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MC 449

Rombauer family. Papers of the Rombauer-Becker family, 1795-1992: A Finding Aid

Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University


Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: MC 449
Repository: Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Creator: Rombauer-Becker family
Title: Papers of the Rombauer-Becker family, 1795-1992
Date(s): 1795-1992
Quantity: 17.81 linear feet (41+1/2 file boxes, 1 card file box) plus 2 folio volumes, 4 folio+ folders, 4 oversize folders, 11 photograph folders, 1 motion picture, 1 audiotape, and 28 color slides)
Language of materials: Materials in English.
Abstract: Papers of Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, Marion and John Becker, and their German ancestors, including drafts, correspondence with the publisher Bobbs-Merrill, royalty statements, fan mail, and publicity documenting the evolution of the Joy of Cooking through eight editions (1931-1975).

Immediate Source of Acquisition:

Accession numbers: 97-M91, 97-M131
These papers were given to the Schlesinger Library in July 1997 by Ethan Becker and in October 1997 by Anne Mendelson.

Processing Information:

Processed: November 1997
By: Jane S. Knowles


Access. Unrestricted.

Conditions Governing Use:

Copyright. Copyright is held by Ethan Becker until his death and then by his son, John Alexander Becker.
Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.

Preferred Citation:

Rombauer-Becker family Papers, 1795-1992; item description, dates. MC 449, folder #. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.


Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, cookbook author, was born in St. Louis Missouri., on October 30, 1877, the daughter of Emma (Kuhlmann) von Starkloff and Max von Starkloff. She was raised on the German south side of St. Louis and spent the years from 1889 until 1894 in Bremen, Germany, where her father was American consul. She studied at Washington University's School of Fine Arts (1897) and married Edgar Rombauer , a lawyer, on October 14, 1899. They had two children, Marion, born on January 2, 1903, and Edgar Jr. ("Put"), born on August 15, 1907.
Irma von Starkloff Rombauer had deep roots among the German families of St. Louis and remained proud of her German heritage, but moved outside these circles to join the cultural Wednesday Club, and the Unitarian Women's Alliance. In 1925 the whole family traveled and lived in Europe; Put attended school in Lausanne and Marion studied movement and dance in Munich. Edgar Rombauer Sr., who was subject to depression all his life, recovered his equilibrium for a time, but committed suicide in 1930.
Irma von Starkloff Rombauer was left emotionally shattered and financially impoverished. Although only a culinary amateur, she decided to use her legacy of $6000 to self-publish a cookbook: The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes, with a Casual Culinary Chat (1931). It consisted of recipes collected from her German family and from friends, enlivened by a sprightly wit and convivial style. It sold well enough for her to interest a commercial publishing house, Bobbs-Merrill Company, in 1935, beginning what would prove a stormy relationship. She was to spend the rest of her life working on successive editions of Joy. In all there have been nine: the privately printed Joy of Cooking (1931), the first Bobbs-Merrill edition (1936), the best-selling wartime edition (1943), the first post-war edition (1946), the first Rombauer-Becker edition (1951), an unauthorized edition (1962), the first Marion Rombauer Becker edition (1963), Marion Rombauer Becker's last revision (1975), and Ethan Becker's edition (1997) .
The 1936 edition pioneered a revolutionary layout, with instructions in regular type and ingredients indented and in boldface. This became known as the "action method" of cookbook instruction. In 1939 Irma von Starkloff Rombauer published Streamlined Cooking featuring shortcuts for the career woman (many of which were incorporated into the next edition of Joy) and in 1946, The Cookbook for Girls and Boys. By the 1940s she had become a national celebrity and Joy of Cooking was outselling other favorite cookbooks such as Fannie Farmer and The Settlement Cook Book. Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, unlike her daughter, both sought and flourished in the limelight, and she welcomed letters from a growing fan club. Estranged from her son, she took her daughter into partnership and from 1951 Joy of Cooking was their joint production. The success of the cookbook brought Irma von Starkloff Rombauer sufficient affluence so that she could travel to Europe in 1936, to Mexico in the 1950s, and to Europe in 1952 with her grandson, Mark Becker. She began an autobiography, "My Little World," which was unfinished when she suffered a stroke in 1955. She recovered sufficiently to accept an alumni award from Washington University (1956). A series of strokes gradually incapacitated her, and she died on October 14, 1962.
Marion Rombauer Becker (1903-1976), art director, horticultural expert, and cookbook writer, was educated at Mary Institute, St. Louis, and studied Fine Arts at Vassar College (A.B. 1925). She studied movement and dance in Munich, Germany (1925-1926), learned about abstract expressionism, and traveled with her brother in France. On returning to St. Louis, she worked for a year in a department store, then was a columnist for Women's Wear Daily (1927-1929). She taught art, wrote pageants, and directed plays at the progressive John Burroughs School in St. Louis (1929-1932). She married her childhood sweetheart, the architect John William Becker, son of Adele Dittman and Philip Becker, on June 18, 1932, and they settled in Cincinnati. There she joined the Hillsdale School as head of the Art Department (1932-1936).
Planning to start a family, Marion Rombauer Becker turned from teaching to intensive civic involvement. She was president of the Regional Planning Council of Cincinnati and Vicinity (1934-1936), and of the Noonday Club, a women's cultural club (1935-1936), and joined the Better Housing League (1935-1963), the Cincinnati League of Women Voters, and the Citizens Development Committee. The Beckers' eldest son Mark was born on January 16, 1937, Ethan on August 6, 1945.
In 1942, some former pupils from Hillsdale School urged Marion Rombauer Becker to take over direction of the Cincinnati Modern Art Society. She served as director, 1942-1947, and as board secretary and program chair, 1947-1954, organizing two major and several minor shows each year. She contributed to the education of Cincinnati in modern art by exhibiting the works of Rousseau, Picasso, Klee, Calder, Giacometti, Lipchitz, Chagall, Magritte and others.
Gardening was another avocation. Marion Rombauer Becker was a member of the Town and Country Garden Club of Cincinnati and the Garden Club of America, and director of the Garden Club of America's Rare Plant Committee. She edited the Bulletin of the Cincinnati Garden Center, chaired the board of the Cincinnati Nature Center, and helped plan a medicinal herb garden at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, which was named for her after her death. At Cockaigne, the house outside Cincinnati designed by John Becker, the Beckers developed eight acres of woodland garden. Her enthusiasm for wild flowers and ecology are evident in Wild Wealth (1971), a collaboration among ecologist Paul Sears, flower arranger Frances Jones Poetker, artist Janice Rebert Fosberg, and Marion Rombauer Becker. Wild Wealth was named "Top Honor Book" at the Chicago Book Clinic exhibition in 1972.
Between 1932 and 1948, Marion Rombauer Becker was only sporadically involved in production of the Joy of Cooking. Her silhouettes had illustrated chapter headings of the early editions and she served as recipe tester and adviser. She became a full partner with the 1951 edition. Illustrated by Ginnie Hofmann's line drawings, this edition showed Marion Rombauer Becker's interest in nutrition, more pronounced than her mother's. (See #63 for Marion Rombauer Becker's assessment of her contribution to Joy of Cooking.) With Irma von Starkloff Rombauer increasingly incapacitated by strokes, Marion Rombauer Becker worked with her husband John Becker, secretary Jane Brueggermann, and testers Odessa Whitehead and Isabell Coleman over the succeeding years. An unauthorized edition published in 1962 was, after a sharp struggle with Bobbs-Merrill, recalled, reset, and republished in 1963. (For detailed publishing history and other legal cases involving Joy of Cooking see Anne Mendelson's Stand Facing the Stove [1996].) Marion Rombauer Becker had put her own stamp on this edition: 80% of the material was new and Joy of Cooking had evolved into a virtual encyclopedia of American cookery. Each new edition brought not only new fans but also some outrage from older users who could no longer find their favorite recipes. Little Acorn, a brief history of the cookbook, was published in 1966 to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the first Bobbs-Merrill edition.
Marion Rombauer Becker was first stricken with cancer in 1955. A radical mastectomy was followed by lymphedema and then a second radical mastectomy in 1966. In March 1974, John William Becker suddenly developed a brain tumor, of which he died in October. All through this, Marion Rombauer Becker continued to work on the next edition of Joy of Cooking. Her co-workers included her son Ethan, his wife Joan, illustrator Ikki Matsumoto, typist Nancy Swats, and an old friend, Judy Israel. The revised edition was published in March 1975.
Sale of the paperback rights in 1973 and 1982 to New American Library raised sales to new heights: by 1996, 9.1 million in hard cover, 5 million in paperback. The latest edition, edited by Maria Guarneschelli in cooperation with Ethan Becker published by Scribners (1997), has continued the family connection with this "wonder book."
Marion Rombauer Becker was engaged in other writing projects, including "Links: The Life of a Family," a flower-arranging book, a translation of Ernst Kropp's "Wandlung der Form," and a second Junior Joy, none of which were completed. In February 1976 she received "the greatest living Cincinnatian award" from the Chamber of Commerce. She died on December 28, 1976.


The collection is arranged in five series:


Series I, Irma von Starkloff Rombauer: Personal and family (#1-47v), includes the history of Irma von Starkloff Rombauer's German ancestors (von Starkloff and Kuhlmann families) who settled in St. Louis. This series contains clippings, photographs (including an early TV cooking demonstration in #5), estate papers, biographical material, her unfinished autobiography, "My Little World" (1955), and other writings. Her correspondence with family and friends includes letters from Booth Tarkington, an early beau, and Helmut Rippinger, co-author of What's Cooking in France. There is also the history of Edgar Rombauer's German ancestors in St. Louis, ER's European journal, 1925-1926, stories he wrote for his children, and other biographical material.
Series II, Marion Rombauer Becker: Personal and family (#48-155, Box 43), includes clippings, photographs, Vassar College course notes and correspondence, and appointment books. "Links" is a draft autobiography and family history with assembled raw material. Programs, journals, and printed material document Marion Rombauer Becker's sojourn in Germany to study dance and movement (1925-26). There is additional biographical information about Marion Rombauer Becker's husband, the architect John William Becker, as well as a few of his speeches, clippings about his architectural designs, photographs, and Becker family correspondence and documents.
Series III, Marion Rombauer and John Becker personal correspondence (#156-277), includes courtship letters, and letters from Marion Rombauer Becker and John William Becker to family and friends. Letters from the children, other family, and friends to Marion Rombauer Becker and John William Becker have been arranged as they were found, in an alphabetical sequence. There is also a chronological sequence, including letters of sympathy to the Beckers when they were both stricken with cancer early in 1974, and letters to Marion Rombauer Becker on the death of her husband in October 1974. Photocopies of correspondence annotated by Anne Mendelson are interfiled.
Series IV, Marion Rombauer Becker: Career and interests (#278vf-380), consists of material documenting her early career as fashion writer and art teacher, her work with the Cincinnati Modern Art Society (later the Contemporary Arts Center), her life-long interest in gardening and horticulture, and her involvement in a broad range of volunteer civic clubs. Her employment at Women's Wear Daily (1927-1929) is shown by a scrapbook of clippings of her columns on fashion. Syllabi and teaching notes document her career as teacher of art at John Burroughs School (1929-1932) and at Hillsdale School (1932-1936). Correspondence with artists, critics, and dealers, exhibition catalogs (many of which Marion Rombauer Becker wrote and produced), and notes for talks relate to her career at the Cincinnati Modern Art Society. Her reminiscences of the early years of Cincinnati Modern Art Society (#65, #329) are especially valuable. Membership lists, correspondence, lectures, and other records of the Garden Club of America, the Garden Club of America's Rare Plant Group, the Town and Country Garden Club of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Nature Center, and the Society of Herbs attest to Marion Rombauer Becker's abiding interest in horticulture. There is correspondence with gardening friends (see also #539 in Series V). Drafts, reviews, correspondence, and an audio tape relate to the publication of Wild Wealth. Membership lists, talks, and fliers relate to her volunteer activity in the Cincinnati League of Women Voters, Better Housing League, Noonday Club, and the Citizens Development Committee.
Series V, The Joy of Cooking (#381-box 43), contains materials documenting the history and development of the book. The earliest drafts for The Joy of Cooking are for the 1951 edition and consist of typed pages or pasted up sections of pages from the 1946 edition with manuscript deletions and addenda. There is correspondence about the book jackets and about the illustrations by Ginnie Hofmann. Annotations by John Becker and Marion Rombauer Becker in volumes of the 1951 edition document the development of the 1963 edition, and there are pages of the 1962 unauthorized edition that were used to make paste-ups for the emended 1963 edition. Annotated volumes (1971 and 1973 printings) and corrected page proofs document Marion Rombauer Becker's last revision (1975.) This series also includes Irma von Starkloff Rombauer's undated "Unusual and Unpublished Recipes" for the Women's Alliance of the Unitarian Church (#382), undated recipes in Irma von Starkloff Rombauer's hand (#383), undated notes by Marion Rombauer Becker, and recipe books (manuscript and printed) by others. Correspondence and contracts with the publishing company Bobbs-Merrill and law firm Greenbaum, Wolff, and Ernst (#444-476) document Joy's tempestuous publishing history. Additionally there are papers relating to the suit brought by Mary Whyte Hartrich against Marion Rombauer Becker in 1974, the settlement of her claim, information about the Joy Trust, and royalty statements through 1992. Letters from fans, including culinary experts M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Cecily Brownstone, et al., and newspaper clippings attest to The Joy of Cooking's continuous popularity. Drafts, clippings, and correspondence relating to Marion Rombauer Becker's Little Acorn (1966) describe the noncontroversial aspects of the history of The Joy of Cooking and the women who wrote it.

Container list


This index includes the names of selected writers and recipients. Information about persons and subjects is not indexed.
Key: No symbol = Writer; * = Writer and recipient; # = Recipient

Container List

Additional Index Terms

Architects--United States
Breast--Cancer--Patients--United States
Cincinnati (Ohio)--Clubs
Cincinnati (Ohio)--Social life and customs--20th century
Civic leaders--Ohio--Cincinnati
Color slides
Cooking, American
Cooks--United States
Courtship--United States
Dance--Study and teaching--Germany
Fan mail--United States
Gardening--United States
German American families--United States
German Americans--Missouri--Saint Louis
Modernism (Art)--Ohio--Cincinnati
Motion pictures
Progressive education--United States
Publishers and publishing--United States
Saint Louis (Mo.)--Social life and customs--19th century
Women--Societies and clubs
Becker family
Becker, Ethan
Becker, John William
Becker, Marion Rombauer
Becker, Marion Rombauer. Little acorn
Bobbs-Merrill Company
Brownstone, Cecily
Calder, Alexander, 1898-1976
Child, Julia
Cincinnati Modern Art Society
Claflin, Agnes Rindge, 1900-1977
Contemporary Arts Center (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Engelmann family
Fisher, Dorothy Canfield, 1879-1958
Fisher, M. F. K. (Mary Frances Kennedy), 1908-1992
Frankfurter, Felix, 1882-1965
Fuller, R. Buckminster (Richard Buckminster), 1895-1983
Garden Club of America
Giedion, S. (Sigfried), 1888-1968
Hartley, Marsden, 1877-1943
Hendrie, Marion.
Hofmann, Ginnie
Kropp, Ernst
Kuhlman family
Lipchitz, Jacques, 1891-1973
Pilpel, Harriet
Read, Herbert Edward, Sir, 1893-1968
Ripperger, Helmut, 1897-1974
Rivera, Diego, 1886-1957
Rombauer family
Rombauer, Irma S., 1877-1962
Rombauer, Irma S., 1877-1962. Joy of cooking
Rowntree, Diana
Sears, Paul B. (Paul Bigelow), 1891-1990. Wild wealth
Sexton, Anne
Tarbell, Ida M. (Ida Minerva), 1857-1944
Tarkington, Booth, 1869-1946
Vassar College--Students
Von Starkoff family
Willkie, Wendell L. (Wendell Lewis), 1892-1944