Title-page of
De Re Coquinaria
by Apicius
(Lyons, 1541)


Cookbooks in the Chapin Library

by Robert L. Volz

The cookbooks and other gastronomical texts available in the Chapin Library include some 800 books and pamphlets and a dozen manuscript compilations. Nearly 95 percent are American in origin, with 75 percent published before 1901. Most of these came from the collection of American cookery assembled by Mrs. Eleanor T. Fordyce of Rochester, N.Y. and donated to the Chapin Library in 1998 upon the recommendation of her son, Robert P. Fordyce, Williams Class of 1956.

The American collection in the Chapin Library begins with nine editions of Maria Rundell’s compulsory New System of Domestic Cookery, variously modified and re-titled, published between 1807 and 1823. As it was in its native England, the New System was also the runaway bestselling cookbook in America, eclipsing even The American Cookery, or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish Poultry, & Vegetables ofAmelia Simmons published in five editions between 1796 and 1808, the date of the earliest edition in the Fordyce collection. The Chapin Library now houses a generous 100 works published through the end of the Civil War, many in regional imprints from New England, the Midwest, and the Southern Seaboard states: for instance, The Cook Not Mad, or Rational Cookery, published in upstate Watertown, N.Y. in 1831, and Everybody’s Cook and Receipt Book, but More Particularly Designed for Buckeyes, Hoosiers, Wolverines, Corncrackers, Suckers, and All Epicures Who Wish to Live with the Present Times, originating in Cleveland in 1842 from the pen and kitchen of Philomelia Ann Maria Antoinette Hardin. The latter is important both as the first cookbook printed west of the Alleghenies and for the regional selection of Hardin’s recipes.

Cookbooks of the first half of the 19th century frequently had a strong “domestic economy” component, a feature which makes them especially attractive to college faculty and students in the 21st century seeking materials which unfold the manners and ways of our ancestors. Two in multiple editions in the Chapin collection are Catherine E. Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy and its supplement, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, which in perennial sales vied with the story books of her younger sister Harriet – Uncle Tom’s Cabin excepted. Esther Allen Howland’s New England Economical Housekeeper, and Family Receipt Book appears in the Fordyce collection in four of its fifteen editions, with three different titles printed from stereotype plates in six different cities between 1845 and 1867.

However, the cookbooks of the burgeoning post-Civil War publishing era are best represented in the Chapin Library, with over 380 works issued between 1866 and 1900. Here are most of the works of the famed Philadelphia and Boston cooking schools: the names of Fannie Merritt Farmer, Marion Harland, Eliza Leslie, Mary Johnson Lincoln, Maria Parloa, and Sarah Tyson Rorer show up on hardcover volumes and pamphlets alike, sometimes extending into the early decades of the 20th century. Fat tomes such as the American (1887), White House (1889), Washington (1890), New World’s Fair (1891), and Presidential (1895) cookbooks extol our national sufficiency. And tucked between these substantial cookbooks are specialized works for the chafing dish (including seven from the 1890s) and for dainties galore, be they assorted, breakfast, crackers, drinks, entrées, or frozen – usually slender pamphlets which once flooded the marketplace, and which now entice readers to feast from the Chapin shelves.

At century’s end, Oscar Tschirky’s Cook Book of “Oscar” of the Waldorf, a nicely produced tome of 921 pages, was published in Chicago in 1896, while in 1901, eighty-five miles to the north, Lizzie Black Kander under the auspices of “The Settlement”, with the purpose to educate and ameliorate the German immigrant population of Milwaukee to the ways of American life and language, stressed the healthfulness of different foods and provided precise nutritional information. From the elegant and sumptuous to the essential and simple, 19th-century American cookery in the Fordyce collection reflects the expansion of the population and the development of the taste of the Nation.

To the collection of books are added more than a hundred pamphlets and booklets distributed gratis by stove and utensil companies, by china and flatware manufacturers, and especially by food product processors. Often beautifully printed and cleverly illustrated, these pamphlet cookbooks were consulted for their simple, family-oriented recipes. They served as a vital intermediary between the bulkier volumes and each cook’s home file box of recipe cards. All of these kinds of recipe presentations (and preservation) are found in representative amounts in the Fordyce collection.

A specialized cookbook collection would not be in isolation in a great rare book library. Indeed, matters of food production, distribution, preparation, and aggrandizement are all part of the ideas, events, and people that have formed civilization, principles which guide the Chapin Library collections. Centuries before the first cookbook was printed in America in 1796, accounts about the Native American populations of the Western Hemisphere were being published in Europe and occasionally even in America. More often than not, these featured notices of crops raised and harvested, animals hunted and eaten, drinks concocted, cooking methods, etc. Dozens of such works are included in the Chapin Library’s internationally known and respected Americana collection, of which a few examples would include Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes’s Historia general y natural de las Indias (Seville, 1535), which includes illustrated notes on irrigation and fertilization for crop culture, and also edible plants such as the coconut and pineapple; Andre Thevet’s Les singularitez de la France antarctique (Antwerp, 1558), and an English edition (London, 1568) which illustrates a method of beer making; and illustrated Latin and German editions of Thomas Hariot’s Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (Frankfurt, 1590), which picture the smoking of fish and the cooking of meat (excluding those of cannibals).

The Chapin Library contains a valuable group of books, often passed over by writers on gastronomical subjects: these span two millennia of food production and preparation, from various 15th- and 16th-century folio editions of the Latin author L. Junius Moderatus Columella and the medieval writer Pietro de’ Crescenzi, to the seminal works on chemistry and food production, preservation, and preparation by Nicolas Appert, Friedrich Accum, Justus Liebig, and Louis Pasteur, to something so slim and elusive as a handout broadsheet of a pep talk to the British nation on the limited food supply in Our Land and Our Food: Mr. Churchill’s Declaration (London, 1945). Then there are the herbalists, whether classical, medieval, renaissance, or modern, whose works, printed from 1484 through the early 19th century, fill a shopping basket in the Chapin collection; their discussion of the use and preparation of plants for their medicinal virtues are not without their notes on the edible or potable qualities of certain plants.

Importantly, a fund established by Alice and Bruce Healy, Williams Class of 1968, for the acquisition of important works of French gastronomy, especially patisserie, offers dramatic possibilities for developing the cookbook collections of the Chapin Library with the very finest copies of both classic and innovative French cuisine. The additions made through the Healys’ generosity include the legendary work of French cuisine, Jean Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût, ou, Méditations de gastronomie transcendante (Paris, 1826), which the author shortly before his death warmly inscribed to a close associate. This fits well with various classic works of other countries found in the Chapin Library, such as De Re Coquinaria by the 4th-century Italian writer known as Apicius, printed in Lyon in 1541, from the collection of E. Parmalee Prentice, whose experimental farm thrived on 1,100 acres in South Williamstown during the first half of the 20th century. A later text, but a much earlier printing, is the 1480 lifetime edition of De Honesta Voluptate et Valitudine by the Vatican librarian Bartholomaeus Sicci (1421–1481, otherwise known as Platina), first printed in 1475 and generally accepted as the earliest culinary and recipe book.

Other works in the collection worth noting are first editions of Hannah Glasse’s immensely popular The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (London, 1747), which had fifteen lifetime printings and twice as many posthumous editions, and her Compleat Confectioner (London, ca.1760), which enjoyed seven editions over forty years. While the prolific Sarah Rorer of Philadelphia published Canning and Preserving in 1887 (in the Fordyce collection), a book so important for immigrants and for the westward-moving population of America, its direct predecessor was Nicolas Appert’s The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years (London, 1811; first published in Paris in 1810, under the auspices of the French Minister of the Interior), acquired by the Chapin on the W. Edward Archer Fund in memory of H. Richard Archer, the fourth Custodian of the Chapin Library and an exceptional amateur gourmand.

Also on the Archer Fund, the Library has acquired I.M. Radetskii’s Almanakh gastronomov, published in St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1877, a rare and exceptional work in Russian illustrated with chromolithographs, whose subtitle perhaps says it all: including the components of dishes for ninety complete dinners, indicated by Russian and French menu notes, rules for setting the table, table service, the order of wines, detailed service at balls, an explanation of the purchase and sale of vital supplies, and how to store them. Equally rare is the first edition of Philippe Cauderlier’s La patisserie et les confitures, published in Ghent, 1874. The author’s other culinary works are known in many editions, but we can trace only later editions of this 304-page collection of recipes to delight the palate.

The Chapin Library has grown to embrace a great variety of culinary works, including several livres d’artistes in English, French, and Russian, containing both original texts and classic texts by Brillat-Savarin and others. All have been recorded in the Williams College online catalog FRANCIS and in the international database OCLC/WorldCat. As new gifts and purchases arrive, they also will be added to the online catalogs, making the collection useful to ever more researchers, students, and cookbook writers. Most recently, we have added on the Healy Fund the two quarto-sized volumes of Grand livre des pâtissiers et des confiseurs by Urbain-Dubois (Paris, 1883), a culinary classic especially noted for 138 plates illustrating every conceivable cake and baked dessert.

Robert L. Volz is the Custodian of the Chapin Library.


Text written May 2010 & copyright © 2010 by the President and Trustees of Williams College
This page was last updated on 26 May 2010