Antique Handwritten Recipe Books [History & Values]
[orig. pub. March 2016, substantially revised May 2021]
Hi there! Vintage and antique cook books sell really well for me; how about for you? I sell more common varieties in the $8-12 range from my antique booth and rarer, more valuable examples on eBay.
Today I want to talk about the historical origins of cook books. We’ll take a look at three antique handwritten recipe books that I came across in my vintage wanderings. I think you’ll find them fascinating. I certainly did!
Do you have a favorite recipe or “go-to” cookbook? I bet you do. Maybe it’s the latest put out by a famous Food Network chef, or perhaps it’s one handed down to you from your mother or grandmother.
I can still remember the heavenly aroma of Milky Way cake filling our ranch-style house as a kid. I thought my sweet mother had special powers, that cake tasted so good.
I’ve baked it many times over the years, and each time it evokes special memories for me. [You can find the complete, printable recipe here.]
Food and relationships are closely intertwined, aren’t they? The family table is a special place, filled with “family” foods, where we break bread together and share the day’s events.
We prepare some of those dishes using recipes handwritten by dear friends and family. Others are typed up in special “cook books” published by groups we may have belonged to, and still others can be found in our personal cook book collection.
Wherever the recipes come from, they are reminders of special times spent with special people.
Early History of Cook Books
I’ve read that the oldest “recipe” can be found written on the tomb of Senet, an Egyptian woman, who apparently had a passion for flat bread.
Through the centuries, however, the instructions for food preparation would have typically been passed down by word of mouth within communities over shared hearths, from mother to daughter.
With the advent of paper and more leisure time, some cooks began to write down their instructions. Some printed medieval books, which chronicled home-keeping methods in general, included food preparation as well. But the average housewife would not have had access to such costly books.
Handwritten Recipe Books or Journals
Typically, a woman would have had in her possession an handwritten recipe book, sometimes more of a journal, handed down to her by her mother.
It would be filled with written instructions for various meals, as well as many other aspects of housekeeping, like recipes for herbal remedies, cleaning methods, or sewing notations.
Above is just such a journal that I discovered at an estate sale a few years ago. Missing its cover, it was clearly well-loved by the women who used it. It journals some of the food, medicinal, and spiritual history of the family, giving us a glimpse into their way of life.
The author, a devout woman named Lottie Ells, lived at 51 Dubois Street, Newburgh (NY) and wrote many of the “receipts” beginning in 1889.
On the first page we find a “receipt” for constipation, written in pen and ink. Receipt is an old-timey word for recipe.
This “Receipt for Drunkeness” appears later in the journal. Curiously the “s” in Drunkeness is written like an “f,” as it would have been in the 1700’s. Apparently some old fashioned cursive writers hung on to this style well into the 1800’s.
Prior to 1700, the term recipe and its cousin receipt (derived from the Latin recipere, which means to receive) were used to refer to medicines. After that it became common to use these terms when referring to food preparation.
Until about the 1960’s, cooks continued to use both terms receipt and recipe interchangeably, but receipt is now considered quite old fashioned, and most people would not even know what it means in relation to food. Did you?
Later in the journal, Lottie wrote some prayers; you can see her signature in the bottom right corner of the page on the left. If her prayers are any indication, she had a strong Christian faith.
Mixed in with the prayers and remedies, we at last find some recipes: Jenny Lind Cake, Plain Cake, Apple Omelet (hmm), and Chocolate Filling for Cake.
You can purchase this recipe book in my Etsy shop. SOLD June 1, 2021 for $28.99.
I have in my possession a second “receipt” book, which you can tell from the letter tabs on the lower right, was intended as an address book.
It’s quite common to see recipe books in unusual formats, like this address book. You can also find them in composition books, accounting books, and spiral notebooks (see below).
In very rough condition, this one contains only recipes for food, and like the previous manuscript, it has been clearly well-loved over the years.
It’s browned with age and filled with grease and batter spots. I would date it to about the same period as the previous example (late 1800’s). This recipe for Crullers is written in wonderful old-fashioned handwriting.
Notice how “tea spoonful” is two words, and how the author adds recipe changes in parenthesis. And as was often the case, the measurement for the last ingredient–flour–is enough to make dough to roll out. Quite non-specific!
Keep in mind that mothers would not have simply pass down these recipe books to their daughters, but would rather have cooked side-by-side with their girls. Daughters would watch their mother add “enough” flour over and over again until they knew by sight and feel how much to add.
Credit is often given to Fanny Farmer, the famous cook book author from Boston, for systematizing measurements for cooking and baking, to making the process fool-proof for cooks of all abilities. Thank goodness!
You can find this recipe journal in my Etsy shop. SOLD June 2, 2021 on Etsy for $26.99.
Here is the third example of an handwritten recipe book that I have to share with you. Unlike the previous two, it’s filled with both handwritten and typed recipes (see photo below).
It also holds scraps of paper with hastily jotted recipes.
Guys, get 5 printable pages from this recipe book in my
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Find them under “Vintage Printables” when you scroll to the end 🙂
Antique Handwritten Recipe Book Values
Handwritten recipe journals, along with more diary-oriented journals, are highly collectible. Collectors enjoy the historical nature of these documents, using them to learn about the culture of the period.
Artists like to incorporate the pages into mixed media artwork–such a special way to display these remarkable pieces of history.
Since each example is highly unique, it’s difficult to attach a specific dollar value. The best approach is to be aware of the price range by checking eBay sold prices and Etsy listed prices and go from there.
Start out by listing your pieces on the higher end and then lower them if they’re not selling. Based on my research, the two older books I’ve shown you are worth between $20-30 (due to poor condition), while the newer, three-ring binder may be worth $30-35.
Recipes in Women’s Magazines & Newspapers
About the turn of the last century, ladies began to enjoy women’s magazines, which quite often contained recipes to be clipped and stored away for future use. The same is true of newspapers, which to this day often offer a food section at least once per week
I often find these clippings inserted in the handwritten recipe books, as well as in recipe boxes (see below), and in more modern cook books.
I found several such clippings inside the handwritten/typed recipe book.
Vintage Recipe Cards & Recipe Boxes
Sometime in the 1940’s, recipe boxes like these, which held 3″ x 5″ index cards, became the popular way to organize one’s recipes.
Though I get many of my recipes off the internet these days, I still have many favorites stored away, like these I’ve clipped from the Albany Times Union over the years.
I also have many handwritten cards in my stash, some almost illegible from frequent use (and messy habits).
Here’s a selection of handwritten recipe cards I recently picked up at a sale for a quarter.
You can find a set of blank cards like the blue one above with the cast iron stove, along with protective sleeves, in my Etsy shop.
The third recipe book (seen above) also contains several handwritten recipe cards tucked inside.
I frequently come across nice old, oak recipe boxes like this one. They typically sell for about $10-12.
But just recently, sometimes these boxes came filled with printed recipe cards. I purchased this set of Gold Medal Flour cards at a sale and one of the cards, which you see on top, shows the cards inside a very similar oak box. Interesting, right?
These cards date to c.1929 and are available in my Etsy shop.
But the recipe card that’s closest to my heart, is the one written by my mother’s own hand.
I hope you enjoyed reading about antique recipe books and cards. Do you have a similar book or set of cards that you cherish? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below 🙂
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History of Cookbooks
The Rise and Fall of the Recipe Card
Could you provide the rest of the recipe for the Milky Way Cake?
Hi Joyce! Check tomorrow’s post for the full Milky Way Cake recipe 🙂
That Milky Way Cake recipe looks delish! What temperature is it baked in and for how long??
I love the handwritten recipes. My recipe file was a gift when I got married. All of my Aunts wrote up their favorite recipes. My absolute favorite isn’t a recipe at all, but it says “The best recipe I can give you is to go the store
and buy a Sarah Lee”!
Ha ha–I like that recipe, too! You must really treasure that recipe box–what a special gift. Check tomorrow’s post for the full Milky Way Cake recipe 🙂
OI also have recipes written in my mothers hand. I treasure them – especially the ones she has written where she got the recipe and the date.
Yes, those special bits of handwritten information are so special to us now, aren’t they? Thanks for the visit 🙂
OK, now that you have teased us with your recipes, how about compiling a booklet of your favorites and selling it in your shop?
I will absolutely take that into consideration, Marie! Thanks for the suggestion. Check tomorrow’s post for the full Milky Way Cake recipe 🙂
How sweet of you to share this with us. It was very interesting and I LOVE your 1888 recipe book.
I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Donna 🙂
Really fun post Diane. And I agree, the recipes written in my mom’s and Grandmothers handwriting are my most treasured.
Oh, and since you teased us with 2 shots of the front of that Milky Way cake recipe, would you consider sharing the rest of that recipe? I’d love to try it. xo
LOL, Kim–I had no idea I was being a tease. I’m so glad you share my love for these kind of recipes. Check tomorrow’s post for the full Milky Way Cake recipe 🙂
What a treasure, Diana ~ I just love things like the Receipts book. Milky Way cake–yum!
I’m glad you enjoyed the post Cecilia!
I love the recipes written by my mother. I started a collection of family favorites for my daughters but I typed them. Maybe I should write a short blurb on each recipe. The Milky Way cake sounds wonderful. sb
I’ve started a collection for my kids, too, but they are typewritten as well. Maybe we should write out at least one for them?
My mom basically collected cookbooks, poured over cookbooks and clipped recipes. My dad’s favorite saying was, “That recipe was really good, now I suppose you will lose it?” because of the huge quantities of cookbooks/card/filefolders she had. I have had to wean them down to about 1/6 of what they were.
The best thing I have is my great grandmother’s recipes, maybe some from great-great gm handed down. They are in Danish–and the oldest are in the heavy script popular in the 1860-80’s in Europe. The W’s, M’s, U’s, N’s and R’s all look the same, as do the j’s,g’s,p’s,y’s–which makes translating tough. I have other Scandinavian cookbooks, so I compare ingredients—and usually can make some sense out of it. My favorite is use a nickel’s worth of yeast of or ‘pfumf pennige’. The other is use butter the size of an egg? ….what???small med large??? How big was an egg in Denmark in 1890?
Hopefully in the future I will share. I know I want to make Sandbakkels for my girlfriend for her birhtday luncheon. We will see.
Great subject matter here, Donna…and I love your old recipes, too. Please make that Milky Way cake and post it…sounds nummy.
I have a photocopy of an 1803 cookbook pages I was using for my historical writing. My favorite though was an project compiled by the Volunteers of the Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah Iowa, called the Pioneer Cookbook published in 1969—full of recipes, cures, ettiquette and general information from the 19th century. These are simple healthy recipes…from canning and preserving to the most decadent of desserts.
Hi Sandi! Your Mom sounds like such an interesting person and I suspect a good cook(?). I have trouble hanging onto recipes myself and have created a file on my computer filled with some of my favorites, but I have many more to add. That is so fascinating about the recipes you have handed down from your grandmother/great-grandmother. I’d love to hear more about them, as you say, perhaps you’ll write a post about them 🙂 Check tomorrow’s post for the full Milky Way Cake recipe 🙂
You need to give me the rest of the Milky Way cake recipe!!!!! Question: can it be used as cupcakes too? Your old handwritten journals/cookbooks are quite a find. So cool to be able to see what someone’s life was like that long ago…looking at those index cards I swear you snuck into my house and stole them right out of my recipe box! I have my mom’s as well as ones I clipped from the paper as well. My famous apple pie recipe came from the Philadelphia Inquirer 20 years ago! Still works like a charm:) Thanks for sharing a neat bit of history. xo Kathleen
LOL–you and everyone else. I have no idea if it can be used for cupcakes, but I think most cake recipes can. You probably want to be careful not to overcook them. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post; I really had a good time putting it together 🙂
PS: Check tomorrow’s post for the full Milky Way Cake recipe 🙂
Ha, ha! I guess we all want to have the rest of the Milky Way Cake recipe! It does sound dee–licious. And what an interesting post. I have all my mother’s recipe cards and my grandmother’s recipe book. I would like to make a family recipe book for my two daughters to have, but haven’t found the time just yet. Too much grandmothering to do at present! Thanks for reminding me that I ought to get to it.
I know Naomi–it’s definitely time-consuming, but well worth it I’m sure. I’ve got some, but not all, of my recipes online (for me and for my kids). At some point the day will arrive and you will know it’s time to get those written down or typed up! Check tomorrow’s post for the full Milky Way Cake recipe 🙂
I’ll add in my two cents. Please give us the Milky Way cake recipe. What history are in the pages of those cookbooks. Isn’t it fun to read them and wonder what life was like.
Ha ha, Debra. Thanks for your two cents! Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed reading and re-reading those documents. Check tomorrow’s post for the full Milky Way Cake recipe 🙂
Hi Diana, I so enjoyed this post, given that I’m a “foodie!” I love handwritten recipes from family members who have gone home before us. A few years ago at Christmas I compiled recipes from my grandmother, aunt, mother, father, etc. and made a notebook of these recipes, some of which were handwritten, with a brief biography of each person. I believe it was a treasured gift to each one that received it. I have many cookbooks but if I could only keep one it would be the church cookbook from my childhood church. It has so many wonderful recipes from the area in which I grew up and the names on the recipes bring nice memories of the people who contributed the recipes. Looking forward to Part 2 and the rest of the Milky Way Cake Recipe! Happy Easter! Blessings, Janet
What a special gift, Janet; I’m sure it will be treasured, as you say, by each one who received it. I have a cookbook very similar to your church cookbook, put together by the ladies in my small town. In fact, it will make an appearance in Part II of this cookbook “series.” Thanks so much for stopping by and Happy Easter to you and your precious family. (PS: Check tomorrow’s post for the full Milky Way Cake recipe 🙂 )
FANTASTIC estate find!! I can imagine that I’d lose hours and hours, looking through it’s pages with the most delicate touch. Thank you so much for linking this up to Talk of the Town!!
Sarah (Sadie Seasongoods)
Loved this post about recipe cards. That journal, beautifully handwritten, is a great find. I love seeing people’s writing in vintage books, like when they are gifting it to someone. It’s like a peek into someone’s life.
Oh, this was such a great post! One of my favorite wedding shower gifts–from my dormmates at UNH back in ’73 was a green metal index card box covered in awful green/orange/yellow contact paper with handwritten recipes from 2 fellow OT students.
None of us had any money in those days and I received so much Pyrex and Corning Ware with the blue flowers! Those recipes are still among my favorites. I have already given Al’s 12 y o granddaughter a recipe box and handwritten recipes (she wants to own a cafe with her friend when she grows up!).
My personal fave is Joy of Cooking; I bought one for myself in the early 70’s and I was so disgusted that my mother’s banana bread recipe was not in this revised version. OR how to beat the yellow color into the WWII oleo! My other faves are church ones–everyone ALWAYS contributed their BEST recipes so you know they are good!
I have my grandmother’s and my mother’s recipes. My mom’s are in a wooden box like the one you show but the top piece of the lid is missing. And my Grandma ALWAYS wrote “receipts”!
I have a recipe that I believe came from my great-grandmother that talks about how much wood to put on the fire!
I collect cookbooks, especially the church/fundraising ones. It drove my husband nuts because I don’t cook out of them–I just collect them!!
I love that your grandmother used the word “receipts”!! That is so cool. What a blessing to have all those family recipes–such precious heirlooms 🙂 That’s hysterical that you don’t cook from your collection, LOL. Thanks for sharing your stories Ann!
Diana, my grandmother worked for McClain Stevenson (from the show MASH) for years. I have two of her recipe books that are handwritten. One has recipes and the other has entertaining instructions, like how to fold fancy napkins, different ways to mold rolls, and so much more. They are fascinating. The entertaining binder has ideas from many different magazines and newspaper articles. So fun to see things from the good old days!
That’s amazing Shawn–I loved that show!! (Didn’t we all??) What an interesting woman your grandmother must have been. I’m so glad you inherited her recipe and entertaining books–such a blessing. Thanks for sharing your story with us!
I have an English cookery book issued in the late 1930s to go with my mothers’s new oven with the temperature selected by a rotary knob with Regulo Mark 1, 2 etc. The pages are like thin cardboard, not flexible at all. The most interesting thing is that the largest section in the book is for breakfast.
That sounds so interesting Sue! Having lived in England for a couple of years, I can attest to the fact that they are extremely proud of their “full English” breakfast, so the focus on breakfast doesn’t surprise me, LOL.
How wonderful it is to know there are others who cherish “cook books” & written or collected recipes still. I simply love them. I have several. I truly love the ones put together for fundraising. I have one that has wood wall paneling as a cover with 3 holes in them two pieces that have plastic ring binding. It is from the mid 70s from Mascoutah, Illinois.
I have recipes friends & family wrote for me throughout the years as well. I truly love reading recipes from the Depression Era that show how to live on very little. One recipe from that era that I still use occasionally is potato and ground beef burgers. The added potatoes stretches the beef and gives unique texture and flavor. My grandmothers were farm girls during the depression and had lots of wisdom and recipes to hand down.
Thank you for sharing this post and wonderful finds!
Oh my goodness, I’m just seeing this post now, a couple of weeks later. Recipe cards and old books have a lot of memories sometimes, don’t they. My mom had one from three or four generations back, handwritten in an account type of book or register.
Quite a few of the recipes are in German, which of course most of us cannot read, except one cousin. Mom passed away about four months ago and I’m pretty sure that book is in a box we have in storage. It will be something to bring to a reunion, if we have one this year.
I was able to bring home all her recipe boxes and the small binders she put together. At least I think I have some of them. They may be in storage too. So much to go thru.
This post made me smile and yes, I agree, the most valuable ones to me are the ones written in Mom’s handwriting. 🙂
So glad you enjoyed the post Kathy! Thanks for sharing some of your memories with us. I do hope you’re able to find what you think you have in storage. It’ll be such a joy for you to go through them again 🙂
Hi there. I have been interested in historical cooking for some time. I transcribe and translate old cookbooks and cook from them, too. I received both my grandmothers’ recipe boxes snd have been struck by how similar their notes were to those from people hundreds of years earlier. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Sounds like some fascinating work that you’re doing Sam! What a blessing to have both grandmother’s recipe boxes 🙂
Interesting! Yes, I ended up with my grandmother’s handwritten recipe book, which is a spiral binder. Some of the recipes are labeled as coming from her mother, or her mother-in-law. (My great-grandmothers).
My grandmother died young, in 1963, so I know the recipes are at least that old. Many are for sweets (cakes!) which tells me what she liked to make.
Someday I will go through and make all the recipes, except maybe the few that include acorns.
What a treasure you have Celine! And such a fun idea to go through the recipes and begin to make them. I’m all for avoiding the acorn ones!!
Milky Way Cake!!! Wow. That was a favorite in the ranch house I grew up in as well. I haven’t thought of it for years and now I’m going to have to make it this weekend. It’s so nice to see that other people love old recipes and cookbooks – I can’t resist them. One similar recipe my mom baked a lot was Vanilla Wafer cake. Did your mom? I remember it as being really yummy. And, I didn’t know that people ate acorns…hmm, must be an acquired taste, like squirrel (which I don’t eat, but apparently some people do). 😉
My mother was a great typist and she typed all her recipes so none are in her handwriting, but they’re still fun to see because she sometimes made typos like her famous-in-the-family “Chicken Dasserole”. Ha! We still call it that. Thanks for the great info and fun trip down memory lane.
Hi Leah! I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about your old favorite, Milky Way Cake 🙂 The Vanilla wafer cake is a new one for me though (sounds interesting). My mother also made the Bacardi Rum cake and tomato soup cake–both were quite delicious! I just bought a large box of recipes at a garage sale and over half are type written! From the very organized cook I guess. I love that the typos help you know that you have “your mother’s” recipe cards–