Digital Collections: Culinary History


Image of Old Books

5-minute History of the Peacock-Harper Culinary History Collection

10th Anniversary Celebration
Roanoke Country Club, March 12, 2010

I’m Gail McMillan, director of the Digital Library and Archives at Virginia Tech’s University Libraries, which included the library’s Special Collections Department from 1999-2007 when the library hired Aaron Purcell to head Special Collections. Special Collections includes the library’s unique and rare materials.

One of the first and most enduring memories I have of the Peacock-Harper Culinary History Collection was the telephone call I got in the fall of 1999 from Ginger Young, the library liaison to the Human, Nutrition and Foods Department. With the completion of the Wallace Hall renovations, space was no longer available for the collection of teaching reference materials that included about 600 cookbooks and publications documenting various food-related topics including eating behaviors, food choices and habits, social and economic history, and scientific and technological progress in these and other areas. Like any cautious archivist/librarian I said, “Possibly. Tell me more.” All the while Sandy Bosworth, Sharon Karst, Ann Hertzler and perhaps others were creating a spreadsheet that would demonstrate the breadth and depth of the collection that was soon transferred to Newman Library.

For those of you that may not be familiar with the Peacock-Harper namesakes, Dora Greenlaw Peacock was what today we might refer to as a social networker. In addition to being her own person, she was the wife of the head of the English department and entertained students, faculty and administrators alike in her Draper Avenue home in Blacksburg where food played a prominent role. Her cookbooks were donated to the university following her death in 1983 by her husband, Dr. Markham Peacock, whose support of the culinary collection continues even after his death in 2003. In 1964 Dr. Laura Jane Harper became the first woman to be an academic dean at VPI, and for several years she led the College of Home Economics at both Radford College and VPI. Her research focused on food habits, food and culture, and nutrition.

Here we are, 10 years later, and that initial collection has grown through donations and purchases to 3,599 titles you can find in the library’s online catalog, Addison. About two-thirds of the collection qualifies as rare books and these you can see in the Special Collections Reading Room on the first floor of Newman Library. The oldest publication in the culinary history collection was published over 300 years ago in 1693. It is Thomas Tryon’s

A Pocket-companion, containing things necessary to be known by all that values their health and happiness: being a plain way of nature’s own prescribing, to cure most diseases in men, women and children, by kitchen-physick only. To which is added an account how a man may live well and plentifully for two-pence a day, collected from The Good Housewife made a Doctor.

The Rare Book Room also houses 7 titles that were published in the 1700s, and 133 from the 1800s that are part of the Culinary History Collection. 1200 current and popular titles are available to you on the open shelves of the library’s circulating collection. I hope you know that the Virginia Tech library is open to the public and any citizen of Virginia is eligible to use the library and checkout books. The most recent addition is a 2007 facsimile of the first known cookbook by an African American, Malinda Russell’s 1866

A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen

In addition to these publications that have been given or purchased with your donations or library funds, there 4 handwritten receipt or recipe books—one dated 1731, 2 from the Civil War era that Jean Robbins and I are researching and we believe that they belong to Nannie Figgat and her mother, Martha Mary Robinson Godwin of Fincastle, Virginia. There is also an undated recipe book that was probably compiled in the 1920’s. Not only could you hold these very rare manuscripts in your hands if you come to Special Collections in Blacksburg, but these 4 manuscripts have been digitized and are available to you online.

We have also scanned and made available online 196 books from the culinary history collection. These are pre-1923 publications and out of copyright. My last highlight is the VT ImageBase. There you have access to nearly 800 digital images largely documenting events relevant to the Culinary History Collection.

My five-minutes has passed but I hope the slide show and my comments have given you a glimpse into the background of the Peacock-Harper Culinary History Collection. I’d love to talk more about the Collection so of you'll take one of my business cards, we can talk another time about the history of the collection, if you’d like help accessing any of the materials, or if you’d like to know more about making the library’s unique resources accessible online. Thank you.

Gail McMillan: gailmac@vt.edu, 540-231-9252 (2036 Newman Library)