A Brief History of the Recipe Card

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Settling in to cook a recipe isn’t what it used to be. Instead of pulling out a worn recipe from your recipe box, you’re probably more likely to pull out an iPad, or a few printed sheets of paper from an online recipe. Nevertheless, we continue to associate handwritten 3-by-5 cards with recipes, particularly treasured recipes. How did the recipe card come to be?

For centuries recipes were handed down orally, but as literacy spread, so did written recipes—although the results were “exasperatingly terse,” as Sandra Oliver, former publisher of Food History News, told Slate. But that’s because instructions like “bake until done” or “enough flour to make a stiff dough” weren’t meant to teach anything new; they were meant to jog the memory. (The cook likely made this recipe growing up with her mother or grandmother.)

But the written recipe really owes its start to the rise of women’s magazines in the early 20th century. Nutrition science was a thing, and magazines, eager to reach out to housewives looking for “precision,” standardized written recipes, even offering home delivery recipe subscriptions—recipes printed on heavy cards and branded with the magazine’s logo—which were hugely popular in the 30s and 40s. Once the written recipe format was established, it was inevitable that women would start writing their own cards. (“Ladies’ Home Journal did it this way, but I like to add x, with a little bit of y, because, you know, Grandma used to do it this way…”)

And this in turn, led to what the recipe card is today: a way to remember – both the recipe itself and the memories of cooking it, sharing it, eating it with loved ones. Essentially, “the ritual of keeping recipe cards seems to be rooted in the same impulse that makes us keep shelves of books we’ve already read and snap photos of every vacation we take: We like to remind and reassure ourselves of that which we already know.”

Slate asks: can the recipe card be brought back from near-extinction? Is this something our “nostalgia-obsessed culture” might want to revive? What do you think?

(Image: Flickr member Muffet licensed for use under Creative Commons)