Cookbooks and recipe collections don’t just record the delicacies and comfort food of the past, but also reflect social trends, immigration, and industrialization over the centuries. Each of these online resources offers a chef’s bounty of historic gastronomy, from 17th-century roasted peacock (served in its feathered skin) to broiled iceberg lettuce salad from the 1980s.
1. FEEDING AMERICA: THE HISTORIC AMERICAN COOKBOOK PROJECT
MSU Libraries // Public Domain
Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery is considered the first book by an American about American food, and is the earliest publication in Michigan State University Library’s Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. The online project, started in 2001, focuses on 76 cookbooks from the library’s collections dating from the 18th to early 20th century. You can explore a glossary of old cooking terms and images of antique cooking implements, just in case you need to track down a sugar nipper, salamander, or centrifugal ice cream freezer for your classic cuisine.
2. WELLCOME LIBRARY'S RECIPE BOOKS
Recipe books were not always just about food. Often home remedies were included too, like the 1621 recipe collection of Grace Acton, which followed up an elaborate roasted peacock recipe with a bedwetting treatment that involved boiling a mouse in urine. The eccentric collection is among the Wellcome Library's trove of online recipe books, which are mainly from the 16th to 19th centuries and demonstrate how cookbooks were a personal connection between food and medicine. The 17th-century recipe book of Lady Ann Fanshawe, for instance, has notes on a red powder she used after a miscarriage, mingling with one of the earliest known recipes for ice cream.
3. THE HENRY FORD'S HISTORIC RECIPE BANK
The Henry Ford // Public Domain
The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has an online Historic Recipe Bank neatly arranged so you can explore by category (whether appetizers or poultry) and era (from the 1700s to the 1990s). The resource mainly highlights American cuisine, including the 1894 Mrs. Rorer's Sandwiches, the first tome to focus on the American sandwich; the 1932 Macy’s Cook Book and Kitchen Guide for the Busy Woman with its economic pot roast and graham bread; and the 1960s vegetarian touchstone Diet for a Small Planet.
4. MILWAUKEE PUBLIC LIBRARY’S HISTORIC RECIPE FILE
Hundreds of recipes were clipped from newspapers by librarians at Milwaukee Public Library from the 1960s to the 1980s. Wisconsin residents could telephone to enquire on the directions for Beer-Cheese Bites, Broiled Iceberg Salad (made with a cup of mayonnaise), or the sturdy Breta Griem's Cathedral Fruitcake, which can survive in a refrigerator for a year. Now you can access over 200 of these concoctions in the library’s Historic Recipe File.
5. THE RECIPES PROJECT
The Recipe Project // Public Domain
The Recipes Project is an ongoing collaboration by international scholars to delve into the past through historic recipes, whether for charms, food, or medicine. Their recent explorations include 18th-century perfume, medieval toothache cures, and recipes with plants in Roman Egypt. The site also regularly interviews librarians and curators about their recipe collections, such as the New York Academy of Medicine Library and the University of Pennsylvania Library.
6. HANDWRITTEN RECIPES
Bookseller Michael Popek regularly updates the Handwritten Recipes blog with scrawled recipes he finds wedged in used titles. He published some of them in a 2012 book, and continues to add to the archive of ephemera with items such as a recipe for hot chocolate from the 1902 The Strollers by Frederic S. Isham, a notecard with a recipe for fudge discovered in the 1903 Capital Stories by American Authors, and a worn recipe for cheezy pretzels that was wedged in a 1914 copy of P. G. Wodehouse's The Little Nugget.
7. SZATHMARY RECIPE PAMPHLET DIGITAL COLLECTION
University of Iowa Libraries // Public domain
From 1880 to 1930, cooking radically changed alongside industrialization, which increased commercial food in diets and expanded the availability of products. To encourage consumer loyalty you might have received a "Now you're cooking with tomato paste" pamphlet in the mail from Contadina, or an "Around the kitchen clock with walnuts" brochure from the California Walnut Growers Association. The Szathmary Recipe Pamphlet Digital Collection, amassed by Hungarian-born chef Louis Szathmary at the University of Iowa Libraries, has over 4000 recipe pamphlets from these decades of change.
8. FOUR POUNDS FLOUR
On Four Pounds Flour, “historic gastronomist” Sarah Lohman deciphers recipes, mainly from 18th and 19th century American cuisine, and attempts to recreate or interpret the obscure meals. She recently purchased a bay leaf plant just to blend 18th and 19th century ice creams, cooked eggs for seven hours as if preparing for a 19th-century Jewish Sabbath, and tracked down the origins of that Thanksgiving staple: sweet potato casserole. Her upcoming publication Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine will further delve into this savory history.
9. DUKE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES DIGITAL COLLECTIONS
Duke University Libraries // Public Domain
Among the formidable Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920 collection at Duke University Libraries are hundreds of booklets and cookbooks published to promote food products as part of modern consumer culture. The 1920s “How Phyllis Grew Thin” has lean dishes throughout its pages, but is basically one long advertisement for the quack medicine Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound pills; "Sixty One Uses for Salt with Some Comment on the Kind of Salt to Use" was distributed by the Diamond Crystal Salt Co.; and the 1916 "Excellent Recipes for Baking Raised Breads" extolled Fleischmann's Yeast.
10. SERVICE THROUGH SPONGE CAKE
The Indiana University Library and Indianapolis Public Library joined together to create Service through Sponge Cake. Launched in 2010, it celebrates DIY cookbooks from churches, community organizations, and synagogues, where everyone suggested their favorite cookies or casseroles. The resource includes 200 Years of Black Cookery from 1976 by the Indianapolis Black Bicentennial Committee, 1944 baking from the 4-H Club, and a 1975 Spanish & Latin-American Cookbook from the Hispano-American Center of Indianapolis.
11. TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES
The historical cookbooks collection online at Texas Tech University Libraries Digital Collections definitely has a Lonestar State feel. One title is the 1914 Cooking Tough Meats, with a chicken fricasse "for a tough fowl" and directions on how to make mutton stew from neck pieces. Yet there’s a lot to explore beyond such carnivorous conundrums, like the exhaustive 1978 Sixteen Cottage Cheese Recipes, and the patriotic World War II-era Food Is Ammunition put out by the Georgia Agricultural Extension Service.
12. VIRGINIA TECH CULINARY HISTORY COLLECTION
Virginia Tech's Special Collections // Public Domain
Virginia Tech's History of Food & Drink Collection features several hundred publications on the culinary arts, mainly from the 19th and early 20th century, although there’s also a digitized recipe book from 1731 [PDF] that opens with guidelines on how to pickle everything from a "great cucumber" to kidney beans. Among the vintage cookbooks, you can also find a 1930s cocktail manual, and the 1923 Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing-dish Dainties which answers such pressing questions as "are midnight suppers hygienic?" alongside its recipes for "pineapple-and-cream-cheese salad, Easter style" and eggs à la king.
13. GASTRONOMY BOOKS FROM THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
The Library of Congress selected works from its cookery collections within the Rare Books & Special Collections to make available online, with material dating back to the 15th century. The gastronomy books include The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery from 1675, with directions for dressing fowl as well as “Excellent receipts in physick and chirurgery.” The 1498 Apicius. De re coquinaria. Milan, Guillermus Le Signerre is the earliest surviving collection of recipes from Europe, believed to have evolved from a 1st century version compiled in Rome. And Lydia Maria Child’s 1829 Frugal housewife. Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy represents the thrifty work of one of the first women to support herself as a writer.
14. INTERNET ARCHIVE
The Internet Archive nonprofit digital library is a great resource for just about any media, cookery included. A search for cookbooks on the site turns up over 1000 results including examples from libraries and rare book collections. Among the vintage and historic publications are a California Mexican-Spanish cookbook from 1914, part of the University of California Libraries; a 1928 compendium of "salad secrets" from McGill University Library; and the 1913 The White House Cook Book, also from University of California Libraries.
15. BRITISH LIBRARY’S BOOKS FOR COOKS
The British Library’s online Books for Cooks is a chronological exploration from medieval banquets adorned with pastry ships to frugal Victorians in London recycling their coffee grounds. Publications with highlighted recipes include the 1595 The Widdowes Treasure, which advises on killing lice as well as preventing mold on pears; the 1670 The Queen-like Closet with recipes for calves' foot pie and oyster pie; and the 1729 The Queen's Royal Cookery, in which you can attempt to learn how to master the collaring of an eel.