Learn about Life in the 1920s

The introduction of refrigerators enabled healthier and longer storage of perishable foodstuffs, with consequent health benefits as well as time saved due to less frequent purchases. Refrigeration also permitted the transport of perishable foodstuffs over much longer distances by road and sea.

Smaller farms were absorbed by larger farms who could afford the expensive farm machinery that lowered costs and improved profitability while increasing production.

Food on a Table

Improved Food Production, Storage, and Availability

Food was plentiful and cheap thanks to the large quantities produced by American farms. The American diet in the early part of the century consisted for a large part of meat and potatoes. A lot of time was taken up in preparing and cooking meals. Data from 1920 reveals that 44 hours were spent on preparing meals and cleaning up after them each week. As vitamins began to be discovered from 1912 on, fruit, vegetables and milk became much more important than they had in the earlier years. For the first time people could drink fresh orange juice year round due to improvements in storage and transport.

1920's STAPLE FOODS

The public's eating habits changed as Americans ate fewer starches (like bread and potatoes) and increased consumption of fruit and sugar. However, the most striking development was the shift toward processed foods. Where housewives had previously prepared food from scratch at home (peeling potatoes, shelling peas, plucking chickens, or grinding coffee beans) an increasing number of Americans purchased foods that were ready-to-cook. World War I brought about new methods of food processing as manufacturers streamlined production methods of canned and frozen foods. Processed foods reduced the enormous amounts of time that had previously been taken up in peeling, grinding, and cutting.

Gas stoves, electric refrigerators, and other labor-saving kitchen devices enabled ready preparation and storage of food and beverages, making possible the introduction of greater varieties of foodstuffs into the American diet, and condiments introduced by immigrants added new flavors.

Although electric powered refrigerators were available for the first time they were expensive and so only the well-to-do could afford them initially. Food storage rooms were still used by most households and traditional food preservation methods had not yet been supplanted by supermarket foodstuffs.

The "Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts" in Scranton, PA ran a correspondence cooking course to teach women how to prepare, cook and serve food using the most up-to-date information available. Tens of thousands of women in rural and suburban areas in America and worldwide benefited from this educational program. It was also published as a five volume set of illustrated cook books - you can see Volume 1 that includes information on how to make bread and biscuits, here.

During the depression of the late 1920's and 1930's a cheap source of meat was rabbits. In Australia rabbits were called poor man's mutton and were the mainstay of many families diets. Like potatoes in Ireland, rabbits were cooked in numerous different ways to provide variety.

Manufactured foods introduced in the 1920s include - Baby Ruth Candy Bar (1920). Wonder Bread (1920). Yoo-Hoo Chocolate Drink (1923). Reese's Peanut Butter Cup (1923). Welch's Grape Jelly (1923). Popsicles (1924). Wheaties (1924). Hostess Cakes (1927). Kool-Aid (1927). Peter Pan Peanut Butter (1928). Velveeta Cheese (1928). (Source: Bon Appetit magazine), and just like today there was debate over brown bread vs white bread.

The following list of advertisements from a woman's magazine of the period shows the type of products being marketed to consumers.

Dried Peaches

FOOD ADVERTISEMENTS January 1920 "Woman's Home Companion" Magazine

  • Campbells Ox Tail Soup

  • Nestles Milk Food

  • Heinz Tomato Ketchup

  • Uncle Johns Syrup

  • Snowdrift Vegetable Shortening

  • None Such Mince Meat

  • Swans Down Cake Flour

  • National Biscuit Company

  • Log Cabin Syrup

  • Heinz Spaghetti

  • Van Camps Pork and Beans

  • Van Camps Peanut Butter

  • Del Monte Canned Fruits and Vegetables

  • Pompeian Olive Oil

  • Faust Instant Coffee

  • Rumford Baking Powder

  • Grape-Nuts

  • Sunkist Lemons

  • Diamond Crystal Salt

  • Dromedary Cocoanut

 

 

FOOD ADVERTISEMENTS January 1927 "Woman's Home Companion" Magazine

  • Campbells Vegetable-Beef Soup

  • Libbys Hawaiian Pineapple

  • Maxwell House Coffee

  • Del Monte Fruits

  • Cream Of Wheat

  • Del Monte Spinach

  • Armours Star Ham

  • Del Monte Peas

  • Royal Baking Powder

  • Seald Sweet Oranges

  • Jenny Wren Flour

  • Colmans Mustard

  • Hawaiian Pineapple

  • Fleischmann's Yeast

  • Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour

  • Bottled Carbonated Beverages

  • Postum Cereal

  • Diamond Crystal Salt

  • Steero Bouillon Cubes

  • Brer Rabbit Molasses

  • Bordens Eagle Brand Condensed Milk

  • Squibbs Cod Liver Oil

  • Mellins Food

  • Bordens Eagle Brand Condensed Milk

  • Premier Salad Dressing

  • Minute Tapioca


FIRST STEEL FRIDGE

In 1920 Charles Birdseye deep-froze food. In September 1922, he formed his own company, Birdseye Seafoods Inc. By 1930 Birdseye was selling 26 different frozen vegetables, fruits, fish and meats. In 1921 the White Castle chain of hamburger shops opened, and in 1925 the first home mechanical refrigerator, the Frigidaire, came on the market.

When Prohibition went into effect in America on January 16, 1920, it increased the production of soft drinks and spurred the growth of tea rooms and cafeterias, while alcohol production and consumption went "underground". Prohibition may also have been partly resposible for the remarkable increase in the consumption of cocoa and chocolate in the USA. Although there was a marked increase in the consumption of tea and coffee during the same period, the ratio of increase fell far below that of cocoa.

Horn & Hardart were pioneers of the fast food industry. Their TV and radio advertising motto "Less work for mother," pioneered the concept of prepared foods to eat at home. The restaurants were called Automats because, besides a cafeteria line, they featured food behind small glass windows that was accessed by putting a few nickels in the slots. Automats flourished in the first half of the 20th century, but their profitability gradually declined, and the last remaining one closed in 1991.

FOOD RESOURCES

Food Shortage by 1960 Predicted ~1925
A prediction that food shortages would cause war and famine by 1960.

Creole Cookery of Old New Orleans ~1923
Old style Creole cooking the way it used to be done. Includes recipes from 1923.

Christmas Cakes Dec.1919
5 Christmas Cake Recipes and 4 Christmas Cookie Recipes.

Christmas Dinners Dec.1919
4 Christmas Dinner Recipes including main courses and desserts.

Christmas Dinner Ideas Dec.1930
Something Different for Christmas Dinner.