Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

A Century of Food 1900-1912

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Sally J. Feltner, PhD, RD

What is it about American food? We love to eat but feel guilty about it. We all want healthy food but settle for junk and fast food. We are obsessed with health and weight loss, but we are reportedly getting fatter year after year. Why are we still so in the dark about the foods we eat – perhaps some answers lie in our history.

The 20th century has undergone dramatic changes not only in technology, life expectancy and lifestyle, but also in the foods we eat. Some of the changes have not been prudent in that in the later decades, we now experience an increased incidence of diet-related diseases like obesity heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia. Maybe by looking at where our food culture emerged from, we may better understand where we stand now in order to correct some of the mistakes of the past.

Some future blog posts will examine our food history decade by decade and is called “A Cengtury of Food”. Hope you enjoy.

English: William Hogarth - O the Roast Beef of...

English: William Hogarth – O the Roast Beef of Old England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meat and Sugar Hunger

By 1900, a little more than a century since breaking away from England, the United States had become a world power. American factories were now outproducing England, Germany, and Belgium and combined American beef and wheat were feeding the world. There were many millionaires and in 1901, its first billion-dollar corporation, United States Steel became America’s first billion-dollar corporation.

The beginning of the 20th century was heralded by optimism due to the consensus in America (at least) that we were destined to become a world super power and the future belonged to us. With this optimism, our meals became dominated with meat. Well-known restaurants in New York City served elk, caribou, bear and moose and in the Midwest, the same occurred but with a lower price tag. These meat-filled fares were reserved for the wealthy and upper classes while the middle and lower classes ate far more humbly.

One commodity that crossed class boundaries was sugar. By 1909, America had an aching sweet tooth, with the average person consuming 65 pounds of sugar annually. The culprits: chocolate brownies, apple pie, devil’s food cake, and baked Alaska. Sweetened tea and coffee (regular and decaf) also contributed.

The Jungle

Upton Sinclair noticed that all was not well in the meat packing industry. He spent seven weeks in the world’s largest meat center in Chicago listening to stories of the workers, touring several plants and seeing for himself what went on to describe what horrors went on behind closed doors. He published his accounts in the famous book, The Jungle in 1906 Although his intent was to give a fictionalized account of a Lithuanian immigrant’s struggles to survive in this industry, it was his descriptions of meat that concerned most Americans. They were shocked to learn the details of how cattle and hogs were being sliced into beef and pork and by how much condemned meat was entering our food supply by describing meat-filled storage rooms teeming with rats. Condemned meat was doused with borax and glycerin, recolored with other chemicals and sold. As for the workers, beef-boners suffered knife wounds, pluckers had to handle acid-treated wool had their fingers slowly burned off. Men would sometimes fall into vats of lard and “they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard” wrote Sinclair.

meat packing

Chicago Meat Packing in the early days



Four months after The Jungle was published, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act, establishing sanitary standards and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required labeling of food and empowered federal inspectors to prosecute plant owners. The laws were not often enforced but were the beginning of a safer meat industry. One wonders if things are that much improved – read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser for accounts of much the same practices that the American people found so appalling in the early 1900’s.

The Harvey Girls

Fred Harvey is credited with creating the first restaurant chain in the United States. Harvey and his company also became leaders in promoting tourism in the American Southwest in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The company and its employees, including the famous waitresses who came to be known as “Harvey Girls”, successfully brought new higher standards of both civility and dining to a region widely regarded in the era as “the Wild West”. Harvey girls were single white women “of good character” from eighteen to thirty years old. They could not get married during their contracts or they would lose their job, pay and their railroad pass.



The Harvey Girls

The restaurants often specialized in serving French – sounding food. For example menu items included Cream of Chicken Reine Margot, Consomme Careme, Jumbo Bullfrog Almandienne and Medaillon of Salmon Poche. American foods included mashed potatoes, raspberry sundae, Manhattan clam chowder, Roast Home-made veal loaf, Broiled Baby Lobster, and Saratoga Chips (aka potato chips). These dishes were served in Wichita, Kansas, Guthrie, Oklahoma, Amarillo, Texas, Trinidad, Colorado, Clovis, Deming and Raton, New Mexico, and Needles, Mojave and Merced, California. Harvey was a perfectionist who showed up unannounced to inspect his kitchens. He fired people if he didn’t like their attitude or they tried to cut corners in preparation of the foods.

The Last Dinner

The same standards applied on ships which at that time mostly served the wealthy. The supposedly unsinkable Titanic with eleven decks struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912 and sank less than three hours later. It was a British ship, so dinner was announced by buglers playing “The Roast Beef of Old England”. The last meal was served on Sunday night and it was supposedly the most lavish served. The menu: oysters, salmon, filet mignon, roast duckling, foie gras, squab, asparagus, chocolate and vanilla eclairs, and French ice cream. It took a staff of about sixty chefs and forty assistants (mostly French) and fifty waiters (mostly Italian) to get the 2,000 breakfasts and dinners prepared and served.



Titanic Dining Room

One thousand, four hundred and ninety people drowned. The staff was prevented from entering a lifeboat until the passengers were on. As far as historians can determine, all the kitchen staff died except for a 17-year old cook. He was saved when he was helping a woman carry a child and was swept overboard and later picked up by a lifeboat. .

Home Economics Class

In the late 1800s, the Home Economics movement began and continued to be important in the 20th century. It was the first time that the science of cooking was studied in colleges to improve the nutrition of American families. Graduates often established soup kitchens and classes in food safety, sanitation and nutrition for new immigrants and women from the lower-income classes.



An early Home Economics class

Let The Processing Begin

What people ate in the early decades of the 20th century depended primarily on their ethnicity and religion, where they lived as regional influences like New England, New Orleans Creole, the south (soul food).and income (wealthy vs. poorer classes).  Immigration produced new foods and recipes. Many ethnic groups opened restaurants in urban areas. The first Italian-style pizzeria opened in New York City in 1905.  Great progress was made in transportation, food preservation and electricity had its beginnings in the cities.   Corporate giants such as the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), Campbell’s, Swift, General Mills, Quaker Oats, Kraft, Jell-O, and Hershey’s provided new products and “invented” recipes using them; the processed food industry was born.


Before Jell-O, the process of making a gelatin dessert was a daylong, multi-step ordeal that involved straining and skimming (of water from boiling calve’s feet). It became served only in wealthy homes since no one without servants would attempt it.

Jello was actually introduced in 1897 by Pearle Wait of LeRoy, New York  who was the first to add coloring and flavoring to gelatin powder (already on the market) to create a dessert mix his wife named Jell-O that became the first American stand-alone dessert mix. The product flooded the market and soon the first Jell-O recipe booklet was distributed door-to-door in horse-drawn wagons.

Jell-O was featured in movies with the most famous scene in Animal House when John Belushi ineptly inhaled green squares of it to instigate a food fight. It was also used to help part the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1923) and was used as an approved paint on the horse of many colors in the Wizard of Oz (1937).


One thought on “A Century of Food 1900-1912

  1. This was so interesting. Please continue!


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