I collect old cookbooks. I have somewhere between 70 and 80 and they are mostly from the 1940s and earlier. One of these days I really should round them all up (they are divided up between three bookcases) and document each one and put them in a spreadsheet or something really efficient like that. But in the meantime (and it could be a very long time), I do like to browse through them every so often.
It started when I was in college. After taking a class on films of the 1940s, I became interested in the role of women during World War II and what everyday life was like for them. When I came across a cookbook from the 40s in a used book store, it occurred to me that this was just the perfect glimpse into what life was like. How people cook, what they eat, how they entertain and serve their meals are all critical facets of people’s lives. So, I bought a book here or there when I came across them. Once I started looking, I realized that the ones from the 30s and even earlier were just as fascinating, so the scope of the collection grew.
I love the design of some of the books — the classic typography, the funny little illustrations or the antique looking photographs. I especially like the chatty tone that some of them have when they are giving household tips or entertaining tips. The household tips might be something along the lines of how to use an electric ice box — the types of foods that should or should not be put in one. The entertaining tips might be how to serve a dinner with just one maid, or even with no maid at all!
One of my favorite books is one from 1920 called “Breakfasts, Luncheons and Dinners: How to Plan Them, How to Serve Them, How to Behave at Them.” It is by Mary D. Chambers and she is also credited on the title page with “Principals of Food Preparation” and “A Guide to Laundry Work, Etc.” I really think I should reproduce a little passage from the book here, partly because it is in the public domain, so I can use it freely and partly because the information is probably of the type that no longer appears in cookbooks or etiquette books of any type these days. So, from the section on Dinners:
Good Usage During the Progress of the Dinner — Disposal of gloves and napkin. As at luncheon, the first thing to be done by a woman after she is seated is to remove her gloves, but at dinner, as not at luncheon, the gloves should be wholly taken off, and not merely pushed up over the wrist. The gloves are placed in the lap; to put them into an empty glass on the dinner-table, as has been done, is very bad form. Men do not wear gloves at dinner. The dinner napkin, as well as any napkin which measures eighteen or more inches square, is never completely unfolded; it is opened only one-half, and is laid across the lap, over the gloves.Now, I have never worn gloves to a dinner party, so I have never been in such bad form as to put my gloves into an empty glass on the table. I have, however, been guilty of unfolding my napkin. Although in fairness, I don’t usually measure the napkins at my host’s house, so perhaps they were only 18 inches in which case unfolding them completely is correct.
In all seriousness, though, most of the book is filled with pretty basic, practical information, which forks and spoons to be used for which course, how to set a table and other information that you are just as likely to find in a issue of Martha Stewart Living. But it is the little bits of dated information that make these books so much fun to read... and to collect.