The Evolution of Vintage Cookbooks



Vintage cookbooks offer nostalgia, cultural insights, and overall an awesome history lesson. At estate sales in Tacoma, Gig Harbor, and we often see plenty of well-loved vintage cookbooks. These books offer a glimpse into a forgotten time, and the evolution is fascinating. Let’s learn more.


Early America – the 1700s – 1800s

The first American cookbook, American Cookery, was published in 1796 by Amelia Simmons. Unlike cookbooks that were brought over from England, it featured recipes and terminology that were common to America. Its recipes included ingredients like pumpkin and corn and it was the first cookbook to suggest serving cranberries with turkey.

This book was very popular and was printed and reprinted for 30 years after its original publication. It’s also credited as being the first American cookbook to use the term “cookey.”


What makes these vintage cookbooks is interesting is that they focused on techniques, rather than actual measurements. It wasn’t until 1896 that we see the use of standard measurements in The Boston Cooking School Cookbook written by Fannie Farmer.


Cookbooks published during this time also focused on many different ingredients than what we use now, such as game meats like deer, duck, and pheasant.


New Technology– the Early 1900s

Cookbooks written in the 1900s show an exciting shift in the kitchen. During this time new technology, like electric stoves with temperature control and refrigerators, helped spur creativity with home cooks eager to share their recipes. As you can imagine, cookbooks changed with this new technology, especially thanks to refrigerators.

The invention of electric refrigerators and freezers, which became available around 1915 and common in homes in the 1930s, helped food stay fresh and allowed it to be stored longer and safer. Prior to this, families would have to preserve their food by drying, salting, or smoking their food.


What’s also fascinating about cookbooks of this period is that the home cook had to be taught how to use the new technology, so recipes assumed the reader knew how to make each recipe and focused their content on teaching readers how to make the best use of their new kitchen gadget.


Wartime - the 1920s to the 1940s

World Wars I and II brought changes to many families across the US. The role of women changed, the country was focused on wars abroad, and the economic conditions were not ideal. As such, cookbooks evolved to boost morale, and help the home cook make the most of what they had.


Rationing during the war was, without a doubt, difficult. But cookbooks did their best to help the home cook through shortages of butter, sugar, and coffee.


With the grim outlook of the time, graphic design also began to play a part in cookbook publishing. Thanks to advancements in photography, cookbooks could publish colorful and detailed images of food, and several soon-to-be-famous artists got their start with Cookbooks and booklets. One example is Ernest Hamlin Baker’s whose art can be found on the cover of an ice cream recipe booklet before his work was featured on several magazine covers for Fortune and Time, which were published through the 1950s.


Post War and Boomers – the 1950s and 60s

It is this generation of vintage cookbooks that resonates with so many. Cookbooks from the 1950s and 60s include well-known authors like Betty Crocker and Julia Child.


These cookbooks featured recipes that focused on convenience and made the most of electric appliances, and ingredients featured prepackaged food and canned goods.


It was this decade that gave us the iconic “Big Red,” which was Betty Crocker’s best-selling cookbook. This was published between 1951 and 1958. The second edition sold more than 730,000 copies.


As you enjoy your next estate sale, be sure to keep an eye out for old cookbooks and look through them. You’re sure to enjoy a bit of history. To find your next sale check out our upcoming estate sales here.


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