Today, cookbooks are a dime a dozen, with every celebrity chef—and celebrity-turned-home-chef—coming out with their own (usually accompanied by a line of kitchen-related products). But we only have to go back a generation or two to get to a time when cookbooks had an indispensable role in most American households—not only for display in kitchen, but used on a regular (if not daily) basis.
Regardless of why and when they were written, cookbooks provide an interesting glimpse into the past, including when certain foods became available in various areas, disappearing regional cuisine, and what was eaten on special occasions.
Fortunately, you don’t need to criss-cross the country to find a vast selection of the cookbooks used throughout postcolonial American history. There is a free (and constantly growing) online archive containing nearly 12,300 American cookbooks and other home economics texts. Here’s what to know.
How to access the free online collection of vintage cookbooks
Longtime Lifehacker readers know how much we love the Internet Archive. Whether you’re looking for webpages that no longer exist, want to watch VHS recordings of your favorite 1990s TV shows and commercials, or play long-abandoned versions of computer games, this online tool has come in handy on many occasions, and served as the gateway to countless research rabbit holes.
Though the Internet Archive’s Cookbook and Home Economics Collection has been around since 2007, it has grown considerably in recent years: From roughly 3,000 volumes in 2016, to 12,297 as of this writing.
As you’d imagine, most cookbooks in the archive—and in general—were written for home cooks, which, until relatively recently, were almost exclusively women. In fact, starting around the mid-1800s, it became common to gift cookbooks and household manuals (which were often one and the same) to young brides to assist them in setting up their own homes.
In addition to cookbooks and household manuals, you’ll also find some books (and their covers) that haven’t aged well—many of which introduce white Americans to regional or international cuisine, often relying on racist, xenophobic, classist, and cultural stereotypes to do so.
You’ll also find all the usual suspects—Fannie Farmer, Betty Crocker (who, by the way, is a fictional character), and the experts at Better Homes and Gardens—and their classic recipes.
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