Selling by the Book: Instructions and the Commercialization of DIY Practices in Twentieth-Century Germany

The Bible is the world’s bestselling book of all time. In Germany, it was followed by a recipe book: Dr. Oetker’s Backen macht Freude (Baking is Fun). Exact numbers are not available for either book, yet it seems to be certain that at least from the 1950s to the 1980s, no other publication was as widely distributed in the country as these two. First published in 1930, Dr. Oetker’s book had managed to sell 20 million copies by the early 1960s, and more than 27 million by the 1980s.[1] Other cookbooks from the German food giant were less successful but still sold by the millions. It is not unjustified, from that perspective, that the company calls one of its books “the bible of cooking” on its homepage.[2]


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What is remarkable about the success of these recipe books is not their circulation alone but the interrelationship between practices and brands they created. With how-to books like this, companies such as Dr. Oetker attempted to indissolubly tie particular practices to the use of particular products. Almost any recipe in Dr. Oetker recipe books required the use of items produced by the company, which made sure to list its products with their full names in each recipe. While it did not matter to Dr. Oetker which brand of flour or cream their readers bought, the company insisted that their baking powder and vanilla sugar be used to bake a cake. The goal was to make the inclusion of Dr. Oetker products an unquestioned routine—and the company a household name. Broadly speaking, learning by the book, in this respect, meant consuming advertising in the guise of a reference book.

Front cover of a small recipe book showing how to use Palmin, a brand of coconut fat. Source: Elise Hannemann, Koch-Rezepte zur Verwendung von Palmin (Berlin, ca. 1910), Badische Landesbibliothek, Karlsruhe, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:31-55173. A PDF of the complete publication (17 pages) is available there.

Dr. Oetker was but one of many companies specialized in selling industrially manufactured products designed to help customers carry out certain tasks. Industrialization is often described as a process in which machines and industries took over many tasks previously performed by humans, thus shaking previous modes of production and consumption to the core. Private households increasingly had alternatives to home-sewn clothes, home-cooked meals, homemade soap, and other everyday items and services previously produced within the household.[3]

What is often forgotten, however, is that industrialization also opened up new fields of household production. Items such as nondrip paint, self-adhesive wallpaper, and electric tools allowed households to manage without the help of professional handymen. Seasoning mixes, baking powder, and cake mixes made the preparation of food easier and extended the repertoire of homemade meals. And items such as sewing machines and paper patterns helped with the fabrication of clothes. Within the interplay of production and consumption characteristic of household production in the (nascent) consumer societies of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the purchase and use of brand-name products formed identifiable production and consumption “episodes.”[4]

The manufacturers of such products, however, had to make sure that customers bought their goods for inclusion in household production practices, not those from other brands. Guidebooks, cookbooks, magazines, and manuals offered one strategy to make the purchase of a certain product appear an essential precondition for the successful completion of a task. From the late nineteenth century onward, manufacturers of ingredients, materials, and tools of all kinds increasingly chose to publish books, leaflets, and magazines around their products. Some companies such as Dr. Oetker or the producer of home canning utensils, Weck, even established their own publishing houses in order to get their message across.

The commercially driven shift from instructing readers how to do something to instructing them what they should do it with, that is, which brand-name product to use, required the employment of specific strategies. First of all, such publications had to be more than mere instruction leaflets that explained how to use a certain product. The more than 350 pages of Selbstgemacht mit Bosch (Do it Yourself with Bosch), a handbook compiled by the German engineering and electronics company Bosch, explained everything one needed to know to perform DIY tasks related to wood and model making.[5] Of course the book drew attention to the electric tools Bosch produced, but it also explained how to use a hammer and how to stain wood. Likewise, Dr. Oetker’s recipe books covered all kinds of meals and cakes, even recipes that did not require the purchase of a Dr. Oetker product. Dr. Oetker produced full-fledged cookbooks and baking books housewives could use every day. Other products did not offer such a wide scope, for example the many publications of the Johann Weck GmbH, the German manufacturer of the equivalent to the American Mason jar. Their recipes all required the use of Weck’s canning apparatus and jars. Nonetheless, the company made sure that its books covered everything from canning meat, vegetables, and fruits to selecting diets for the ill. Weck’s magazine also included articles on various topics related to healthy nutrition. For all of these companies, it was important that customers routinely reach for their publications as a reliable source when they wanted to know how to cook, bake, sew, or build something.

Page from a 1968 Bosch how-to manual with directions for a hallway cloak stand and shoe cabinet. The right-hand column lists the tools needed, then a choice of two Bosch recipes from earlier in the book, and finally other materials such as screws and sandpaper. Estimated time for this advanced project, which the page calls a “journeyman’s piece”: some 30 to 40 hours. Source: Robert Bosch GmbH, Selbstgemacht mit Bosch (Leinfelden b. Stuttgart, 1968), 202. Author’s scan.

Second, companies had to simulate the context of household production to make sure that their instructions met the needs of their customers. Explaining how a product worked was not enough. Producers of foodstuffs in particular started to establish test kitchens where professional cooks pretended to be ordinary housewives. For others, it was more important to present their products to potential customers at fairs and to let them try out tools and machines at the store. In the second half of the twentieth century, market research became ever more important as a source for knowledge about customers. The generation of such knowledge preceded the dissemination of the knowledge consumers wanted. Finding out about their customer’s needs, skills, and goals was of vital importance for the design of manuals, recipes, and other publications.

Third, the authors of this particular type of how-to publication had to carefully choose their words and images when addressing the interrelation between product and user and the attribution of knowledge to either side. Should texts and images present users as bearers of implicit knowledge who only used the product to make life a little easier? Or did readers expect to be reassured that knowledge was already incorporated in the products, thus allowing them to perform tasks they could not have done without the help of the product? How publications depicted readers and products mirrored notions of which level of knowledge and skills was to be expected from readers and customers.

For the manufacturers of products promising to help with household production, it was of utmost importance that customers keep buying the same brand of baking powder or yarn, keep using tools such as home canning appliances and electric drills, or at least imagine themselves using these tools again and again. The companies’ books, pamphlets, and magazines therefore not only offered knowledge but also a constant stream of suggestions about how to use a product. Written instructions in the form of books and magazines supported consumers’ quest for continuity and steadiness since the publications were durable themselves. Their material presence constantly reminded customers of possibilities, thus also serving to legitimize purchases as good investments. This particular combination of product promotion as an integral part of more general instructions, on the one hand, and the lasting presence of printed texts and pictures in the household, on the other, made manuals, magazines, and other publications a preferred strategy for commercially motivated consumer education throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Reinhild Kreis is Assistant Professor (Akademische Rätin a.Z.) in Contemporary History at the University of Mannheim.


  1. Figures according to Bettina Jung, August Oetker (Berlin: Ullstein 1999), 120.  ↩
  2. Dr. Oetker Shop, “Schulkochbuch Reprint von 1952,” https://www.oetker-shop.de/de/kochbuecher/schulkochbuch-reprint–1952.  ↩
  3. See, for example, Reinhild Kreis, “Anleitung zum Selbermachen: Do it yourself, Normen und sozialen Ordnungsvorstellungen in der Industriemoderne,” in Selber machen: Diskurse und Praktiken des “Do-it-yourself,” ed. Nikola Langreiter and Klara Löffler (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2017) 17–33.  ↩
  4. On differentiating between “episodes” of production and consumption within processes of household production (e.g. the preparation of a meal, the renovation of the living room, the sewing of a dress), see Alan Warde, “Notes on the Relationship between Production and Consumption” in: Consumption, vol. 2: Acquisition, ed.Alan Warde (London: Sage, 2010) 163–77.  ↩
  5. Robert Bosch GmbH, Selbstgemacht mit Bosch (Leinfelden b. Stuttgart, 1968).  ↩
Suggested citation: Reinhild Kreis, “Selling by the Book: Instructions and the Commercialization of DIY Practices in Twentieth-Century Germany,” History of Knowledge, May 9, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/09/selling-by-the-book/.