Friday, 11 March 2016




Usually when I pick objects to write about I choose objects that can be found in museum collections, but today’s object is more likely to be found a relative’s cupboard or a thrift store: vintage recipe pamphlets. This post came about as part of a discussion with Historic Kitchen columnist, Leah, about vintage recipe pamphlets as both sources of information and as printed objects with their own inherent value. I inherited a lot of these small recipe books from the women in my family and I continue to collect any that I come across in thrift stores because I love the way they look, and love to read the old-fashioned recipes. Sometimes vintage recipe books even come with an extra surprise like a comment or handwritten notation in the margins.

A handful of vintage recipe pamphlets (photo credit: Natania Sherman)

Published throughout the 20th century, vintage recipe pamphlets are interesting because they reflect technological changes in the food industry, a growing interest in home cooking, and the role of women in the household. Often companies or food brands such as Heinz, Robin Hood Flour Mills Limited or Eagle Brand would publish pamphlets describing how their products could be used to simplify the process of cooking for a family. Pamphlets like these were almost always aimed at middle class women. In a 1920's Eagle Brand Cookbook that I found, titled New Kitchen Magic, the introduction is written directly to a "modern housewife" from the point of view of another woman. This book begins with an "experiment" comparing a conventional fudge (fondant) recipe to one made with Eagle Brand condensed milk. The pamphlet stresses the fact that science and technology have made home cooking more convenient in order to streamline domestic tasks. Naturally, the condensed milk version of fudge uses less ingredients and less time, winning out over the traditional process. Other booklets feature recipes using an array of convenience products. Pamphlets from the 1950’s and 60’s have no shortage of Jell-o salads, and marshmallows seem to play a prominent role in many a dessert concoction.

Condensed milk fudge brings all the boys to the yard, it's science. (photo credit: Natania Sherman)

As printed material that was meant to be distributed for advertising purposes, vintage recipe pamphlets were disposable objects that reflect the aesthetics, values, and culture of the date they were published, although they often contain very little publishing information, making it difficult to date them accurately. Like the cookbooks of today, with their minimalist food blogger aesthetic, vintage recipe books and pamphlets reveal hints of art deco or mid-century taste in their illustrations and graphic qualities. Recipe pamphlets could be highly localized, in the case of booklet released by a brand called Green Label, which appears to have been a type of margarine or shortening-like product from the east coast. Booklets dating to the 1940’s often reflect wartime shortages. In fact anyone looking for excellent resources on adapting recipes for food sensitivities should research wartime cookbooks as they often feature recipes that do not use eggs or flour.

I wasn't kidding about all the Jell-o salads (photo credit: Natania Sherman)

While vintage recipe pamphlets don’t get a lot of attention in the museum world, printed matter and recipe books can be a valuable resource in reclaiming a sense of daily life in the early 20th century. From a museum studies perspective there's been an increase of interest in exploring the food-ways of past eras. I’m certain that I’m not the only one who wants to know what it was really like to plan a dinner party in 1968 or what that canned soup casserole really tastes like. In my opinion, these objects are worthy of attention for the illustrations alone. It is very rare in the age of photography to find illustrations in cookbooks today. Furthermore the cumulative effect of these images paints a very clear picture of how women's roles have evolved over the course of the 20th century. Having celebrated International Women's Day earlier this week, objects like this can illuminate our understanding of just how much things have changed.

These illustrations don't tell us anything about gender roles (photo credit: Natania Sherman)

Speaking of recreating recipes from the past, stay tuned for Leah’s next installment of Historic Kitchen in which she explores 20th century cooking in Canada and tries a recipe from one of my vintage recipe pamphlets!


  1. I love the design and illustrations in the pamphlets! My family's women tend to pick a recipe book and then remain loyal to it for 60 years instead of collecting pamphlets, but generations of women definitely ALL still make canned soup casseroles to this day. Food practices are definitely a kind of living history that doesn't make it into the big museums too often--but local community museums tend to be wildly excited about this kind of thing, I've found.
    Your mention of food sensitivities is interesting--relating it to rationing really is an easy way to frame something like gluten intolerance to a generation who might not 'get' it. My grandmother was relaying a family recipe for a kind of potato bread to me the other day and in trying to adapt it to my eating restrictions, told me how they never used flour in it during the war, because they didn't have any!

    1. It's all about the graphic design! I love that this could be a way to translate food sensitivities to older generations.

  2. A Twitter follower wanted me to pass this article along to you "for the man in the kitchen" - ... What a paper trail we have left regarding our societal norms and practices in the kitchen!

    1. I've never seen a recipe booklet for men! Amazing!