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Collecting: Vintage Baking Pamphlets

Between recipes for Jell-O molds and rainbow cakes, vintage baking pamphlets provide a fascinating window into history.

Martha Stewart Living, August 2011

They're not moments often noted in women's liberation, but long before bras were burned, the finest kitchen stoves switched from burning wood and coal to gas, and iceboxes gave way to electric refrigerators. And with these late-19th- and 20th-century advances, middle-class women were freed from some of the household drudgery. Then food suppliers such as Gold Medal, Pillsbury, and Jell-O stepped in and attempted to coax them right back into the kitchen with a new marketing tool: the recipe pamphlet. Popular from the 1870s to the 1970s, these pamphlets, many of them focused purely on desserts, were often included in food packages or could be sent away for. "Through these pamphlets, you can trace the constant, but evolving, idealization of the American housewife," Martha Stewart Living collecting editor Fritz Karch says.

With the dawn of new appliances in the early 20th century, and the Great Depression (which forced many families to give up their household help), middle-class women began to see their kitchens as symbols of social aspiration, says Sandra J. Norman, coauthor (with Karrie K. Andes) of "Vintage Cookbooks and Advertising Leaflets." And manufacturers of foodstuffs produced increasingly elaborate pamphlets to take advantage of this new market. "The earliest ones had drab, plain covers printed on cheap pulp paper," Norman says. "But that changed by 1900, with the introduction of colored ink."

Many companies hired advertising agencies to portray the lush results of recipes that called for their particular flour or gelatin (Pillsbury, not Gold Medal; Jell-O, not Knox) and the women who produced the dishes, Norman says. The ad industry in turn brought in famous artists, including Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish, to design the pamphlets. Today, these are highly sought after by collectors.

Of course, when Pillsbury distributed its beautifully illustrated recipe pamphlets, it was selling more than just flour. The company was selling a lifestyle. And when, in 1921, General Mills introduced a fictional woman named Betty Crocker, the company was hoping to invent along with her an icon to which American housewives could aspire. It made an impact: According to the Center for History and New Media, one poll in 1945 rated her as the second most famous woman in the United States, after Eleanor Roosevelt.

While this idealization of the American housewife remained a constant, the recipes and the portrayal of women in the pamphlets shifted slightly with each new era. The earliest pamphlets coincided with women taking on the job of housewife, serious about the science of cooking and feeding their families. As post-World War II American prosperity grew, the pamphlets reflected the notion of the accomplished housewife and busy hostess, with titles such as "10 Cakes Husbands Like Best." "As women's roles in the home changed, so did the recipes," Norman says.

The look of the pamphlets changed with time, too, from the Art Deco-influenced illustrations of the 1920s to the abstract images of the '60s. "Many of these pamphlets are desirable for their graphics alone," Fritz says. So whether your interest leans toward design, women's history, baking, or pop culture, the pamphlets are intriguing collectibles, even when they do show the signs of age (as is often the case). A chocolate-smudged page, or a note on a child's favorite cookie recipe, is often part of the charm -- and history.

The Early Years

The Late 1800s: The Icebox Age

Recipe pamphlets are born during a time when most households have iceboxes and gas- or coal-burning stoves, and they tend to focus on desserts that use inexpensive products. Most of the designs are simple, but some, such as those shown, are more elaborate. Notice the cover of the yellow pamphlet, from 1878; recipes were once called receipts.

The Early 1900s: The Homemaker Is Born

Pamphlets are geared toward an ambitious (but not calorie-counting) wife intent on impressing with her multilayered cakes and “frozen dainties.” Many of the recipes are purely aspirational, though, since most Americans still lack modern appliances such as refrigerators.

1920s: The Golden Years

Along with an array of wild new desserts -- a whole booklet is dedicated to marshmallows -- the pamphlets become more colorful and contain more beautiful images.

1930s: Progress and Depression

The expansion of railroads in the early 1900s made it possible for produce to be shipped quickly, thus "Sunkist Recipes for Every Day." In the '30s, die-cut pamphlets in the shape of the product, such as the Baker’s Coconut can, are introduced. With the Great Depression, the emphasis shifts toward making do with less.

The Mid-20th Century

1940s: The War Years

As the war requires food rationing and the return of women to the workforce, recipes become simpler and quicker ("None Such Recipes," for example, is all about fast mincemeat pies). "Idle Hour Cook Book" is perhaps wishful thinking.

1950s: Refrigerators for Everyone!

By the '50s, nearly every household has a full fridge and freezer, as reflected in pamphlets like "Freezing Foods at Home." This is also the heyday of the homemaker, as evidenced in the illustration of the "perfect" mom standing proudly over the birthday cake.

1960s and '70s: The Dawn of Convenience

As Americans rely more on premade foods and spend less time in the kitchen, the recipe-pamphlet era comes to a close. Companies put less money into them, resulting in many with fewer pages and interior illustrations.

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