A Recipe for Collecting Cookbooks
The American cookbook genre truly began in the 1700s with two titles that can claim to be America’s first cookbook – The Compleat Housewife by William Parks (1742) and American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796). The Compleat Housewife was derived from an English book, while American Cookery - which is still in print today - features recipes using solely American produce.
Many collectors are drawn to these older books because they catered for kitchens before electricity, microwaves, and refrigerators. Their recipes reflect dishes, ingredients and styles of cooking that have been forgotten.
Cookbooks from the 1700s to 1850s can command four-figure prices, but anyone interested in starting a collection can easily target the 1950s and 1960s - when America’s cooking culture exploded - without breaking the bank. By targeting these decades, collectible cookbooks can be snapped up for $50 or less.
The 1950s and 1960s saw countless cookbooks roll off the printing presses, most of which are now out-of-print, and that gives collectors huge scope. Aside from titles written by TV chefs like Julia Child, even food manufacturers, like Pillsbury, and appliance makers produced cookbooks to help market their products. These are highly sought after now.
Celebrities also realized they could exploit their fame through cookbooks and this led to titles such as A Treasury of Great Recipes by Vincent and Mary Price published in 1965 (copies range from $9 to $250 on AbeBooks).
Even the most widely used cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s can command high prices. Good condition copies of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book are highly prized (prices range from $9 to $450 on AbeBooks). First published in 1950 and reprinted many times, buyers recall their mother or grandmother using the book so there is a sentimental attraction. The key is finding copies in decent condition because they were essential items in many kitchens. The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer is another hot property - prices can exceed $4,000 for 1931 first editions.
One of the most appealing genres is locally produced cookbooks that have small print runs and are often published by church groups or charitable organizations. For instance, AbeBooks offers a 1908 edition of The Sherman Cook Book - Compiled and Arranged by the Ladies of the Presbyterian Church, Sherman, New York for $45.
1961 editions of The Gasparilla Cookbook, which features recipes from Florida’s west coast, by the Junior League of Tampa is available from starting $27 at Abebooks.com. Prized for highly original recipes, these books often support an ethnic style of cooking, perhaps Polish or Norwegian cuisine, even though the readers were far from their ancestral homeland.
Collectible cookbooks can range from high camp, Liberace Cooks! Recipes from his Seven Dining Rooms by Carol Truax, to the downright bizarre, Lowbush Moose (and other Alaskan Recipes) by Gordon R Nelson.
Despite the demand for rare cookbooks, it is suspected many collectors do not actually cook from their purchases. They could be fascinated with recipes of the past (The American Lady's System of Cooking Containing Every Variety of Information for Ordinary and Holiday Occasions by Mrs TJ Crowen from 1850), attracted to beautiful illustrations (The Chinese Festive Board by Corinne Lamb from 1935) or simply interested in bygone lifestyles (A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband by Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles LeCron from 1917).
The sheer array of cookbooks is daunting to the first-time collector so it is advisable to specialise in a single genre or ethnicity, or to collect the work of a particular author or group of writers from a region or period.
T he demand for rare cookbooks is fuelled by the fact they are so hard to find, especially in good condition. Once a book has gone out-of-print, it becomes increasingly difficult to find and its value increases as it becomes more collectible.
Condition is the key factor. Look for a pristine copy that appears to have been lovingly read rather than one that has endured the heat, liquids and dirty fingerprints of a working kitchen. Is it signed by the author or someone of note? Does it have a dust jacket? Is it a first edition? Is it out-of-print? These are all important factors to take into consideration before purchasing.
Although countless cookbooks can be easily found at garage sales, thrift shops, and flea markets, the Internet has become the preferred way for collectors to enhance their collections with quality rare books by purchasing from professional booksellers who put their inventories online.
On AbeBooks, you can search the inventories of over 13,500 professional booksellers worldwide, including specialist cookery booksellers like Cook Books by Janet Jarvits in Pasadena, CA, Recipe Inc. in Davis, CA, or Cookbooks Plus in Santa Clarita, CA. Rather than visiting numerous used bookstores hunting for a rare Betty Crocker, the search can be done in seconds.
AbeBooks offers around 500,000 cookbooks in total, priced from $1 for used reading copies to an 1805 copy of New American Cookery.
By searching on “ Florida” and “Recipes”, the diverse results include:
The Most Expensive Cookbooks Ever Sold
Find out where The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse, ranks on the top ten list of most expensive cookbooks ever sold on AbeBooks.