The close of the 19th century marked the tail end of the Industrial Revolution and a turning point in the American culinary landscape. Advances in agriculture, transportation, food processing, science, and marketing ushered in an era of giant manufacturers, packaged convenience foods, time-saving kitchen devices, and patent medicines, thus setting the stage for modern attitudes about cooking, eating, and health.
The recipe pamphlets included in the digital collection reflect this trajectory, offering a glimpse at a time when Americans were discovering a then-extraordinary world of cheap and plentiful mass-produced products.
Agriculture, technology plant seeds of change
Thanks to increased federal funds for agricultural research (encouraging innovations like the “Improved-Robbins” Potato Planter), crop production began to soar in the 1880s . Expanded railroad lines and the advent of refrigerated rail cars meant that perishable products were suddenly more affordable and accessible year-round. This led to widespread availability of fresh fruits and vegetables such as tropical bananas, California Sunkist oranges, and the newly-developed “iceburg” lettuce (the latter creating popular demand for salad dressings).
The introduction of labor-saving kitchen appliances like the Acorn Gas Range and the Zerozone refrigerator created new-found freedom for home cooks. Late 19th- century improvements in canning technology contributed to the birth of the convenience food industry, introducing such delicacies as Argo canned salmon and Kornlet. This marked the emergence of large-scale production of packaged foods, a trend which would take off in the early 20th century.
The diversity of products on the market quickly expanded the palates of consumers, previously accustomed to labor-intensive meals heavy in meats and starches. While Americans embraced a variety of healthier fresh foods, white sugar consumption also doubled between 1880 and 1915. This may have been in part due to the rise of soft drinks like Hires' Root Beer. Of the range of fresh meats available, beef became the most popular. Foreign cuisines and subsequent Americanized versions became common.
Food safety and nutrition catch on
The emergence of “Food Science” in the 1880s focused new attention on the link between food and health. Events such as the discovery of bacteria in the 1880s awoke in consumers a concern for food safety. Recognizing the need to regulate the food industry, the U.S. government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, requiring accurate labeling of ingredients in packaged food. Manufacturers capitalized on consumer anxiety by emphasizing food purity and sanitary factory conditions in their marketing, a strategy seen in pamphlets such as that published by McMenamin & Co.
Health and nutrition also became consumer concerns in the early 20th century, spurred by scientific advancements including a series of vitamin discoveries beginning in 1912. Experts extolled the virtues of calcium, Vitamin C, B vitamins, fresh fruits, and vegetables. During World War I, food rationing and conservation initiatives (illustrated by a National War Garden Commission pamphlet) resulted in many Americans eating a healthier diet. An awareness of the role of calories- and new standards in beauty favoring a slim figure- led to increased interest in dieting. The national obsession with nutrition was accompanied by the propagation of dubious health claims by manufacturers, as seen in pamphlets promoting patent medicines like Dr. Miles’ Nervine.
The birth of advertising and a new social reality
Between 1900 and 1930, food became the single most advertised commodity. Branding became increasingly important for distinguishing between different companies’ products. Breakfast cereal was an early example of successful large-scale food promotion. In the early 1900s, the Kellogg Company and other manufacturers convinced consumers to embrace this new food through campaigns highlighting convenience and health. Other companies took note, heralding in the age of national brands with multi-million dollar advertising budgets.
Our reliance on the food industry to supply ample food to urban areas coincided with a huge demographic shift from rural areas to cities between 1870 and 1920. The number of Americans engaged in farm-related work dropped steadily as a result. Independent general stores were replaced by grocery chain stores like A & P. Women’s entry into the work force encouraged sales of foods and appliances meant to cut down on meal preparation time (for example, the “magic shortcuts” advertised by Borden Inc.). Culinary fads quickly spread over radio airwaves and in newspapers and magazines, raising popular interest in cooking and food.
By the 1930s, the modern food system was largely in place. The ideas established during the preceding 50 years continue to inform Americans’ ideas about food to this day. The fact that many of the early giant food manufacturers still exist today, and that their products continue to endure, illustrates the profound impact of this era.
Levenstein, Harvey. Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Ed. Andrew F. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.