First Monday Library Chat: The Bowdoin College Library

Welcome to the January 2016 edition of the First Monday Library Chat. This month The Recipes Project journeys to Brunswick, Maine where the Bowdoin College Library recently acquired a collection of printed American cookery books. Special Collections & Archives Outreach Fellow, Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, kindly provided an overview of the collection along with information about upcoming events highlighting the collection and information about doing research at the library.

A view of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.
A view of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.

For our readers who may not be familiar with the Bowdoin College Library, can you provide a brief overview of the library’s holdings and research strengths?

The Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery is housed here at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, a department of the Bowdoin College Library. The Library supports the teaching and research of the Bowdoin community, a small liberal arts college in Maine. Our library also has branches that specialize in science, music, and art.

Special Collections & Archives is an active partner in the scholarly pursuits of the College; our rare books, manuscripts, archival records, and related resources such as photographs, sound recordings, and historic newspapers, serve in teaching, learning, research, and personal enrichment.

The department’s holdings are wide-ranging and include substantial collections of unique manuscript resources, over 50,000 rare books, journals, and broadsides, 25,000 photographs, as well as maps, sound recordings, and electronic records. Among the printed works (the earliest dated 1478) are collections of early American, Maine, and British imprints; books by New England writers; material by and about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (both Bowdoin graduates in 1825); finely printed and finely bound books; artists’ books and pop-ups; and works on travel, exploration, and natural history. Some of these books have been in the College’s possession since soon after its founding in 1794.

Manuscript holdings date from as early as the 13th century and are particularly rich for research into the early history of Massachusetts and Maine; antislavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction; Arctic studies and exploration; Maine writers; politics and government; and Bowdoin College, its alumni, faculty, and presidents. Complementing these resources are thousands of photographs and audio recordings, hundreds of maps, and a growing array of digital surrogates.

A shelf view of the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery at Bowdoin College Library.
A shelf view of the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery at Bowdoin College Library.

The Bowdoin Library recently acquired the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery; can you give us a broad overview of the collection’s scope?

The Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery is a comprehensive gathering of printed American cookery books, dating from the eighteenth through early twentieth century and containing more than 700 books. The strength of the collection is from the Colonial era through 1900, though important works through 1960 are integrated. The collection was assembled by Clifford Apgar and is named after Esta Kramer, who made a generous gift to Bowdoin College to enable its acquisition.

As a resource for American food history, the collection represents every type and style of American cookbook to emerge between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, which includes: cookbooks for every social and economic level, regional cuisines, quantity cooking, single subject books, cooking with few ingredients, réchauffage or cooking with leftovers, economic cooking, appliance and gadget cookery, foreign cuisines, professional chef books, banqueting, diet books, market guides, seasonal cooking, product promotion cookbooks, military cooking, vegetarianism, children’s cookbooks, and community cookbooks.

Beyond cooking, the collection illuminates the development of American culture, encompassing social movements and historical events, including women’s suffrage, temperance, the African-American experience, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, technological applications in the household, immigration, and westward expansion. A significant number of community, church, and charitable cookbooks provide insight into local foodways, but also into women’s organizations and, through advertisements, the business communities of small and large towns across America.

Can you give us a few highlights from the collection? Or, can you highlight one or two of your favorite items?

It’s difficult to pick a personal favorite – but lately I’ve been utterly charmed by Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book: Containing Nearly a Thousand Recipes, Many of the New and all of them tried and known to be valuable; such as have been used by the best housekeepers of Kentucky and other states. (Cincinnati: Geo. Stevens & Co.,1876) a community cookbook assembled by “The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church” in Paris, Kentucky in 1875.

From The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church, Paris, Ky., Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book, Fifth Thousand, (Cincinnati:Geo. Stevens & Co., 1876), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3964].
From The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church, Paris, Ky., Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book, Fifth Thousand, (Cincinnati: Geo. Stevens & Co., 1876), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3964].
This community cookbook, one of many in the collection, includes recipes attributed to over 150 women from the “Blue Grass” region of Kentucky. The preface states, “It was suggested six months ago, after mature consideration of ways and means, that we might not only greatly increase our funds, but also contribute to the convenience and pleasure of housekeepers generally, by publishing a good receipt book” (v-vi).

From The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church, Paris, Ky., Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book, Fifth Thousand, (Cincinnati:Geo. Stevens & Co., 1876), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3964].
From The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church, Paris, Ky., Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book, Fifth Thousand, (Cincinnati: Geo. Stevens & Co., 1876), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3964].
I’m drawn to this book because it’s riddled with evidence of use. The book is a great example of a make-do kitchen (vernacular) binding, in this case a hand-stitched blue gingham. Throughout the interior are food stains indicating heavily used (or at least messy) recipes. On the interleaved blanks are manuscript recipes, all in one hand, but in many different inks indicating the growth of this recipe collection over time, further supplemented by printed recipe clippings pasted down and laid in throughout. The advertisements that appear at the back of the book represent businesses both in Kentucky and Ohio, illustrating the geographical interplay between the location of writing and publication.

From [Amelia Simmons, et al]. An American Orphan, American Cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables; and the best modes of making puff-pastes, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves. And all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake. Adapted to this country, and all grades of life, (Poughkeepsie, NY: Paraclete Potter / P&S Potter, Printers,1815), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3787].
From [Amelia Simmons, et al]. An American Orphan, American Cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables; and the best modes of making puff-pastes, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves. And all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake. Adapted to this country, and all grades of life, (Poughkeepsie, NY: Paraclete Potter / P&S Potter, Printers, 1815), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3787].
Other highlights from the collection include an early edition of Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables; and the best modes of making puff-pastes, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves. And all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake. Adapted to this country, and all grades of life (Poughkeepsie, NY: Paraclete Potter / P&S Potter, Printers, 1815). First published in 1796, Simmons’ American Cookery is widely considered the first cookbook authored by an American and published in the United States. Though many of the recipes are borrowed from British cookbooks, for example Susannah Carter’s The Frugal House-wife (whose Boston imprint is the earliest in our collection), the use of native produce clues us into the true American-ness of this text. For instance, Simmons’ calls for cornmeal in five recipes and offers instructions for johnnycake, hoecake, and Indian slapjacks which are some of the first printed examples of these early American food staples. Other recipes call for cranberries and turkey, both indigenous to America.

From Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman's Home: Or, principles of domestic science; being a guide to the formation and maintenance of economical healthful, beautiful, and Christian homes (New York: J.B. Ford and Company, 1869), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3935].
From Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home: Or, principles of domestic science; being a guide to the formation and maintenance of economical healthful, beautiful, and Christian homes (New York: J.B. Ford and Company, 1869), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3935].
Another highlight from the collection is a first edition of Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home: Or, principles of domestic science; being a guide to the formation and maintenance of economical healthful, beautiful, and Christian homes (New York: J.B. Ford and Company, 1869). This book has particular resonance for the Bowdoin community since Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catharine Beecher lived in Brunswick, adjacent to campus, and the College now owns the home they lived in. While Stowe’s husband served as professor of theology at Bowdoin, she penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her sister assisted her with domestic duties and the care of the Stowe’s five children. Additionally the sisters ran a school from the home, which adds an interesting perspective to the principles and instruction enumerated in The American Woman’s Home (written over ten years after the Stowe’s and Beecher left Brunswick).

The collection is full of wonderful and rare cookery books, these are just three examples. There are further highlights listed on our website.

 Bowdoin has an upcoming exhibition featuring the new collection; can you provide our readers with more information and, perhaps, a sneak peak?

“What to Eat, and How to Cook It: A Celebration of the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery” exhibition will open on January 25, 2016 on the second floor of the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library and will be on view through June 5.

To open the exhibition antiquarian bookseller and epicure Don Lindgren will explore what the physical attributes of cookbooks can tell us about our social, cultural, and environmental past in a talk entitled “The Anatomy of the Cookbook” on Wednesday, January 27th at 4:30pm. This talk is open to the public and will also be livestreamed. A reception immediately follows at the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library where Bowdoin Dining Services will be serving hors d’oeuvres based on recipes from the collection.

As the first formal introduction of the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery the exhibition will offer a tantalizing glimpse into the collection while celebrating its acquisition. We will feature cookery books spanning two hundred years and which will be presented along with archival material about the history of food and dining at Bowdoin. For many years, Bowdoin has been at (or near) the top of the “Best Food” Princeton Review college rankings and we’re excited to showcase what the College has been eating historically, and how it was cooked!

Through illustrations, narratives, and recipes, the exhibition explores how Americans have thought about, prepared, and consumed food from the Colonial period to today.

“What to Eat, and How to Cook It” will explore new ways of experiencing cookbooks, looking at what they can tell us about advances in technology, social movements, historical events, issues of race and gender, and place/regionalism.

What tips can you offer to help users find recipes via your catalogue or finding aids?

The collection has yet to be formally processed – but we do have an inventory of the collection available online and further bibliographic content available by request.

We are also happy to offer reference services to connect specific research inquiries to relevant materials in our collections, either in person or by correspondence.

For those who are able to travel to Brunswick, Maine, we welcome all to our reading room that is open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday-Friday, major holidays excepted. Maine has an especially rich food culture, from the incredible coastal resources to a thriving agricultural economy (both historically and now), and we are thrilled to add a new dimension to that culture through public access to the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery.


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