For many bargain lovers, it's all about the thrill of the hunt, that pulse-racing moment when you are the first to spot a keeper among the discarded. As you consider it from every angle, your hands tremble—but not so much that you can't open your wallet to pay the pittance being asked and escape before someone raises an eyebrow.
Sean Martin had such a moment in November when he and a friend visited the semiannual and aptly named Big Book Sale, which helps fund operations at the Chapel Hill Public Library. They drove up from Mebane with a clear plan of making a beeline to the rare and specialized book section, where the musty perfume of hand-sewn bindings, scuffed leather covers, and fragile pages, sometimes passionately inscribed, make book lovers swoon.
"My friend was the one who picked it up and showed it to me," Martin says of what appeared to be a self-published collection called The White House Cook Book by F.L. (Fanny) Gillette. Martin, a self-described "inveterate collector of cookbooks," thought it would suit his existing library. "It looked very interesting and it was only eight dollars," he says, recalling how he discreetly tucked it under his arm while browsing the rest of the room. "I thought to myself, why not?"
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- The White House Cookbook by Fanny Gillette
It wasn't until Martin got home and went online that he realized he was likely in possession of a rare first edition, produced by the Gillette Publishing Company of New York in 1887. The frontispiece, where the date would have been featured, was missing, but the book was otherwise in very good condition. While the cookbook served to forever link Fanny Gillette—arguably the Martha Stewart of her day—to countless American kitchens, it was her son, King C. Gillette, who achieved even greater success, albeit in the bathrooms of America, as the inventor and manufacturer of the Gillette disposable razor blade in 1901.
Martin isn't the first patron to snag a deal on a rare book, says Susan Brown, director of the Chapel Hill Public Library, although fewer such examples show up these days, now that savvy donors know to check online sources before giving them away.
"We do sort through them all, but we don't find everything," says Brown, noting that a library volunteer recently came across a diary that has since gone on display in a maritime museum in Virginia. "We always consider book sales to be a sort of treasure hunt. The treasure depends on who finds the book."
Based on emailed photos of Martin's find, Washington, D.C.-based historian Bruce W. Reynolds believes it has enough key indicators that match a first edition to confirm its authenticity. If it were intact, its value could be as much as five hundred dollars. As is, it's worth maybe half as much.
Reynolds, president of the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C., says the value of late-nineteenth-century books is generally decreasing because more people now realize their worth, leading to a more crowded marketplace. He also says digitizing makes it less necessary to own a book to research its contents. "I'd suggest you enjoy the book for its interest value," he says.
That's fine with Martin, who has found researching its origins almost as thrilling as the purchase. The best clue to its age is a handwritten inscription: "To Bessie," dated March 1891, the same year that a Chicago publisher produced the first of many reprints of the book aimed at a mass audience. Martin theorizes that his copy was given as a wedding gift.
The collection contained more than just recipes; it included advice on animal husbandry and tips for running a stylish and efficient household—and it became a runaway best-seller. The revised editions named a collaborator, Hugo Ziemann, who is credited as "Steward of the White House." Adrian Miller, the James Beard Award-winning author of The President's Kitchen Cabinet, a history of African-American chefs in the White House, says the role would have put Ziemann in charge of all aspects of executive residence operations, including the culinary department.
Ziemann, who served during Chester Arthur's administration, provided a genuine link to the White House and to the book's author. But it's believed that Gillette, a Wisconsin native who raised her family in Chicago, never set foot in the White House or even visited Washington, D.C. While some contemporary sellers claim the collection includes recipes from Martha Washington and Mary Todd Lincoln, originally, the only thing that connected it to the White House was Gillette's clever imagination.
"It was brilliant marketing on the author's part," says Miller. "The general consensus amongst culinary historians is that the book was never a compilation of actual White House recipes."
Miller owns a 1915 edition. Since no link between its contents and the White House culinary program can be identified, it provided no insights for The President's Kitchen Cabinet, which will be published by UNC Press, appropriately enough, on Presidents' Day, February 20.
On their Beekman 1802 Almanac blog, Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge credit the rise of "American Victorianism" and the growing affluence of the Gilded Age for The White House Cook Book's mass appeal. Finally able to "turn away from the subsistence living and pioneering that marked [America's] founding," families and hopeful brides "sought instructions on the art of fine living, looking to the European aristocratic lifestyle and its nearest equivalent here at home—the White House."
Of its many reprints and knockoffs, including a version titled The Presidential Cook Book, Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge add that the book "was in so many homes it became the sort of Yellow Pages of American kitchens." Martin says he has no plans of parting with his copy of The White House Cook Book.
"It's not something I'd ever sell," he says, although he allows he might gift it to a friend someday. "Ultimately, I think a culinary library is where it ought to be. But not yet."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Real Page Turner."