Find female ancestors in vintage cookbooks! Expand your genealogy research by exploring heritage cookbooks for evidence of your ancestors.
Society and church cookbooks have been around for years.
We all have them. You know the ones…the little paperback cookbook sitting on your bookshelf. Local women’s societies or women’s church group would donate recipes that would be put into a book. The cookbooks were often fundraisers for a local charity.
How to Use Vintage Cookbooks in Your Genealogy Research
Besides great recipes, did you know there is a wealth of genealogical information found in these cookbooks? Let’s take a closer look.
1. Find Your Ancestor in Time and Place.
Each woman who contributed a recipe had her name placed alongside the recipe. Occasionally the signature of the contributor was included alongside the recipe. That’s always a bonus for the researcher! If you find a recipe attributed to your ancestor, you can place her in a time and a place.
Do not overlook the importance of placing your ancestor in a specific time and place. As you build your timeline for that ancestor, you will have one more data point for him or her. When tracking down hard to find ancestors and especially females, every data point of her existence is important.
For example, the Ladies’ Society of the The First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio published a cookbook in 1873. Mrs. James Stockstill contributed a recipe for Boiled Chicken Pot Pie. While Mrs. Stockstill’s given name is not mentioned, further research into her husband James Stockstill may reveal her name. We now know that Mrs. Stockstill was living in Dayton, Ohio and had an association with the First Presbyterian Church in 1873.
A drawing of the church appears in the introduction of the book and gives the exact location of the church. Now we know where their Stockstill ancestors worshiped. Now you can add First Presbyterian Church records to your research plan. It is unlikely the Stockstill family would have gone a long distance to attend church, so a general location in Dayton of the family is established.
Another example is comes from The Westford Cook Book: Tested Recipes by the Ladies of the Congregational Church of Westford, Vermont published in 1909. Mabel Bailey submitted a recipe for Succotash Soup. This places Mabel in the Westford, Vermont community in 1909. As a member of the Congrational Church, we know more about Mabel’s beliefs. Church records and the 1909 city directory can be added to the research plan.
If few records for Mabel exist, this would be a significant find for Bailey researchers.
2. Find Your Ancestor’s FAN [Friends, Associates and Neighbors] Club.
The local church or society cook book essentially provides a roster of the organization. While not everyone may have participated, most women did.
What woman wanted to be left out of her society’s cookbook? She could have been deemed an unworthy cook! While that may not bother the modern woman, it would have been important to previous generations. Always remember, if something was important to your ancestor, it is important to you as a researcher.
From this “roster” an ancestor’s FAN club [Family, Associates, Neighbors] can be established leading to many more research avenues.
3. Find Social Context of Your Ancestor’s Life.
From the charities the sale of the cookbooks supported, we learn what causes were important to our ancestors.
Now look at the type of recipes in the cookbook. What are the food trends of that area? Can you identify a predominant culinary heritage? City vs rural? Do the recipes represent traditional southern cooking? Or do the recipes represent an African American culture, a Scandinavian heritage or a Polish heritage.
The recipes give clues to the ethnic makeup of the community/group. If you identify a predominant culinary heritage or ethnic group represented, add an exploration of other community records related to that group. Check for other cultural periodicals.
Dig deep into the those recipes books in the area where you ancestors lived!
Where Do You Find These Vintage Cookbook Gems?
Finding local vintage and heritage cookbooks can be surprisingly simple.
Check with your family first. If a grandmother or great-grandmother was part of a cookbook, a copy of the cookbook is often kept in the family. If you know the church or society you ancestor attended and it still exists, check with them first. Church or society historians will know what exists for their organizations.
The local library will also be a source of community and heritage cookbooks. Don’f forget to check the vertical files!
Google Books is another great place to find older historical and vintage cookbooks. Those books published prior to 1923 are free of copyright and can be found in their entirety on Google Books for free. The Presbyterian Cookbook and The Westford Cook Book: Tested Recipes mentioned above was found on Google Books. [Learn how to use Google Books in other way, too!]
Universities with local history collections may also have local and historical cookbooks in their collections.
Tracking down cookbooks from your ancestors’ time period and location can take time. It can be tedious at times.
You must think outside of the box. Think about your ancestors’ lives at the daily level. What did she do? What types of activities outside the home or organizations did she participate in? In early times, these opportunities would have been limited, thus, narrowing your search.
In communities that suffered heavy record losses and certainly in the case of the women who generated few records, the local cookbook may be one of the few places where your ancestor appears.
Interested in learning more about discovering your own family’s food heritage? You’ll want to check out Gena Philibert-Ortega’s From the Family Kitchen: Discover Your Food Heritage and Preserve Favorite Recipes .
Other Posts of Interests!
- How To Create a Genealogy Research Plan
- How to Use City Directories In Your Genealogy Research
- Explore Your Culinary Heritage During Your Genealogy Tour