maybe 1,200 or 1,500.

Church and charity cookbooks were very inexpensively compiled and produced by charitable groups, church groups, or similar organizations as fundraisers. You’ve probably seen them, they’re usually these small spiral-bound cookbooks. We have a huge variety of those, some going back to 1888. Another area we’ve been collecting in is in diet and nutrition. What we want to do is to provide researchers, scholars, students with a representative group of cookbooks that document approach to diet, the importance of nutrition, and how eating healthy food, safely produced, is an important thing for one’s health. I’ve heard people say that if you want to eat the healthiest possible, get a cookbook from the 1890s and eat what they were eating then and prepare it as they prepared it then.

The cookbooks in our collection span five or six centuries. For example, our first cookbook that talks about diet and nutrition is from the 17th century. What we’re finding is that a lot of the same recommendations made in, say, the early 19th century about eating healthy, the same kinds of recommendations are being made today, oftentimes with the same kind of food: the importance of vegetables, fruit, and drinking clean water. Which is interesting because people think that’s a recent development.

Collectors Weekly: Can you give us a little history on the cookbook in America?

Berg: In America, up until 1800, cookbooks mainly came over from England. Or if they were printed in the colonies, they were based on English cooking and English food. Amelia Simmons cookbook, called American Cookery, was the first true American cookbook which used food that was indigenous to the United States, like pumpkins for example.

Breakfast, Luncheon, and Tea by Marion Harland (Mary Virginia Terhune). New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1875

For some cookbooks on the Feeding America site, we don’t really have any information on the author, but others are quite well known. The 76 books were selected to be the best representative sample, not only regionally but ethnically, of American cookbooks all the way back to the late 18th century. Cookbooks have always been popular, but I think there’s a heyday right now as far as the study of food history. Cookbooks are more than just recipes, they can give you a real insight into different cultures and how they approached food and eating and the gathering of ingredients for food.

There were regional cuisines in America from the very beginning. There is a cookbook called New England Cookery. Another one called The Virginia Cookbook. A lot of regional foods have gone by the wayside. But back then there were particular ingredients that could only be acquired in New England or in Virginia, and so the cuisines represented that. I think there’s also a cookbook in the collection called The Western Cookbook, from Cincinnati in the 1830s or ‘40s. At that time that was Western cuisine.

We try to acquire books that have recipes. So if we buy a book on diet and nutrition, we want it to have recipes, that’s how we’re defining our cookbook collection. We want to have recipes.

Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of people who collect cookbooks?

Berg: Yes. In fact we’re very fortunate to have a large number of friends who collect cookbooks as a hobby. After a while they literally can’t move around their house because of so many cookbooks, and so they want to donate them and we gladly accept them.

There are also a number of very fine culinary or cookbook collections at other institutions around the United States. In the Midwest alone, there’s a fine collection at the University of Michigan, and the University of Iowa. Indiana University has a terrific rare cookbook collection. Everyone is trying to do something a little bit different so we don’t duplicate each other.  There’s a very fine collection at Radcliffe College.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite cookbooks in the collection?

Berg: My favorite era for American cookery is in the mid 19th century. The country was going through so many changes at the time, and I think the cookbooks are a wonderful reflection of that. You’ll see cookbooks devoted to temperance issues, cookbooks that show the movement westward, cookbooks that represent people living more and more in urban areas and the foods they should eat (rather than rural areas where foods may be more accessible).

The Hotel St. Francis Cook Book By Victor Hirtzler. Chicago Ill., The Hotel Monthly Press ca. 1919

They have recipes, but there’s often also other information: how to make soap, how to kill a particular insect, how to make fabric, how to stop a nosebleed. It was all in one resource. They frequently provide advice to women on how to set a table, what kind of utensils to use, how to organize the servants, how to organize the kitchen, and so on. It provides a wonderful window into everyday life.

There’s an interesting aspect of the Amelia Simmons book. Its just recipes, with a short introduction. But it’s signed by her as ‘an American orphan.’ She says in the preface that she wanted to put together some recipes for young women if they were ever in a situation that she was in, she was an orphan. So she didn’t have a mother to pass down recipes and teach her how to cook.

Most of the cookbooks, particularly in the early 19th century in the United States, were written by women. And back in the 19th century, the use of ingredients and measurements was not as closely watched as it became in the 20th century. They would just say put on a sprinkle of this or throw in a little bit of that, whereas in the 20th century, you began to see them getting more and more specific and the measurements becoming a lot more exact.

Collectors Weekly: Any advice for someone who’s looking to collect cookbooks?

The Mary Frances Cook Book; Or, Adventures Among the Kitchen People, By Jane Earyre Fryer; Full Page Illustrations By Margaret G. Hays, Other Illustrations By Jane Allen Boyer. Philadelphia, The John C. Winston Co., 1912

Berg: It’s such a large field. Choose a particular cuisine or country or time period that interests you the most, and go for those. So if you’re interested in French cooking, you may want to ask, well, is it French cooking now or is it just Julia Child? My sense is to start out from something very specific and then grow from there. Otherwise, no pun intended, but it’ll eat you out of house and home because there are so many cookbooks out there.

We have one donor who, among other things, collects hotel cookbooks, cookbooks based on food that was served in a particular hotel. Another donor is interested in food and cookery ephemera. Food companies used to put these things out in great waves, and now of course they’re becoming quite rare, the older they are. A lot of people collect Jell-O ephemera. Some collect Quaker Oats ephemera, and we have a big collection of that too. They’re not only important for the food that they’re advertising, but also wonderful for the history of advertising, corporate history. There’re interesting things about typography and how a particular illustration is laid out.

People collect food related items at ephemera and paper shows, for example, but a lot of collecting is done on eBay now, over the Internet. I don’t know of any cookbook collecting clubs out there, however.

(All images in this article courtesy Peter Berg, Feeding America, and the Michigan State University Library)

28 comments so far

  1. Lynn Lesure Says:

    How does one go about disposing of a personally collected collection of
    cookbooks — hard cover (all subjects, old and new); soft cover (spiral
    and stapled; advertising (food and equipment) books & pamphlets; brochures(jello to baking powders, cereals, etc.; fund raisers (colleges, hospitals,
    charitable organizations, church, etc.? Is there a college or university
    that would be interested in receiving this collection — pick what they want for their collection and then sell the rest to support the cookbook

  2. Mike Rhode Says:

    Lynn, as this article implies, there are colleges and universities. You should just contact MSU and see if they want your collection.

  3. Rosanne Simon Says:

    I have a first edition copy of “Practical Recipes” by Mrs. B.B. Cutter. How do I go about finding out if it is rare or not? Thank you. R. Simon

  4. Yesterday's Muse Books Says:

    Rosanne: A quick search of books available for purchase doesn’t bring up any copies of ‘Practical Recipes’, first edition or otherwise. This does not automatically make it valuable, but it is definitely a scarce title, so if the contents are desirable, it will likely be worth a decent amount of money.

  5. Jeanne Wright Says:

    I have a gently used Watkins Cook Book copyright 1938 and a Betty Crocker’s Dinner fro Two Cook Book, first edition, first printing 1958. Are these sought after items and what might they be worth?
    Thank you for your help.
    j. Wright

  6. norma Says:

    I am looking to purchase an old Watkins cookbook, published around 1938. The cookbook I am looking for has a recipe for a apple-walnut cake that my mother used very often. Perhaps the cookbook I’m remembering is a little older or newer. It had a deep blue cover. Thanks. Norma

  7. Pam Ryan Says:

    I am just wondering what to do with all the old books I have from my Aunt.
    Some I am sure are first editions. I have complete works of Dickson, Wavery and others. Many different topics. I am trying to find out how to tell if the book is a first edition or it’s value. Thanks,

  8. Peggy Says:

    I have a cook book called The Greater American Cook Book by Ruth Berolzheimer, director Culinary Arts Institute, copyright 1939 and 1940. It has a green cover It is illustrated in color. The front cover says “First edition published as the United States Regional Cook Book”. I am having trouble finding much information on this book. Any info would be very appreciated!

  9. toni moore Says:


  10. Kim Loehrer Says:

    I have the same book and question as #9 Toni Moore’s above please let me know what your response was Thank you.

  11. Julie Steves Says:

    I am doing an autobiography on my almost 105 year old relative, and she speaks of receiving a set of six cookbooks for her marriage in 1928. She describes them as: one being about preserving, one on vegetables, one on deserts, but the only title she can remember is “Women’s — Do you have any clue what cook books she is describing?

    Thank you

  12. Sandy Moore Says:

    I have a leather bound copyright 1938 Williamsburg Art of Cookery. The book is in very good condition. How could I find out an approximate value?

  13. arthur Easterling Says:

    I have been trying to find out what an a 1824 Washing D. C. Published complete in very good condition with some browning throught Virgina Housewife by Mary Randolf aproximate value is.

  14. Jessica Scott Says:

    I have a Watkins cookbook with a copyright of 1936 and am needing to know how much is would be worth if it was sold

  15. Lydia Says:

    Hi, I also have a copy of The Greater American Cook Book edited by Ruth Berolzheimer. Former editions published as The United States Regional Cook Book. The book was used by my 93 year old mother-in-law who was a first generation american-italian learning to cook “american style”. I am hoping to aquire a copy for my daughter to pass on some of her grandmother’s favorite recipies. Does The United States Regional Cook Book have the same recipies? I am unable to find any information on The Greater American Cook Book.
    Thank you

  16. Earl Post Says:

    In regards to #9, #10.

    I have a copy of Dr. N.T. Oliver’s CookBook to. It would be nice to have some information about it.

    If anyone knows, please Email me.



  17. Nori Says:

    I have a copy, too, from my grandmother’s collection with an inscription from some owner dated 1907 — maybe bought used becasue another page has the name of some other owner) now brittle and frayed, partly because it’s old (the brittle part) and partly because I consult it and find so many fascinating recipes to compare with, and find gems that might contribute to my understanding of, current recipes and their underpinnings.

    When I first received the book among some kitchen things I inherited from my grandmother in the late ’70s, I was impressed with and have pointed out to many folks the “Rich Bride or Christening Cake” recipe, calling for among others, 5 lbs of flour, 3 lbs of fresh butter, 5 lbs of currants, 2 lbs of sifted loaf sugar, 16 eggs . . . . and to line “a hoop” and fill with mixture and bake . . . , implying that one would bake that amount of batter in a single hoop — fascinating. My standard ovens would not accommodate a single hoop large enough to hold that that batter.

    This book’s contents appear to be available online now, so the contents may not be of interest to collectors of content but the original may be of interest to someone who collects original copies. Is the hard copy of the original edition still of interest to libraries or collectors?

  18. Louise Says:

    I looked up my “The American Woman’s Cook Book” by Ruth Berolzheimer, 1943 edition, today on In good condition it looks to be worth about $30, $45 in excellent condition with a nice dust jacket. (Mine is from my Aunt, in terrible condition and it smells bad, so I would not list it.) Search for the title of your books on Amazon, and on the screen click on “sell one like this”; they provide instructions.

  19. Louise Says:

    For Julie Steves:
    FYI, I searched the net (I just like doing research!) for “woman’s cook book 1928”. It seems there was a series of cook books – ‘Woman’s World Magazine Cookbooks 1927&1928’ – of the right time period for you. The pics all show black (or very dark) backgrounds on the covers, maybe your relative would remember if that seems right for the ones you are looking for.
    It’s terrific that you are documenting her life.
    P.S. I’m an MSU Alumni.

  20. antonio Says:

    i have a 1925 california cook book by frances p. belle. I would like to know the value of this book because i cant find anything on it.its a hard cover and its in very good condition.

  21. Bonnie Carlson Says:

    Refering to #9 and #10. I also have this book and would appreciate seeing your comments to this book. The Century Cook Book by Jennie A. Hansey and Family Medical Advisor by Dr. N. T. Oliver, copyrighted 1894.
    Thank You.

  22. Candy Says:

    I have a new revised edition of Culinary Arts Institute encyclopdeic cookbook by Ruth Berolzheimer copyright 1959,1950 in very good condition was wondering its value. I also have The wat to a man’s heart,the Settlement cookbook,2 copies one was copyright 1928 the other in 1936. These 2 are in not so great condition.Have one more called The Table by Alessandro Filippini copyrighted in 1889,could you please get back to me on these cook books. Thank You,Candy

  23. Merlyn Denny Says:

    I have an 1887 White House Cookbook, original, second edition, leather bound, in very good condition. Could you give me an estimated value or someplace that I could contact for information about the book? Thank you for your time and consideration.

  24. Franchester Freeman Says:

    I have a cookbook title Cookery For Little Girls by Olive Hyde Foster published in New York by Duffield & Company copyright 1910. This was my Greatgrandmother book can you tell mme somthing about the book.

  25. tomas.c.segura Says:

    yes maybe you can help me i found a cook book titled chef,s reminder copyright in 1896 by charles fellows.and jhon willy. can you tell me what it is worth.thanks.tomas

  26. Jean B. Says:

    re no. 11… For Julie Steves:

    If you don’t think the Woman’s World cookbooks* are the right thing, could there have been only FIVE books? If so, take a look at the books put out by the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences. The volumes are:

    Woman’s Institute Library of Cookery: Soup, Meat, Poultry and Game, Fish and Shell Fish

    Woman’s Institute Library of Cookery: Essentials of Cookery, Cereals, Bread, Hot Breads

    Woman’s Institute Library of Cookery: Milk, Butter, and Cheese, Eggs, Vegetables

    Woman’s Institute Library of Cookery: Fruit and Fruit Desserts, Canning and Drying, Jelly Making, Preserving

    Woman’s Institute Library of Cookery: Salads and Sandwiches, Cold and Frozen Desserts, Cakes, Cookies, and [sorry, my entry was cut off].

    *The Woman’s World cookbooks are quite slim (might even be called booklets), with very striking art deco images on a black background (as Louise said).

  27. Pat Says:

    I started collecting vintage Jell-O recipe booklets last year. I have 26 booklets dating from 1905 – 1937. My only reference source for Jell-O booklets is “Vintage Cookbooks and Advertising Leaflets, A Schiffer Book for Collectors. Is there a more complete reference source of all the Jell-O Recipe Booklets that were published from 1904 – 1940?

  28. Melissa Says:
    For values of books from antiques, first edition, etc
    Also a place to sell books no longer wanted.

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