Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

March 02, 1999

Rare cookery collection tells history of Canada, world

One of the world's finest collections of cookery books and social histories has arrived at the University of Guelph.

The Una Abrahamson Canadian Cookery Collection, made up of more than 2,000 rare cookery and recipe books, including valuable, never-published manuscripts, was donated to the University by Una Stella Abrahamson, whose son, Dr. John Abrahamson, is a Guelph alumnus.

Una Abrahamson, a longtime collector, writer, businesswoman and women's rights advocate, died Sunday. The University had recently moved the collection from Abrahamson's home in Toronto to its Special Collections division at the McLaughlin Library. The library is working to inventory and catalogue the books.

"It is an absolutely fantastic collection, ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries," said Bernard Katz, head of special collections and library development. It includes the most complete collection of Canadian cookery in the world, as well as British and American books, with some older materials in French and Dutch.

"Una recognized that cookery books were a way of gaining insight into social history and women's history. These are truly historical documents," Katz said. Cookery books provide a glimpse of what life was like for women in past centuries, such as societal expectations and what it took to run their homes. "You get a good idea of how things have changed over time by looking at these books," Katz said.

Abrahamson donated the books to the University in 1997 and hoped to see the collection made available for scholarly work. It had been housed in her home until the end of 1998. Abrahamson was an editor and writer at Chatelaine magazine, the author of three popular books, a publicist for General Foods Kitchens, and a senior executive with Dominion Stores. Twenty years ago, she was hit by a car, and the accident nearly claimed her life. During her years of rehabilitation, she continued working on her collection.

Some of the books date to as early as 1616, and they run the gamut from traditional cookbooks to handwritten manuscripts to books about plants, health, alternative medicine and healing. For example, the collection includes "Grandma Boman's Cookbook," dated 1866, which consists of three small notebooks with recipes scrawled in pencil. The collection is particularly strong in books published in Canada and those used by Canadian women, although published elsewhere. Of special interest are several Canadian manuscript books from the 19th century.

"It will certainly prove to be the finest collection in Canada and indeed probably one of the most important collections in private hands in the world," said David Mason, owner of David Mason Fine and Rare Books in Toronto, who visited Abrahamson's home many times. "She would cook us 18th-century meals. She'd pull out one of the cookbooks and somehow find the ingredients," he said. "We had some very strange meals. It was always delightful."

Dorothy Duncan, executive director of the Ontario Historical Society and the country fare editor for Century Home magazine, also praised the collection. "I often sat surrounded by it in her home. One of the reasons it was so wonderful was that Una began collecting long before people recognized the importance of these documents and books. She was a pioneer."

"These books are a wonderful way to introduce people to their history. So often, people think of history as being far way, long ago, and having nothing to do with them," she said. "But everyone eats and drinks, and cookery books can help them discover traditions and how things evolved."

Contact: Bernard Katz, head of special collections and library development, (519) 824-4120 Ext. 2089. For media questions, contact Lori Hunt in Communications and Public Affairs, Ext. 3338.

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