During this pandemic, food has dominated much of my time; thinking about what to cook, hunting for hard-to-find items in the grocery stores, seeking recipes that provide comfort.
Some of those recipes are in my favorite cookbooks – The Settlement Cookbook, the Junior League’s Winners, Back Home Again, and Centennial cookbooks, and several cookbooks by members of my congregation’s Sisterhood.
When I started at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute in 2005, I did not recognize that an important chapter in the history of women’s philanthropy nestled among the cookbooks on my shelves.
These recipe collections are identified as fundraising, charity, or community cookbooks. Women in a community came together, pooled their recipes, and used the proceeds from the cookbook sales to fund a project for their charitable organization or community. The first charity cookbook was published by the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair in 1864 during the Civil War to benefit soldiers, widows, and orphans.
Since then, the number of charity cookbooks has grown exponentially; they raised funds for many of the country’s social movements and were published by women’s organizations across race, ethnicity, and religion.
My copy of The Settlement Cookbook (33rd edition, 1976) is dog-eared and stained; the recipes I use most often were the ones my mother-in-law made – pineapple upside-down-cake and matzah balls. Although the cookbook has many Jewish recipes, it also provides a comprehensive selection of recipes, menus, and useful information for the cook.
Not until I found a reference to it in a resource for this article did I connect the title to the settlement movement begun by Jane Addams. This cookbook exemplifies much about the power of women’s philanthropy.
The cookbook, first published in 1901 in Milwaukee, WI, was proposed by Mrs. Simon Kander (1858-1940), a Settlement House volunteer in charge of the cooking classes for Jewish immigrants in Milwaukee. She envisioned that the cookbook would save students time so they would not have to copy recipes from the blackboard.
According to the preface in my edition, when the women shared their vision with the male members of the Settlement board, the men refused to provide the money needed to publish the cookbook. “They suggested the ladies have the work done on their own, and laughingly offered to ‘share in any profits from your little venture.’ ”
The first edition, The Way to a Man’s Heart: The Settlement Cookbook, sold for 50 cents each, sold out within a year, and netted a $500 profit. Proceeds from the first two editions supported the construction of a new settlement house. Cookbook sales provided operating funds for the settlement house for nine years and contributed to the creation of the first nursery school in Milwaukee, scholarships, and other community projects.
In 1991, Simon & Schuster published the final edition of the Settlement Cookbook, ending a 90-year run of more than 40 editions and 2 million copies sold.
During the 19th century women used nonprofits as an accepted way to engage in civic life since politics and business were perceived to be men’s domain. For example, women created charity cookbooks to advance the suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These books provided recipes and narratives reflecting the disparate views women held on how to achieve suffrage.
Along with the recipes, some narratives focused on feminine qualities such as morality that qualified women to vote. Other narratives stated that women embodied republican ideals such as public responsibility and civic virtue, key qualities essential to voting at that time. Suffragists sold the cookbooks as they went door-to-door encouraging people to support their cause. Sadly, only seven such cookbooks remain.
The Junior League is well-known for its fundraising cookbooks. Virtually every Junior League has published one and there must be hundreds, if not thousands across the country. In the introduction to the League’s Centennial Cookbook (1996), Executive Director Holly Sloan said:
“It is difficult to overstate how successful the Junior League cookbooks have been in raising funds for their communities. … Since Junior Leagues began publishing cookbooks in the 1950s, more than 18 million cookbooks have been sold. The proceeds fund programs ranging from shelters for runaway youth, homeless families, and battered spouses to food banks, mobile health vans, organ donation, downtown revitalization, the arts, historic preservation … to the promotion of volunteerism itself.”
In 1971, scholar Margaret Cook created a bibliography of more than 3,000 charity cookbooks published prior to 1916. Archivist and culinary curator Janice Longone described charity cookbooks as a “prime example of female bonding and collective civic virtue.”
Longone’s cookbook collection of more than 15,000 items is housed in the University of Michigan archives. Other charity cookbook collections are located at the Library of Congress, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, Michigan State University, the University of Denver, and many state historical libraries.
The cookbooks reflect a true interdisciplinary field of study; they can be read as literature, geography, sociology, politics, gender studies, history, anthropology, food studies, and, of course, philanthropy.
For those interested in building a more diverse and inclusive history of American philanthropy, especially the narratives of women, these more informal resources enhance our understanding of women’s roles in society. At a time when women’s voices were rarely heard in the formal business of society, women spoke loudly through charity cookbooks.
Little is known about the charity cookbook’s effectiveness as a fundraising tool. Curious researchers may wish to read board minutes from the nonprofits that created the cookbooks to assess how much money was raised and gather greater detail about the causes they supported.
I have 16 charity cookbooks on my shelves. Several are from Jewish organizations; others support a children’s hospital, public television, Indiana’s sesquicentennial (1971), and an international festival.
They tell fascinating stories about our changing tastes in food, cultural norms such as name recognition for the recipe contributor (e.g., from Mrs. Simon Kander to Lizzie Kander), and the causes the funds supported (the Junior League is especially strong in this area).
The history of women’s philanthropy is incomplete without consideration of the charity cookbook. How many such books do you own and what stories do they tell?
Andrea Pactor, M.A.’03, is the former associate director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. She is passionate about women, food, and philanthropy; charity cookbooks combine all three passions and hold a special place in her heart.