What Makes an Old Cookbook or Recipe Leaflet Valuable?

The Cook's Handbook Autographed by Gracie Allen (Wife of Comedian George Burns)
The Cook's Handbook Autographed by Gracie Allen (Wife of Comedian George Burns). Pamela Y. Wiggins

The reasons for collecting old cookbooks vary and many of them have nothing to do with food. According to the Price Guide to Cookbooks and Recipe Leaflets by Linda J. Dickinson (now out of print but available through online booksellers), the decoration or subject matter often has more to do with the collectible nature of these items than the fact that they contain recipes.

"I found that paper books and leaflets with attractive covers were a very big part of the market. St. Nicholas Flour leaflets with Santa on the cover were in demand by antiquers who decorate at the holidays with old ornaments and such," Dickinson wrote.

Those interested in "celebrity memorabilia snatched up Kate Smith and Yul Brynner" illustrations, Dickinson added. Folks looking for soft drink advertising seek 7-Up recipe flyers and the like. Those who favor Art Deco themes will also be interested in books or leaflets that have this type of distinctive artwork in the design. In other words, crossover collecting is big in this area.

Just as you'll find collecting other types of books, first editions of cookbooks can also be worth more than subsequent printings. Autographed cookbooks associated with famous individuals can also be worth more than unsigned copies.

Condition and Value

By and large, to be considered top-notch, cookbooks and recipe leaflets need to be in very nice ​condition. This means they should have no loose or soiled pages and clean covers. Unfortunately, favorites that received a lot of use in the kitchen didn’t hold up so well, and they may have less than stellar pages in addition to worn covers and broken binding. For average, everyday books and leaflets, it’s wise not to pay top prices unless the condition is excellent. There are, however, exceptions to the condition rule in this area of collecting.

Some titles that have historic significance or those that are extremely old and rare will be valuable regardless of the condition. Take handwritten recipe books, or “receipts” as they were referred to long ago, from the Civil War era, as an example. These can be quite valuable even if they are soiled or discolored as long as the pages are still legible and not torn. A copy of The Federation Cook Book: A Collection of Tested Recipes Contributed by the Colored Women of the State of California, which interests collectors of Black Americana as well as cookbook collectors, is another example. These can be in marginally good condition, but due to their rarity and subject matter, worth quite a good sum. If you want the book more for its content than a collector's item, reprints are available in the $11 to $25 range. 

Some titles, like The Whitehouse Cookbook, that originated in the late 1800s aren't that difficult to find, but they aren't always in good condition. Find an early one that wasn't used much, and it can be worth $200 or more. This book was also reprinted decades later, and those versions can be found much more reasonably priced.  

Cookbook and Recipe Leaflet Sample Values

What are people paying for these vintage books that resided in most every kitchen of yesteryear? Here are some sample values:

  • The Federation Cook Book: A Collection of Tested Recipes Contributed by the Colored Women of the State of California - c. 1910 - $510 (eBay.com - 10/12)
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Volume 1, First Edition – c. 1961 - $275 (eBay.com - 12/16)
  • Mrs. Beeton’s Every-Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book – c. 1893 - $175 (eBay.com – 1/17)
  • Les Diners de Gala by Salvador Dali, First Edition – c. 1973 - $875 (eBay.com – 1/17)
  • Bush Family Cookbook, Signed by President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush – c. 2005 - $175 (eBay.com – 12/16)
  • The White House Cookbook by Hugo Zemann & Mrs. Gillette - c. 1903 - $269.99 (eBay.com – 12/16)
  • Betty Crocker's Cooky Book, First Edition - c. 1963 - $1,000 (eBay.com – 1/17)
  • The Mary Frances Cook Book, First Edition - c. 1912 - $550 (eBay.com – 12/16)