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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.

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Charity cookbooks also benefited the temperance movement. Explaining women's interest in that cause, Langone says, "They felt those most hurt by drunkenness were women and children."

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For Merinda Hensley, a librarian at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, interest in the genre began when she was a graduate student. The university had received a donation of 6,000 cookbooks. As she went through the boxes, she realized that the most interesting were community cookbooks.

When community cookbooks – another term for charity cookbooks – began in the 1860s, women "had no political power and very little power in the home," Ms. Hensley notes. "But they took what they knew, which was cooking, and raised money, which was power, and turned that back into their communities for things that were important to them."

One bibliography of charity cookbooks that were published before 1916 lists almost 3,000 titles. "Three-fourths of those are known around the country as having one copy only," Longone says. "It shows how scarce they are. Very early ones are very expensive now. Some go for $3,000."

Earlier works are especially fragile. "Because they're published in very small numbers, on very cheap paper, with cheap bindings, they degrade very easily," Hensley says.

Two early volumes have remained in print for more than a century. "The Settlement Cookbook" was published in 1901 by the Jewish Settlement House in Milwaukee. Since then it has gone through four revisions, 34 printings, and 2 million copies. "For 75 years every charity in Milwaukee received financial aid from selling this book," Longone says.

"The Buckeye Cookbook," published in 1876, is still in print as well.

Longone ranks "The National Cookery Book," written for the 1876 World's Fair in Philadelphia, as her favorite charity volume. "It was the first national cookbook for America," she says.

Recipes – or "receipts," as some books call them – can feature quirky names, such as Rinktum Diddy, Mother's Election Cake, Kiss Pudding, and Newburyport Housekeeper's Way to Glorify Cold Mutton. Early books also offer household tips. One suffrage cookbook tells how to "Destroy Ants, Preserve the Complexion, and Cleanse Soiled Ribbons and Laces."

Today, half a dozen companies and schools help groups make their books more professional. There's even an annual competition, the Tabasco Community Cookbook Awards, honoring cookbooks published by nonprofit groups.

"Many books used to be mimeographed recipes compiled in the church basement," says Jan Hazard, a former food editor who serves as a judge for the awards. "Now some look like coffee-table books, they're so pretty."

Praising the role charity cookbooks play in chronicling and preserving local culinary traditions, Hensley says, "It's a window to our past. Politically, women have contributed to our economy for over a century through these books. ... They used what they had to make the world a better place."