Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Last year, I had the opportunity to attend a symposium on the topic of women and food, and one of the panel sessions focused on the history and legacy of community cookbooks in the United States.
It was a fascinating discussion, and the more I listened, the more I realized that the panelists could have just as easily been talking about fundraiser quilts as community cookbooks, because there were so many similarities between the two.
According to Linda Berzok, writing for The Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, “Community cookbooks (also known as compiled, regional, charitable, and fund-raising cookbooks) are a unique genre of culinary literature [that] focus on home cooking, often documenting regional, ethnic, family, and societal traditions, as well as local history.”
Fundraiser quilts are a special genre of quilts that document the same sorts of things. Because both community cookbooks and fundraiser quilts are typically made by defined groups of (usually) women in a particular place, they naturally tend to reflect the characteristics of those groups.
Such things as church, club, or school affiliation, political beliefs, social class, and ethnic background of the contributors, as well as popular tastes and current events might all be revealed in the end product.
Both community cookbooks and fundraiser quilts got their start in the 19th century in the U.S., although fundraiser quilts predate community cookbooks by at least 50 years.
Quilt historian Ricky Clark, in The Needlework of an American Lady/Social History of Quilts, maintains that The Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes was making quilts to raise money to support frontier ministers as early as 1800.
The first community cookbooks started showing up in the mid-1800s during the Civil War. Women’s groups in both the North and South used them—along with fundraiser quilts—to raise money for everything from field hospitals to gunboats. After the war, women's clubs organized cookbook projects and created fundraising quilts to benefit widows, veterans, and orphans.
Early on, in addition to funding local charitable activities and religious efforts, these types of cookbooks and quilts helped underwrite a variety of political and social causes, including prison reform and women’s suffrage.
In the 1870s, both community cookbooks and fundraiser quilts were employed in the effort against alcoholism championed by Women’s Christian Temperance Unions.
“By 1915, as many as 6,000 community cookbooks had been published in the United States, and women were raising money to fund kindergartens and promote temperance and other political causes. In an era when females had few roles in public life, these cookbooks acknowledged their presence in the community.” (Michelle Green, Food and Wine, 12/02). The same could be said for early fundraiser quilts.
Whether quilting or compiling favorite recipes, women join together to monetize their skills for worthy causes and common goals. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, societal restraints were such that women had few other ways of contributing funds to their communities.
Although times have changed and those restraints are no longer compelling, it is notable that using both community cookbooks and fundraising quilts to raise money for charitable efforts and shared goals is a tradition that continues today.
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