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Top Tips for Collecting Rare Cookbooks

Manuscript-Cookbook

Manuscript cookbooks like this one were the norm before cookbooks began to be published in the 1700’s.

Cookbooks emerged in the 1700’s, when published recipe collections slowly began to supplement manuscript cookbooks. These books have evolved over the years; for many years cookbooks often included “recipes” for household remedies, in addition to those for preparing food. They also sometimes included household tips and even advice on morality. And modern cookbooks are often written by celebrity chefs and lushly illustrated. What’s the allure of rare and antiquarian cookbooks? They illuminate bygone eras, reflecting the dishes, lifestyles, and mores of the past.

Starting a Cookbook Collection

The world of rare cookbooks is both fascinating and engaging. As you build your collection, keep these principles in mind.

  • Remember: condition is everything. As with any rare book, a cookbook’s value is closely tied to its condition. Look for books that are in Fine condition, with their dust jackets if they had them. These can be tough to find, as cookbooks were frequently used as they were intended–in the kitchen. If a cookbook bears smudges, stains, and fingerprints, look for a cleaner copy. Some collectors prefer copies that have been annotated by previous owners. If that’s you, go for it! But remember that these marked copies may be less desirable for resale.
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking

    Some collectors focus on a specific type of cuisine, such as French cooking.

    Find a focus. Cookbooks have been around since the 1700’s, and the genre continues to grow each year. The options can be overwhelming to novice collectors. So rather than focusing on cookbooks in general, choose an area of specialty: a specific kind of cuisine, time frame, author, or style. You can even concentrate on multiple editions of the same book. For example, The Settlement Cookbook is one of the most successful community cookbooks of all time, and the numerous editions offer multiple points of interest. The 1915 edition, for instance, includes a “Liberty Supplement” to help women work around food shortages.

  • Consult the right references. Assembling a collection with both depth and breadth requires expertise in your area of specialization. Consult relevant bibliographies, which will help you find new items to add to your “want list,” and to understand the relevant points of issue. Price guides can also be useful tools, though they’re more useful for estimating a price range than for determining a cookbook’s precise value. And most importantly, build a relationship with a reputable antiquarian book dealer who specializes in cookery and cookbooks.
  • Start with the accessible. New collectors will quickly realize that rare and antiquarian cookbooks come in all shapes and sizes…and at all price points. Rather than jumping right into the “deep end of the pool” and buying the most expensive books, start out slowly. You may want to begin, for instance, with cookbooks from the 1950’s or 1960’s, which can usually be purchased at a much lower price point than, say, culinary manuscripts from the 1700’s.

Have a question about collecting rare cookbooks? Post it here or contact us!

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2 comments on “Top Tips for Collecting Rare Cookbooks

  1. Jean B.
    August 14, 2013

    Hello again! I have a question and some points to make.

    First, when you say “[c]ookbooks emerged in the 1700′s”, are you speaking of US cookbooks or other cookbooks (confining the latter to European cookbooks for now)? If the former, and if you are not referring to books with European roots that were published in the colonies, then you might say that they barely started emerging at the very end of the 1700s. (I am alluding, of course, to Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery”, which was first published in 1796.) If the latter, they emerged before the 1700s.

    I also am somewhat alarmed about your comment re the importance of condition. I think if one found a copy of a very early cookbook, one would be delighted no matter what condition it was in. It frightens me to think that cookbooks that are not in wonderful condition could be (and are!) discarded because they are in bad shape.

    • bibliophiliackm
      August 16, 2013

      Hi Jean! Thanks for your terrific questions!

      Regarding “cookbooks emerged in the 1700’s,” we’re speaking of cookbooks as we think of them today, that is, cookbooks that served as basic kitchen references for a relatively large audience. These came into widespread use toward the end of the early modern period, which ends at the French Revolution (1789) or in 1800, depending on whom you ask. You’re correct that cookbooks certainly pre-date the 1700’s, and you’ll probably enjoy next week’s post about “cookbook firsts”; we’ll go all the way back to Apicius and ‘De recoqinaria.’

      On the issue of condition, that’s certainly a relative term. Obviously Jan Longdone was extremely excited to find the only known copy of Malinda Russell’s ‘Domestic Cook Book’ (1866), even though it’s falling apart. But most cookbooks are not nearly so rare, and if multiple copies are available, it’s important to pay close attention to condition. New collectors especially need to learn this lesson, as they usually start with more modern books that are readily available in greater numbers.

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This entry was posted on August 14, 2013 by in Culinary Manuscripts, Food and Literature and tagged , , .
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