WHAT’S IT WORTH? (Determining the Value of Cookbooks)

If you ever watch a TV show called “Pawn Star” you would know that people often bring in some family treasure, thinking it must be worth thousands of dollars (it’s been in the attic for years!), and are often disillusioned that it is not worth much at all. On the other hand, sometimes the store owner brings in an expert to determine if a document or book is authentic and sometimes the object in question IS authentic and IS worth a nice little bundle – but that doesn’t mean that the Pawn Store owner is going to PAY that much. We watch him repeatedly explain to potential customers that HE has to be able to get a certain amount out of the object in question or it may just take up space in his shop.

I think the bottom line to buying/selling any object – and that includes cookbooks – is that it’s only worth the amount someone is willing to pay. I have a houseful of cookbooks collected over 45 years and they probably have a insurable value of $10,000 – but that doesn’t mean a book dealer is going to come along and be willing to PAY that much for the collection. (Not that I am planning to sell any time soon). And I am sometimes stunned to discover what a book – say a book I have in my collection – has been listed at, or sold on Ebay for.

Probably the most well known cookbook to show up on dealer lists and maybe the least valuable, depending on which edition – and what condition – is the White House Cookbook. The single worst feature of the White House cookbooks is the paper the pages were printed on, an inexpensive newspaper print.

Colonel Bob Allen in his “Guide To Collecting Cookbooks” lists nearly a dozen of the White House cookbooks, ranging in value from more recent ($10.00) to the oldest—an 1889 printing of the 1887 copyright ($60). Mary Barile in her reference book “COOKBOOKS WORTH COLLECTING has a listing of the White house Cookbook @ $35.00. Neither author indicates the condition of the books or that they were offering to sell the cookbooks in their respective collections. And, I should mention that Mary Barile’s “Cookbooks Worth Collecting” was published in 1994, while Colonel Bob Allen’s Guide to Collecting Cookbooks” doesn’t appear to have a copyright date. Prices listed in the 1990s might be expected to increase in seventeen years. Another useful price guide for cookbook collectors is a book titled “Price Guide to Cookbooks & Recipe Leaflets” by Linda J. Dickinson, also without a copyright date (I should add, then, that I have had all of these price guides for about 20 years). Dickinson listed 10 copies of the White House Cookbook, ranging in prices from $20.00 (for a 1967 edition) to $95 for an 1894 edition. Dickinson also advises readers that “The current values in this book should be used only as a guide. They are not intended to set prices, which vary from one section of the country to another. Auction prices as well as dealer prices vary greatly and are affected by condition as well as demand…”

Another factor you should consider when attempting to determine the value of a particular cookbook is that prices may change from time to time, depending on the economy. When the country is in a recession, cookbook prices may dip. Consumers, especially housewives, may be more concerned with buying groceries rather than spending money on books that teach us how to cook the food we buy. Even so, treasures may be found where you least expect them. Over the years, I’ve bought more than my share of cookbooks in thrift shops or at flea markets.

My favorite story is about the #1 Bake Off cookbooklet. I had been collecting the Bake Off books for years – collecting more than one copy of many editions, to use in trades for other books. But that #1 Bake Off book eluded me.

One summer when my sister & I were visiting her daughter who lives in Palm Springs, we went to an outdoor flea market and browsed around this parking lot where tables had been set up. I saw a box full of cookbooklets – not just bake off books, but a wide variety of recipe booklets. A little sign had been taped to the front of the box “cookbooks 50c each” so I began rummaging through the box. I finally had several I wanted to buy and the woman glanced at them and said “Oh, I can’t sell THAT one for fifty cents – I have to have a dollar”. I was really tempted to put the booklets back and walk away; I don’t approve of that kind of selling tactic. But I had $2.00 in my hand. So I gave her the money & walked off with 3 booklets.

It wasn’t until we were in the car heading for home that I took another look at my flea market purchases. I had found the elusive #1 Bake Off book – and bought it for a dollar! Around that time, #1 was selling for about $50. It’s so rare, I haven’t seen one listed for years. (I often wondered why Pillsbury never came out with a facsimile edition of the #1 Bake off book—I think enough collectors would buy it just to complete their collection!).

Well, the point is, treasures can still be found. In more recent years, I’ve done a lot more of my cookbook shopping on Amazon and Alibris, than I have going to flea markets – but I still go to Friends of the Library book sales and you never know what goodies will turn up at these events!

To Barbara, who wrote inquiring about the value of her Chicago cookbook – this may not be the answer you are looking for…but I hope it will give you some insight on determining the value of the book in your possession. And, if the book belonged to a mother or a grandmother in your family, you might want to hang onto it just for the sentimental value. And THAT is something money can’t buy!

Happy Collecting!


2 responses to “WHAT’S IT WORTH? (Determining the Value of Cookbooks)

  1. I see that the Whitehouse cookbook of 1903 sold for $125. How much would the 1909 publication be worth…ron

    • I still dont think it would be worth much, depending on condition – but SO many of the books were published, a new one every time a new president entered the White House, a new first lady was featured in the new edition. now if you had a copy signed BY the president or the first lady – that might be worth a bit more. – Thanks for writing. Sandy

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