A guest post by Alea Stokes, Research Services Librarian at the Boston Public Library.
Community cookbooks have long been incredible sources of historical and cultural information. Women sold the first American community cookbooks in 1864 to raise money to care for wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War. Since then, women’s groups have continued to develop these books to sell as fundraisers for a variety of causes.
Community cookbooks act as a record of the women in the community; the ingredients available, the culinary trends, and the equipment used (imagine finding the first recipe in a community cookbook that calls to leave a dish in a modern fridge overnight!). You also get a picture of what was important to the community, whether they were raising funds for the local schools or for the Suffrage movement. Often the costs of making these cookbooks were subsidized by ad space bought by local businesses. Seeing advertisements from local stores can tell you a lot about the material culture of the period as well.
Plenty of these cookbooks are still being made today. You may have seen community cookbooks created by local churches, 3H clubs, or sewing groups. Many vintage community cookbooks still live on in used bookstores, antique stores, and the personal libraries of people in your life. Some may have never been opened and others are covered in food stains and notes written in the margins.
There are several places where you can explore the Boston Public Library’s collection of these books on the Internet Archive. More digital collections of community cookbooks are listed below. Looking for hands-on cooking events? Keep an eye on the BPL’s Event Calendar to sign up for future cooking classes at the Roxbury branch.
Boston Public Library
- My Mother's Cook Book, compiled by Ladies of St. Louis and sold for the benefit of the Women’s Christian Home (1880)
- Highland Hospital Cook Book, compiled by Mrs. Samuel H. Parsons (1900)
- Club House Cook Book, compiled by Annie Iager Snyder (1916)
- The Wellesley Cook Book prepared by the Ladies of the Congregational Society (1890)
- The Landmarks Club Cook Book: a California collection of the choicest recipes from everywhere (1903)
Additional Digital Collections
The Library of Congress has digitized a collection of community cookbooks from 1860-1920. You can narrow your search down to a certain decade or state. Each cataloged cookbook is available to read through the Internet Archive and the HathiTrust Digital Library. Look at some of the things I found below!
The Lackawanna Digital Archives holds several community cookbooks from Northeastern Pennsylvania that were published between 1960 and the early 2000s. They have been digitized on their website for easy browsing.
Michigan State University’s Digital Repository contains 68 community cookbooks from 1800 – 1942. They can be easily read as a PDF on their website.
South Dakota State University has digitized their collection of South Dakota community cookbooks. They are largely from the 4-H clubs, American Auxiliary, and local churches. In some cases there are several editions of the same cookbook so you can track the community through their recipes over many years.