10,000 Vintage Recipe Books Are Now Digitized in The Internet Archive’s Cookbook & Home Economics Collection

“Ear­ly cook­books were fit for kings,” writes Hen­ry Notak­er at The Atlantic. “The old­est pub­lished recipe col­lec­tions” in the 15th and 16th cen­turies in West­ern Europe “emanat­ed from the palaces of mon­archs, princes, and grand señores.” Cook­books were more than recipe collections—they were guides to court eti­quette and sump­tu­ous records of lux­u­ri­ous liv­ing. In ancient Rome, cook­books func­tioned sim­i­lar­ly, as the extrav­a­gant fourth cen­tu­ry Cook­ing and Din­ing in Impe­r­i­al Rome demon­strates.

Writ­ten by Api­cius, “Europe’s old­est [cook­book] and Rome’s only one in exis­tence today”—as its first Eng­lish trans­la­tor described it—offers “a bet­ter way of know­ing old Rome and antique pri­vate life.” It also offers keen insight into the devel­op­ment of heav­i­ly fla­vored dish­es before the age of refrig­er­a­tion. Api­cus rec­om­mends that “cooks who need­ed to pre­pare birds with a ‘goat­ish smell’ should bathe them in a mix­ture of pep­per, lovage, thyme, dry mint, sage, dates, hon­ey, vine­gar, broth, oil and mus­tard,” Melanie Radz­ic­ki McManus notes at How Stuff Works.

Ear­ly cook­books com­mu­ni­cat­ed in “a folksy, impre­cise man­ner until the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion of the 1800s,” when stan­dard (or met­ric) mea­sure­ment became de rigueur. The first cook­book by an Amer­i­can, Amelia Sim­mons’ 1796 Amer­i­can Cook­ery, placed British fine din­ing and lav­ish “Queen’s Cake” next to “john­ny cake, fed­er­al pan cake, buck­wheat cake, and Indi­an slap­jack,” Kei­th Stave­ly and Kath­leen Fitzger­ald write at Smith­son­ian, all recipes sym­bol­iz­ing “the plain, but well-run and boun­ti­ful Amer­i­can home.” With this book, “a dia­logue on how to bal­ance the sump­tu­ous with the sim­ple in Amer­i­can life had begun.”

Cook­books are win­dows into history—markers of class and caste, doc­u­ments of dai­ly life, and snap­shots of region­al and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty at par­tic­u­lar moments in time. In 1950, the first cook­book writ­ten by a fic­tion­al lifestyle celebri­ty, Bet­ty Crock­er, debuted. It became “a nation­al best-sell­er,” McManus writes. “It even sold more copies that year than the Bible.” The image of the per­fect Step­ford house­wife may have been big­ger than Jesus in the 50s, but Crock­er’s career was decades in the mak­ing. She debuted in 1921, the year of pub­li­ca­tion for anoth­er, more hum­ble recipe book: the Pil­grim Evan­gel­i­cal Luther­an Church Ladies’ Aid Soci­ety of Chicago’s Pil­grim Cook Book.

As Ayun Hal­l­i­day not­ed in an ear­li­er post, this charm­ing col­lec­tion fea­tures recipes for “Blitz Torte, Cough Syrup, and Sauer­kraut Can­dy,” and it’s only one of thou­sands of such exam­ples at the Inter­net Archive’s Cook­book and Home Eco­nom­ics Col­lec­tion, drawn from dig­i­tized spe­cial col­lec­tions at UCLA, Berke­ley, and the Prelinger Library. When we last checked in, the col­lec­tion fea­tured 3,000 cook­books. It has grown since 2016 to a library of 10,600 vin­tage exam­ples of home­spun Amer­i­cana, fine din­ing, and mass mar­ket­ing.

Laugh at gag-induc­ing recipes of old; cringe at the pious advice giv­en to women osten­si­bly anx­ious to please their hus­bands; and mar­vel at how var­i­ous inter­na­tion­al and region­al cuisines have been rep­re­sent­ed to unsus­pect­ing Amer­i­can home cooks. (It’s hard to say whether the cov­er or the con­tents of a Chi­nese Cook Book in Plain Eng­lish from 1917 seem more offen­sive.) Cook­books of recipes from the Amer­i­can South are pop­u­lar, as are cov­ers fea­tur­ing stereo­typ­i­cal “mam­my” char­ac­ters. A more respect­ful inter­na­tion­al exam­ple, 1952’s Luchow’s Ger­man Cook­book gives us “the sto­ry and the favorite dish­es of Amer­i­ca’s most famous Ger­man restau­rant.”

There are guides to mush­rooms and “com­mon­er fun­gi, with spe­cial empha­sis on the edi­ble vari­eties”; col­lec­tions of “things moth­er used to make” and, most prac­ti­cal­ly, a cook­book for left­overs. And there is every oth­er sort of cook­book and home ec. man­u­al you could imag­ine. The archive is stuffed with help­ful hints, rare ingre­di­ents, unex­pect­ed region­al cook­eries, and mil­lions of minute details about the habits of these books’ first hun­gry read­ers.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2020.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The New York Times Makes 17,000 Tasty Recipes Avail­able Online: Japan­ese, Ital­ian, Thai & Much More

Archive of Hand­writ­ten Recipes (1600 – 1960) Will Teach You How to Stew a Calf’s Head and More

A Data­base of 5,000 His­tor­i­cal Cookbooks–Covering 1,000 Years of Food History–Is Now Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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