Esther B. Aresty Collection of Rare Books on the Culinary Arts
Mr. Aresty addressed the attendees, describing his journeys with his wife around the world in pursuit of the rare manuscripts that have become prized acquisitions of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. He also discussed how various dispositions of the volumes had been considered throughout the years and how Penn came to be the recipient of this most outstanding collection. What follows is a distillation of Mr. Aresty's remarks.
Over the years, we have had numerous requests to loan some of these rare books to various exhibitions throughout the country, but we have never permitted more than ten books on loan at any one time. As an example, in 1960, the Pierpont Morgan Library wrote us and asked if we would lend a few items for their exhibition and, of course, we were happy to do so. However, as the years rolled on, and with prodding from our attorneys and counselors, we began to consider several options available to us including a sale to a foreign source of twenty or so of the most rare titles including that of our Platina, the first printed cookbook, 1475, Venice, of which only ten copies are available worldwide and which has been valued at $160,000 by a European dealer. At the same time, Mrs. Aresty suggested that any sale or gift fulfill certain conditions, such as:
- all the books must be kept in one collection ;
- the books must be in capable hands able to keep the books in a safe area and keep the collection in good repair at all times; and
- the collection must perform a public function, being available to students in the field for future study.
These requirements naturally led to a university and we began to give serious thought to such a possibility.
"In 1961, thirty-five years ago, my son Robert who was then a student at Wharton, happened to be in the Library and mentioned the collection to the librarian. This is the letter we received at that time from Mrs. Lyman Riley, bibliographer of the Rare Book Collection:
Dear Mrs. Aresty: Some time ago, your son Robert stopped in the Rare Book Collection and told us about your collection of cookbooks. He thought, rightly, that we would be interested to know of this collection so near to the University and owned by a University-affiliated family. I have read the account of your books and manuscripts published in the New York Times of June 2, 1960. I realize even from that brief description that it must be a fine collection. We have no similar collection here, although we do know that medical libraries have found books on cookery very appropriate for their historical studies. However, in our extensive collection of books from the press of the Elzevier family in Holland the rarest item happens to be a cookbook, The Patissier François, Amsterdam, 1655. Another prized library on the campus, the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection in the History of Chemistry, of course includes in its rather broad field books allied with cookery. We are indeed happy that your son made himself known to us and hope that when you next visit Pennsylvania you will come to see the Library and its Rare Book Collection. Our quarters are rather cramped now but after another year, we shall have much more ample space in the new library building that is now rising across the campus on Walnut Street.
However, Mrs. Aresty, at that stage of her life thirty-five years ago, had no interest in disposing of the books. They were too much a part of her life and she regarded the books as her children. For a short period, Mrs. Aresty began to write books in the culinary field and, later, on the subject and development of manners as described in her book, The Best Behavior, which was published and later serialized on a daily basis by one of the New York City daily papers.
Going back over the years, I recall that upon returning from our European wedding trip in September 1936, many boxes filled with books arrived in our little apartment in Chicago. I had noticed during our trip that her main interests in every city were the book stalls and the rare book dealers. Evidently, this love for books from early childhood resulted in collecting at an early age. She put her love for the English language to good use during our courtship as she became the advertising manager of a large Chicago department store after hosting an early morning radio show for celebrities.
After World War II, we made a foreign trip annually. Europe was our favorite, especially the capital cities,whenever possible with our two children. On two occasions, we made a trip around the world . Whenever we went, Mrs. Aresty usually spent a great deal of time in the shops of the great book dealers in rare books. As I recall, on every trip, we came back to America with rare books on culinary subjects from the various lands. On some occasions, we returned two or three years later to see if a bookseller still had that rare book that Mrs. Aresty wanted but felt was not priced fairly. Eventually, Mrs. Aresty added many of these to her collection over the years.
One of our most interesting trips was to Russia in 1946 shortly after World War II ended. The Cold Peace was in effect but we managed to get visitors' visas to Moscow, St. Petersburg and then to our friendly Finland. Upon arriving in Moscow, we were assigned a hotel room in the suburbs. We were assigned a young guide at the airport who was with us at all times. He spoke some English and was being trained for work in Afghanistan. With his help, we visited a few book stores still in business and Mrs. Aresty selected about fifteen Russian books she wanted to buy. However, we were told first, that no book could leave Russia unless it was checked at the main Moscow library and stamped okay by the chief librarian which certified that a similar copy remained in the library and second, that when you exited Russia at the airport, you paid an exit tax to the government for the cost of each book. The prices in Russia were not high and many dealers were glad to see some American dollars, so Mrs. Aresty selected about a dozen books and we were taken by our guide to meet the Librarian at the main library to have our books checked to make sure that similar copies remained in the library. Most of our books were okay, but the Chief Librarian was on vacation in his dacha about thirty miles from Moscow and no one else had the authority to give our books an exit okay. After quite some discussion, our young guide, noticing our disappointment, said he would try to get the Chief back from his vacation. He reported to us that he was successful and the Chief would be in the Library the following day. We met the Chief, a kind pleasant elderly librarian who checked our books but he repeated that we would have to pay a tax for each book as we exited the country.
In closing, over the years, Mrs. Aresty has enjoyed the collection, book by book. Now she is happy that they will have a new permanent safe home in this distinguished library."