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Economic downturn spurs interest in old cookbooks


With an economic downturn, a war on two fronts and Americans tightening their belts, it’s not a surprise that family vegetable gardens are making a comeback.

The trend has even reached the White House. Several weeks ago, ground for a vegetable garden was broken on the South Lawn, the first vegetable plot since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden during the early 1940s. With the popularity of growing home vegetables, the demand for “back-to-basics” cookbooks also has increased. Especially popular with collectors are cookbooks from the 1930s and ’40s that feature lean recipes and sugar-free desserts.

Examples include “Prudence Penny’s Coupon Cookery,” which was published in 1943 by Murray and Gee. “Prudence Penny” was a West Coast home radio show that ran for around two decades, showcasing a fictional home economist who served up household hints and recipes, all accommodating wartime shortages and rationing. In addition to network radio, columns by Penny were published in several regional newspapers, including both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and San Francisco Examiner. The “Prudence Penny” recipe collection could be purchased for about $10 until just recently when its value began to climb. It currently sells in the $25-$50 range, depending on condition.

Other popular cookbooks from the war-era are “The Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book,” 1942-46, $50-$100; “The Settlement Cookbook,” 1942, $25-$50; “The Good Housekeeping Cook Book,” 1944, $65-$100; “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer, 1943, $75-$125; and “The New American Cook Book” by Lily Haxworth Wallace, 1941-44, $65-$110.

As with most collectibles, values vary from region to region and depend on several factors, including scarcity, demand and condition. Cookbooks with original dust jackets always sell at a premium.

A cookbook signed by the author can dramatically increase the value of a collection. Handwritten recipes in a book by the original owner not only establishes provenance, it often makes the collection more desirable to collectors.

One of the better price guides is Antique Trader Collectible Cookbooks by Patricia Edwards and Peter Peckham. Published by Krause, the guide is fully illustrated and features values for nearly 1,000 cookbooks. Edwards and Peckham are the creators of oldcookbooks.com, one of the largest online bookstores specializing in vintage, hard-to-find and rare cookbooks.


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