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11 Vintage Cookbooks (1861-1920)

These days, cookbooks are all fairly similar in that they offer photos of the food and maybe a few pictures of the celebrity chefs responsible for the creations. But long ago, drawings had to suffice, making these recipe collections far more artistic.

Since all these books are in the public domain, many sites have scanned in all of the pages for you to enjoy. I’ve only included the covers here, but follow the links and you can read the contents of most of these titles.

1. Beeton's Book of Household Management - 1861

Originally published in 24 parts between 1859 and 1861, the complete set was bound together for sale in 1861 bearing the cover above. It was an immediate success, selling over 60,000 copies in the first year and almost two million before 1868. The book was revolutionary in its format, particularly in the author’s decision to list the ingredients first, setting the standard for cookbooks in years to come. Unfortunately, Mrs. Beeton did not enjoy the spoils of her success very long as she died in childbirth in 1865.

Her husband soon sold off the rights to the book, and over the years it has been changed repeatedly to the point where the last edition, published in 1960, bears barely any resemblance to the original. These days though, the 1861 version is considered a classic, giving a detailed glimpse into the life of a typical English Victorian housewife.

Read the whole thing here.

2. Sloan's Cook Book and Advice to Housekeepers - 1905

Dr. Earl S. Sloan was the head of his family’s liniment treatment company (Dr. Earl S. Sloan, Incorporated) and was known for being an excellent spokesperson and a great advertiser. In 1905, he released this book dedicated to "the women of America who are the home-makers" in order to gently market his products while creating goodwill towards his brand.

The organization of the book is a bit odd, transitioning abruptly from vegetables to the care of a child and from how to treat a horse to preparing lobster, but I guess you can’t expect too much from a fake doctor releasing a cookbook to sell liniment.

Read the whole thing here.

3. The Vital Question Cook Book - 1908

If you immediately ask yourself what the “vital question” is, well then, you just fell victim to the marketing ploy of the Natural Food Company who created this cookbook to promote their shredded wheat products. In fact, the title should hardly be considered a cookbook at all given that most of the text is dedicated to educating consumers on the benefits of eating shredded wheat and about the Natural Food Company’s Shredded Wheat Plant. There are some general cooking tips and a few recipes which include shredded wheat, but the majority of the book is dedicated to showing why shredded wheat should be in every home.

As for the vital question, it’s “how to best maintain vitality in a person?” The answer: eating shredded wheat, of course.

Read the whole thing here.

4. Oysters and How to Cook Them: 100 Delicious Meals at One Half the Cost of Meat – circa 1910

Yes, there was a time when oysters were far cheaper than other, more common meats. That’s why the Oyster Growers and Dealers Association of America wanted to help frugal housewives learn to save money by making delicious meals with the shellfish with the help of this short recipe book. Even knowing their historically low cost, it sounds bizarre to read how “the high cost of living can be greatly reduced by eating oysters more frequently.” Perhaps the organization promoted their product a little too well.

Read the whole thing here.

5. Home Helps: A Pure Food Cook Book - 1910

While created to help promote Cottolene, a shortening made from cottonseed oil and beef suet, this cookbook covers everything, including a number of recipes that do not require shortening. It even tells readers how to make incredibly simple things like tea and boiled eggs. Interestingly, while Cottolene is no longer produced, it is still fondly remembered by many people precisely because the company released so many useful cookbooks like this one.

Read the whole thing here.

6. The Kitchen Encyclopedia - 1911

Like other recipe indexes in this list, this title was created as an advertisement –this time for Swift’s Oleomargarine. Aside from recipes, this book also provides household cleaning tips and gardening advice. It must have been a fairly successful compilation, because this 1911 version was already a fifth edition printing.

Read the whole thing here.

7. Choice Recipes: Chocolate and Cocoa Recipes, Home Made Candy Recipes - 1913

This book was unique for the time in that there are actually photos for many of the recipes inside the book and they do look tempting indeed. Like many cookbooks today, the recipes include a specific brand of cocoa to use, but any chocolate could suffice, making this seem like a fairly useful dessert cookbook even if it was intended to be a marketing tool.

Read the whole thing here.

8. Proven Recipes Showing the uses of the Three Great Products from Corn - 1915

This one was printed by the Corn Products Refining Co., which represented Kingsford Corn Starch, Karo Corn Syrup and Mazola corn oil. While the recipes inside actually look pretty tasty and were supposedly endorsed by the legendary Oscar Tschirky, maître d'hôtel of the Waldorf Astoria, I don’t know that most modern readers would ever be able to get past the image of a Native American girl dressed as an ear of corn.

Read the whole thing here.

9. War-Time Cook and Health Book - 1917

Printed shortly after America entered World War I, this book had two goals: to teach women to better ration and save their food, and to help promote Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound. The first goal is obvious in the recipes in the book, most of which were created by the U.S. Department of Food Conservation or the U.S. Food Administration. The second goal is obnoxious in its persistence. That’s because practically every page contains a paragraph telling women why they desperately need to start using Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, whether it’s to give them energy, stop their headaches, ease their p.m.s. symptoms, make them more focused, or help any other ailment they may have.

Read the whole thing here.

10. How To Do Pickling - 1917

As far as advertising cookbooks go, this one is unique in how it handles the ads. In fact, the pickling recipes are printed in their entirety without any ads. Instead, the ads are inserted on every other page, featuring information on maladies and how Dr. D. Jayne's Family Medicines can help treat them.

Read the whole thing here.

11. Selected Recipes and Menus for Parties, Holidays, and Special Occasions - c1920

While the artwork and photos from this book are definitely dated, the recipes from this book would mostly seem right at home in a modern cookbook. Indeed, Calumet Baking Powder, the main product advertised here, is still commonly used and is even still issuing promotional cookbooks. In fact, if you want to print out one of these cookbooks and actually start using it, this is certainly the one I’d recommend, if for no other reason than the ingredients are all still readily available.

Read the whole thing here.
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Do we have any vintage cookbook collectors out there? If so, what’s your favorite piece from your collection? Have you tried any of the recipes from it? How did they turn out?

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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