What Bowdoin's Massive Cookbook Collection Can Teach Us About American Culture

Oct 27, 2015

Despite the proliferation of online sources for recipes, cookbooks are still big sellers. They’re inspiring and often beautiful, but are they worth studying? Maybe when you have a massive collection spanning hundreds of years, like the one Bowdoin College acquired this summer.

Credit Courtesy Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery, Bowdoin College Library

Virginia spoke with Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, an outreach fellow for special collections at Bowdoin who has been digging into the collection these past few months.

The Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery contains over 700 historical cookbooks. The titles date from the 1770s up through the 1960s, with at least one written before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

The collection was first amassed by Clifford Apgar, a retired banker from New York. Bowdoin College was able to acquire the collection through a gift from Esta Kramer, a former assistant editor at Arts Magazine, now residing in Damariscotta. The books in the collection range from cooking advice to domestic guidance and cover all aspects of cookery.

Credit Courtesy Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery, Bowdoin College Library

Collections like this are treasure troves for scholars studying American food ways and domesticity. Not only do they provide insight to cultural history – what foods people had access to and what they were choosing to eat – they are often among the few sources where women and minority groups appear as a target audience for historical print media. 

Credit Courtesy Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery, Bowdoin College Library

One of the most interesting themes in the collection is medicinal advice. For scholars, the moral and medicinal properties of alcohol can provide insight to American traditions. The rest of us might be more interested in the technique of early American home-cures - like putting live eels in someone's drink to ward them off liquor. 

An exhibit of the collection will be on display at Bowdoin, January through May, 2016. The collection can also be accessed by the public at the Special Collections & Archives department of Bowdoin’s Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.