Culinary manuscripts: 19th - 20th century

Handwritten recipe titled 'to stew beef'
Recipe from Mrs. Palmers’ recipe book, dated 1810. Add MS 46171, f 12.

Manuscripts that offer insights into the practice of cookery and culinary tastes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries

About the collection

The British Library holds many manuscripts that offer insights into the practices of cookery and culinary tastes through the 19th and 20th centuries.

The 1800s saw vast industrial development across the UK, a rapidly growing population, technological advances in transport, food production and food preservation, as well as an ever-increasing volume of food being brought to Britain from across the British Empire and elsewhere. This increased the quality, quantity and diversity of food, which can be recognised in culinary manuscripts from the time. As well as a continuing presence of culinary manuscripts among the collections of aristocratic families and estates, such as those relating to Dropmore House, there are more manuscripts to be found among the papers of the growing middle-classes of the era. The collection also reflects the increasing literacy and survival of manuscripts left by domestic servants in the home with the papers of the housekeeper of Kew Palace and later in the papers of Grace Higgens, domestic servant to the writer Vita Sackville-West.

In the 1900s, the traditional manuscript recipe book became less fashionable during the 20th century as popular printed cookery books became increasingly available and cheap to buy. Some manuscript recipes drafted in the 20th century can still be seen in the collections, but they tend to be found among the personal papers of individuals recorded as notes, rather than as distinct manuscript cookery books created with the purpose of being a family resource through generations. As well as personal notes, insights into domestic cooking in the 20th century can be found in correspondence. The two world wars saw rationing as the availability of food declined and its impact is explored in letters such as those authored by Phyllis and Ernest Gardner during World War One in the Gardner Papers. Some collected recipes from the later 20th century are found in the archive papers of selected figures, including within the notebooks of the scientist Donald Mitchie and the poet Kathleen Raine.



What is available online?

The Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue contains catalogue entries for 19th and 20th century culinary manuscripts. 

Information on food in the 19th and 20th centuries is available via the BL learning website’s pages on Books for Cooks.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

19th and 20th century culinary manuscripts can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Use our online catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts, to find and request this material. Recipes can be located by using the advanced search, entering a preferred start and end date, and then searching with terms like, ‘cookery receipt’, ‘culinary receipt’ or ‘recipe book’ in the search bar.

Please contact the Manuscripts Reference Team for information about accessing restricted items.

What is available in other organisations?