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They cooked up recipes for charity

As women's groups published cookbooks to raise funds for causes and those in need, they also empowered themselves.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 2008

'Favorite Dishes,' from the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, 1893

Courtesy of Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive/Clements Library/University of Michigan

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During many years as an antiquarian book dealer specializing in culinary works, Janice Longone had the privilege of handling almost every major cookbook in the world.

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But however splendid or treasured some of those volumes were, it was a far humbler category, known as charity cookbooks, that captured her heart. Published by women in nonprofit groups across the country, these fundraising books have been rolling off American presses since the Civil War, benefiting churches, schools, libraries, sororities, cemetery associations, the homeless, and others in need. Some also gave heady new power to the women who produced them.

"No matter what the specific cause for which the women raised funds, the underlying purpose began as women helping other women to help themselves and the outside world," says Mrs. Longone, now curator of American culinary history at the University of Michigan's Clements Library in Ann Arbor. She considers them "an integral part of the history of the women's movement."

To honor the unheralded role of charity cookbooks, Longone has assembled more than 100 early examples at the Clements Library. Called "The Old Girl Network: Community Cookbooks and the Empowerment of Women," the exhibit will remain on view through Oct. 3.

These grass-roots books serve several purposes. "They preserve America's culinary heritage by region," Longone says. They also offer a record of American social history, including the suffrage and temperance movements.

The first known charity cookbook, "A Poetical Cook-Book," appeared in 1864. It featured rhymed recipes and raised money to support those wounded, widowed, and orphaned by the Civil War.

"Because so many men were away, women began to do things they had not done before," Longone says. "They found their own space and place. You see this ferment bubbling over of women working together." As they collaborated, women honed valuable business skills. "They had to hire printers, test recipes, go out and get ads, and work on a distribution system."

After the Civil War, as women turned their charitable attentions to causes such as suffrage, education, and improved working conditions, cookbooks became one of their most effective weapons. "There was always opposition to women organizing," Longone says. "But men probably thought, 'It's only a cookbook.' "

When "The Woman Suffrage Cook Book of 1886" was published, women sold copies at the fairs and bazaars they staged to raise funds for this cause. Other suffrage cookbooks followed. Most contained pro-suffrage quotes from famous people. One volume tucks a quote from John Greenleaf Whittier between recipes for cucumber relish and orange pudding: "For 50 years I have been in favor of Woman's Suffrage. I have never been able to see any good reasons for denying the ballot to women."

Even advertising in the cookbooks promoted women's independence. After women won the vote in 1920, the "Virginia Cookery Book," published by the Virginia League of Women Voters in 1921, featured an ad for Mass. Mutual Life Insurance Co. It reads, "You have been fighting many years to secure Equal Rights. This company gives you Equal Rates!" Women ran ads too, offering to teach piano or make millinery and corsets.

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