Vintage cookbooks.

One of the interesting side benefits of producing The Clara Project is that, when people find out that I’m exploring my collection vintage recipes, they want to share their own family recipes and cookbooks. After our Halloween street party last week, where conversation turned briefly to this project, one of our neighbors came by with a treasure: her grandmother’s copy of “The White House Cookbook” from 1929. Its inside cover is inscribed as a Christmas gift: “To my Mother from Ruth, 1929.”

This book is amazing.

Obviously well-used, this book is a snapshot of home cooking around the turn of the 19th century. “The White House Cookbook,” as the publisher’s note reads, “fully represents the progress and present perfection of the culinary art.” Originally written in 1887 by a White House steward and his co-author, it was revised and reissued at several points during the late 1800s and early 1900s. This edition includes recipes for both small and large families (the former consisting merely of a few pages of Recipes for Two).

The recipes in “The White House Cookbook” aren’t what we’re accustomed to these days, with lists of ingredients and step-by-step instructions; rather, they’re written in paragraph form, with less specific measurements (like, “add enough flour to form a soft dough”) and vague instructions (like, “place in a quick oven”).

Too, there are plates with photos of the White House interior and of various First Ladies who’d occupied the executive mansion to that time.

What kills me, though, is that the book is “A Comprehensive Cyclopedia of Information for the Home”—with recipes for making soap and candles, instructions for dealing with such ailments as broken bones, asthma, cholera and headache (“Well-ventilated bedrooms will prevent headache and lassitude.”) There are formulas for cold cream, hair wash and hair oil; tips for washing black lace, cleaning velvet and removing stains from carpet. Some of these home remedies seem crazy now (like wearing a muskrat skin, fur-side close to the chest, to cure asthma). References to opium are fairly astonishing. But some admonitions about eating sensibly and preserving health still hold.

AT ABOUT the same time last week, I received in the mail a package from my Aunt Betsey with my grandmother Ruth’s 1950 copy of the “Betty Crocker Cookbook.” In style and presentation, it’s light-years forward from “The White House Cookbook” and just as fascinating.

These are recipes like what we’re familiar with, along with black-and-white photos and funny little illustrations. Note the header note on the left-hand page below: “Both homey and partyfied.” (And I love how stained these pages are.)

While I need to return my neighbor’s copy of “The White House Cookbook,” I’ll keep my grandmother’s “Betty” and treasure it.

What about you? Do you have vintage cookbooks that preserve your family’s favorite recipes?

14 thoughts on “Vintage cookbooks.

  1. These are utterly beautiful! I want to place them in glass cases and hang them on my wall! My grandmother always bolied food to death. Our house tradition is that anyone who visits and cooks something delicious, they have to write it in The Book. It has recipes from pesto chickpea sausages to courgette and lemon bread.

  2. What a lovely idea! I wish I would have kept my grandmother’s cookbook that had a recipe for squirrel in it! My favorite recipe book is called, “Holly Clegg’s trim&TERRIFIC KITCHEN 101: Secrets to Cooking Confidence” by author Holly Clegg. This book is designed for all ages, but specifically for the 18-25 and anyone with their first kitchen. For the working or busy person who desires to cook but doesn’t have the time to spend in the kitchen.

  3. I love Vintage cookbooks–in fact, I’ve blogged a few times about my 1950 Betty! Look up Cabin Casserole. It’s amazing to me that in 1950 America there’s a recipe calling for curry powder. How exotic that must have seemed. The next one I’ll make is His Mother’s cookies. I just love the recipe name.

  4. I have a bunch of cookbooks from Better Homes and Gardens from the 1960’s.. THOSE are hysterical and ugly. The color quality really makes the food look incredibly unappetising. It is intersting however to see how cooking and entertaining has changed over the decades. This all reminds me of that movie with Cher and Cristina Ricci where all the food that Cher’s character makes is Hors d’oeuvres? I kept a few for nostalgia however.

  5. I have a large collection of vintage cookbooks dating back to the 19th century. I began purchasing them while writing my master’s thesis; my graduate work explored the social history and psychology of food. One of my favorites is a Playboy cookbook from the 1960s — it’s cliche, I know, but the articles are really, really good!

    Ironically, I now have a large collection of cookbooks and I’m a horrible cook!

    • Wow, Rachel — your collection sounds fantastic. I’d love to, um, read the Playboy cookbook — I have a (probably false) image that it contains recipes for swank cocktails and fancy hors d’oeuvres. Your graduate work intrigues me; I’m trying to research home cooking trends in the 1930s, when my vintage recipe collection was written, to find out more context about how an American housewife might have cooked for her family right after the Depression. Let me know if you have good resources that I should check out!

      Thanks for your comment!

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  9. I inherited my Grandmothers first ed. copy of Betty in 1971. I’ve used it many, many times over the years. And every time I think about my Grandmother who was a career woman who raised two children by herself after her husband died. I especially love the cookie recipes.

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  11. I inherited my great-grandmother’s, my grandmother’s and my mother’s cookbooks. It is interesting to see how thing changed over the years with cooking.

  12. I also have a copy of this “White House Cookbook, mine is 1899 copyright. The book was my grandmothers. Several years ago I found a current copyright of this book and purchased it. Now I am not afraid to use the book. My 1899 copy is very fragile.