Promoting passion in book collecting
Whether you’re a fine press enthusiast or a seasoned collector of cookbooks, you’ve likely heard of Peter Pauper Press. The small press’s “ABC” series was incredibly popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the little volumes still remain beloved among contemporary cooks and collectors. The books’ size and design made them ideal gifts both then and now; they’re an affordable, charming introduction to collecting rare and antiquarian cookbooks.
In 1928, 22-year-old,Peter Beilenson set up a press in the basement of his father’s Larchmont, New York home. He published about 200 copies of JM Synge’s With Petrarch. A New York bookseller purchased the entire lot, and the book was soon lauded as a masterful achievement; the American Institute of Graphic Arts even named it one of the “50 Books of the Year.” Eventually Beilenson moved Peter Pauper Press to Mount Vernon, New York, where he supplemented his own publications with special editions for a number of well known publishing agencies such as Random House and New Directions.
When Peter passed away in 1962, his wife, Edna took over publication. She had already had a hand in the business and placed special emphasis on the book’s appearance. “I love books, and I love the books I make–which is a good combination when it comes to selling,” she once said, Thus, Peter Pauper Press books have come to be known for their delightful dust jackets, which feature pleasing color combinations and wonderful illustrations.Peter Pauper Press books are small, though not quite so small that they would qualify as miniature books.
The press produced books on a wide variety of topics, from the classic literature of John Donne and Francis Bacon to books about foreign cultures and of course, many cookbooks. Their “Simple” series predates the “for Dummies” and “for Beginners” series by decades, and they introduced America to foreign cuisines during a time of political insulation. With their aesthetically pleasing design and innocuous topics, Peter Pauper Press was quite a force in the gift book market. They were–and are–affordable little volumes, perfect for anniversaries, birthdays, and other occasions. In Georgetown University’s exhibition on Peter Pauper Press, one curator noted, “This phenomenon in American publishing made possible the dissemination of fine-press ideals to the public at large through its long list of beautifully designed and carefully printed works sold, by and large, very inexpensively indeed.”
Peter Pauper Press books are extremely accessible to new collectors because they’re relatively easy to find and quite affordable–indeed, one could purchase our entire current inventory of Peter Pauper Press books (12 titles) for under $250! Despite their relatively low price, these books are interesting, attractive and, perhaps most important, historically relevant. This is why they often figure into distinguished collections, including institutional libraries; Georgetown’s collection of Peter Pauper Press books includes approximately 600 titles, while the University of South Florida holds an impressive 300. The University of San Francisco held an exhibition of philanthropist Katheryn Fleming’s Peter Pauper Press collection after her passing.
How could such humble and accessible books be so important? They document America’s culinary traditions and dining customs during the 1950’s and 1960’s, illustrating how the middle class (and those who aspired to the middle class) approached food, cooking, entertaining, and drinking. The era of the Cold War was also known as a period of national isolationism, and the Peter Pauper ethnic cookbooks offered regular Americans a safe way to glimpse into other cultures. Culinary historians value these volumes as cultural artifacts, more so than as books as collectible objects. Other Peter Pauper Press books, such as the literary titles, may figure into a single-author collection, while the dust jackets alone are appealing to some collectors.
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