Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

Observations on the Saga of Food in History: Paradigm Shifts of the Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century

Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

Observations on the Saga of Food in History: Paradigm Shifts of the Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century

Article excerpt


By the end of the 19th century, the fashion in female pulchritude was "deliciously plump." Books were written advising readers how to gain weight. The voluptuous woman became the ideal, and actress Lillian Russell exemplified the American Beauty. She was reported to have weighed 200 pounds and displayed a corseted hourglass figure with ample hips and full bosom. Lillian Russell often dined with Diamond Jim Brady. A biographer of that period said that she ate more than Diamond Jim. Her full figure led the way for women to let down their pretenses and indulge heartily in meals.


When Dr. John Harvey Kellogg came along, the slab of meat was the main constituent of a proper breakfast. Kellogg, a dedicated vegetarian, turned his Battle Creek, Michigan, sanitarium into a thriving health resort that included many of the rich and famous of the 1870s. "Corn Flakes," the featured breakfast dish, soon became nationally famous. The cereal was celebrated as the ideal health food. Breakfast in the United States was never the same afterwards.


Before public laundries, home washers, and vacuum cleaners made their appearance, an upper-middle class family in the 1880s tended to have three or four servants. The wealthier upper-class household contained five or six servants. Few middle-class families operated on a servantless basis. The employee was usually an immigrant and was hired for about $10 a month. Around the turn of the century, new utensils came upon the market, making home cooking easier and more diversified. Kitchens and dining rooms became more capable of diverse dishes, and Americans were launched on eating extravaganzas. It was then that the main meal, dinner, was moved from mid-afternoon into the evening. Previously, a light meal had been taken as supper. Although meals may have been described as "light," they seldom were lacking in numerous courses. Appetizers consisted of several courses, as did the entree and desserts. The poor and less affluent, however, continued to eat only as "sumptuously" as a giant cooking pot would allow. Stew encompassed whatever edibles were available at low cost or could be foraged.


Dyspepsia afflicted almost everyone. It was the medical name for stomach pains, indigestion, constipation, and heartburn. At the turn of the century 20th century, more specific terms for the ailments were coming into vogue. Since the lower economic classes did not have the luxury of resorting to doctors when minor ailments struck, dyspepsia became a class symbol, much like an ulcer being the badge of business success in the 1960s and 70s. To be dyspeptic meant one enjoyed the "better" things in life.


Around the turn of the century, foreign visitors to the United States were astounded by the large quantities of food that Americans ate. One writer in particular, the English novelist Anthony Trollope, warned his countrymen that they would be disgusted to observe the gluttony of Americans.

"They eat double the amount of everything that the average Englishman does," he wrote.

This may have started when American hotels competed with other dining establishments for business. A breakfast offered by such hotels would consist of rolls, bread, hot cereals, beefsteak, eggs, kidneys, corned beef hash, tripe, clams, and varieties of potatoes (from the menu of Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga). Unfortunately, not much has changed here, portion-wise. Portion sizes are as big as ever in the United States. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), portion sizes have steadily increased over the past few decades. Hamburgers, for example, are three times bigger than they were in the 1960s.


The development of the railroads in the United States changed the functions of the grocery store and food packaging. …

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