WOOSTER, Ohio — “You can tell a lot about a woman by what she keeps in her recipe box,” said Michael Amstutz.
Between Michael and his mother, Ruth “Arleen” Amstutz, they have collected over 700 recipe boxes, some of which have contained personal mementos like poetry, locks of hair from a child’s first baptism and even an obituary of former President Warren Harding.
“You can learn history, cultures, traditions, ethnicities, favorite things and even a lot about family histories — which sometimes is tucked away in there,” said Michael. Some of Arleen’s favorite boxes came from the students she used to teach. She served as a kindergarten teacher in Wayne County’s Dalton School District for many years.
“I got many (recipe boxes) as Christmas gifts and each of them were so special,” she said.
Often, among the recipes for cookies and pies, were recipes for love and marriage and for children. “I have a recipe file that has maybe 50-75 different recipes for a happy home, for love and so many different things, that that file is special to me because of the recipes that were in the boxes,” said Arleen, now 88 years old.
Arleen’s fascination with recipe boxes started around age 10 (in the late 1930s). Her mother would keep all the recipes she had collected in a large soup tureen. “Mother was interested in recipes and how they were contained, so she started looking at recipe boxes a little differently,” said Michael.
She would attend estate sales, garage sales and auctions where she would collect the boxes of her church friends and fellow school teachers. Her favorite, she said, are the advertising boxes.
Recipe boxes started being used in households in the early 1900s and started hitting the mainstream as a marketing tool in the ’20s. In their prime (1940s-1960s), recipe boxes were somewhat of a gimmick, said Michael. Every food company, from Robin Hood Flour to Campbell’s Soup, branded themselves in the form of recipe boxes.
Those boxes sat on shelves in kitchens all across America as flashy advertising pieces, and many of those boxes came filled with recipes you could make from the products they advertised, explained Michael.
Even appliance companies like Westinghouse got onboard, crafting their boxes to look like the stoves they made. When microwaves were introduced into the cooking world, Michael said people were a little leery of the device. But microwave manufacturers came out with their own recipe box, complete with recipes that could be made right in the microwave.
Recipe boxes were made out of tin, wood and plastic and some were even fabricated from needlepoint. Some were made to look like a simple card box while others were shaped to look like a set of books “for the scholarly person,” said Michael. As time went on, boxes were crafted to be more user friendly, like Household Magazine’s Rolodex style recipe card holder.
When Michael was growing up, his parents opened an antique store at their home in Wooster, Ohio, where a majority of the recipe box collection is now stored. Michael started building his own collection shortly after graduating from college.
Following in his mothers footsteps, he, too, became a teacher — moving to Huron, Ohio, to teach — which left his summers open to scour auctions and sales for recipe boxes. “I started looking for the more unusual kinds of boxes,” he said.
The oldest box Michael owns is a 1912 wooden recipe box called the “Twentieth Century Recipe Cabinet.” It was made for students who graduated from Harriet Black’s cooking school in Chicago, and contained all the recipes made in the school.
Michael once found a box that contained Hungarian and Slovakian recipes — his wife’s parents are Czechoslovakian. He brought the box of recipes to his wife’s great-aunt to translate, who was very excited to do so. “We learned a lot about her ethnic heritage that my wife didn’t really know much about,” he said.
Passing it on
Michael takes many of his boxes on the road with him, speaking at libraries and granges and local clubs in northern Ohio. He shares the history of recipe boxes, which he has spent a great deal of time researching, and offers advice for starting a collection of your own.
“It’s always good to have a collection of something,” he said. All together, Arleen and Michael have around 750 recipe boxes. Many are duplicates, but those are used trade with other collectors, said Michael.
You can buy Collectable Recipe Tins and Boxes by sending $12 to:
9909 Church Road
Huron, OH 44839
The two decided they would create a book, Collectable Recipe Tins and Boxes, to share the history of recipe boxes and show off their unique collection.
While recipe boxes may give way to those who store recipes on smartphones or Pinterest, they can still be found and given as a personalized gifts for weddings and showers. “There are all sorts of things you can find inside a recipe box,” said Michael. “Recipe boxes are fun, I think, inside and out.”