Unjacketed Hardcover

Inventing Baby Food

Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet

Amy Bentley (Author)

Available worldwide

Unjacketed Hardcover, 256 pages
ISBN: 9780520277373
September 2014
$60.00, £44.95
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Food consumption is a significant and complex social activity—and what a society chooses to feed its children reveals much about its tastes and ideas regarding health. In this groundbreaking historical work, Amy Bentley explores how the invention of commercial baby food shaped American notions of infancy and influenced the evolution of parental and pediatric care.

Until the late nineteenth century, infants were almost exclusively fed breast milk. But over the course of a few short decades, Americans began feeding their babies formula and solid foods, frequently as early as a few weeks after birth.

By the 1950s, commercial baby food had become emblematic of all things modern in postwar America. Little jars of baby food were thought to resolve a multitude of problems in the domestic sphere: they reduced parental anxieties about nutrition and health; they made caretakers feel empowered; and they offered women entering the workforce an irresistible convenience. But these baby food products laden with sugar, salt, and starch also became a gateway to the industrialized diet that blossomed during this period.

Today, baby food continues to be shaped by medical, commercial, and parenting trends. Baby food producers now contend with health and nutrition problems as well as the rise of alternative food movements. All of this matters because, as the author suggests, it’s during infancy that American palates become acclimated to tastes and textures, including those of highly processed, minimally nutritious, and calorie-dense industrial food products.
List of Illustrations

1. Industrial Food, Industrial Baby Food: The 1890s to the 1930s
2. Shifting Child-Rearing Philosophies and Early Solids: The Golden Age of Baby Food at Midcentury
3. Industrialization, Taste, and Their Discontents: The 1960s to the 1970s
4. Natural Food, Natural Motherhood, and the Turn toward Homemade: The 1970s to the 1990s
5. Reinventing Baby Food in the Twenty-First Century

Amy Bentley is Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity and the editor of A Cultural History of Food in the Modern Era.
"Bentley, author of Eating for Victory, has meticulously scoured the literature on infant nutrition and presented a very fluid, flowing, and engrossing account of the history of baby food over the past century."—R. A. Hoots CHOICE
"An important testimony to the multifaceted processes that shape why Americans buy what they buy. Inventing Baby Food is a welcome addition to the study of American cultural history."—Journal of American History
"Meticulously researched with sources ranging from company advertisements to industry statistics, Inventing Baby Food makes important contributions to American cultural history and the histories of business, consumerism, and food culture."—Deirdre Clemente Journal of American History
"Amy Bentley's engaging, brilliantly researched book is a revelation. Who knew that all those little baby food jars could tell us so much about the commercial, cultural, and personal history of food in America. Inventing Baby Food is an instant food studies classic." --Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics

"Food scholars who think infant feeding means burping babies on their mothers' shoulders should think again. Bentley shows how the corporate approach to babies' appetites rested on a shallow conception of babyhood and human taste. She also devotes attention to the changes in the past few decades, as longer breastfeeding and home-prepared foods have gained modest purchase. Her book leaves us better informed, perhaps even a little more optimistc." --Sidney Mintz, William L. Straus Jr. Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, Johns Hopkins

2015 ASFS Book Prize, Association for the Study of Food and Society

2015 Finalist in Reference and Scholarship, James Beard Foundation Awards


Industrial Food, Industrial Baby Food

The 1890s to the 1930s

Dec. 5, 1929

U.S. Department of Labor

Children's Bureau


Kindly send me your booklet on "Child Care." Also any other booklets you have on children from 2 1/2 years old and up.

Several of us women were discussing whether canned food (mostly fruits and vegetables) were good for children and we can't come to an agreement on it.

What do your statistics show on this. Please answer me as I am very anxious to know.

Yours truly,

Mrs. M. Glass

2841 W. 31st St.

Coney Island

Brooklyn, N.Y.


November 10, 1936

Children's Bureau

Department of Labor

Washington, D.C.


We are looking for an unbiased answer to the following question and feel that your department could supply the information which would not be influenced by paid testimonials nor prejudiced by tradition but based on actual facts.

How do prepared baby foods such as Gerber's, Heinz's, Libby's, etc. compare with vegetables and fruits cooked at home under average conditions? Are they inferior, or on par, or superior? A definite opinion will be will very much appreciated.

This information is in no way to be used for advertising but merely to settle a private argument . . .

Thanking you in advance I am

Very truly yours,

Mrs. R. J. Simpson

807 West 66 St.

Los Angeles, Calif. 1

In the late 1920s and 1930s, dozens of women (and a few men) wrote letters to the federal government's Children's Bureau, asking for advice about the new canned foods for infants that were coming on the market. Parents wanted to know if commercially produced baby food was safe for their babies, if it was better than homemade, or if the bureau had instructions on how to can vegetables themselves for their infants. The documents reveal a transition occurring in infant feeding in the early twentieth-century United States: now that industrially produced canned baby foods were more affordable and more available on grocery store shelves, parents were feeding their babies more fruits and vegetables than parents had previously, and feeding their babies these solids at earlier ages.

The Children's Bureau staff responding to the earliest letters, mostly women trained in the new profession of dietetics and at least one with a medical degree, emphasized that home-cooked vegetables were suitable and perhaps even best, though some vitamins are lost in the cooking process. They also mentioned that the new canned baby foods appeared to be safe. Eventually, after a number of similar inquiries, a Children's Bureau employee wrote to the American Medical Association seeking an authoritative opinion. "Gentlemen," wrote Blanche M. Haines, MD, in 1931, "We frequently have requests for information about vegetables, such as Gerber's or Clapp's which are prepared especially for feeding to infants. If you have some laboratory findings in connection with these vegetables, will you please send us a copy of the statement?"2

Indeed, from the advent of mass-produced baby food in the late 1920s through the 1930s and even into the World War II years, the Children's Bureau, along with other government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, grappled with gauging the relative health, safety, and affordability of the budding commercial baby food industry. The bureau's popular pamphlet, Infant Care, which had been in print since 1914, was frequently revised to reflect current thinking and practice regarding infant feeding, and the 1936 edition of Infant Care was the first to mention canned vegetables and fruits. Assessing that both homemade and commercially canned foods were acceptable to use, it noted that the commercial products might be superior because the factory machinery presumably created a more finely sieved product. Yet Infant Care seemed reluctant to endorse wholeheartedly the commercial product at the expense of homemade. This edition, published at the height of the Great Depression, noted that frugal parents could feed infants the affordable fresh fruits and vegetables grown in their gardens.

Through a focus on the origins, development, and early marketing of commercially produced baby food, this chapter reveals how baby food emerged as the quintessential industrial product: a standardized creation with predictable tastes, textures, and qualities, and, like other canned products of the time, laden with sugar, salt, and preservatives to maintain shelf life. A convenience food created by manufacturers and advertisers, admired by doctors and health professionals, and welcomed by mothers, commercial baby food grew in popularity, its growth fueled by changing notions of infant feeding, the discovery of vitamins, and a nascent advertising industry. The success of commercial baby food situated the Gerber Baby in particular as an icon of modernity and convenience, paving the way for a significant shift in the way infants came to be fed, and signifying through its advertising the combined roles of mother and consumer. Popular from the get-go, by the end of the 1930s commercial baby food had acquired mainstream status in the United States, thus solidifying the notion of the special category of food for babies.

To provide a backdrop for the industrialization of infant food, this chapter explores the precursors to as well as the beginnings of mass-marketed baby food, specifically the development of its forerunner, artificial infant formula. In the preindustrial Western world 95 percent of children were breastfed, either by their mothers or by wet nurses. Infants who were breastfed, or "wet nursed," whether by their biological mother or by another woman, contrasted with the remaining small percentage of infants who were "dry nursed," or "brought up by hand"-that is, fed mixtures of boiled flour and water or animal milk, variously called pap or panada.3The earliest known infant feeding devices, dating from about 2000 B.C.E., were small, shallow bowls made of clay with a spout at one end. Later vessels were fashioned out of wood, animal horns, ceramic, and eventually silver, pewter, and glass. Some resembled a large spoon with a straw on the end. Often rags were attached to the end through which infants would suck out the liquid. The first nipples were made out of cork or leather. India rubber nipples appeared in the mid-nineteenth century.4Cross-cultural research as well as common sense indicates that the weaning process took place over a period of months or years. Infants at some point were introduced to semisolid mixtures as a supplement to breast milk, often in the form of food prechewed by the mother, which then would gradually become a more prominent part of their diet.5

Until the early twentieth century, however, infants who were exclusivelydry nursed or fed artificially usually failed to thrive, either because of inadequate nutrition or contaminated animal milk or water.6 Thus before industrialization the overwhelming majority of women breastfed their infants for a considerable length of time, and in Europe and the United States evidence suggests that through the seventeenth century women generally breastfed their infants beyond the second summer. Parents knew that children could develop diarrhea and easily die if they consumed food spoiled by the summer heat. By the eighteenth century the customary length of breastfeeding shortened to just over a year.7

In the mid-nineteenth century, experts admonished mothers to feed infants a liquid diet of breast milk or modified cow's milk for most of their first year.8A pediatrician writing in the twentieth century described the practice as "the grandmothers' aphorism, 'only milk until the eruption of molars' (12-16 months)."9According to one researcher, "Milk alone was believed sufficient until the baby showed signs of failure, and often the young child's diet was confined to little more than milk until he was two years of age. Meat was considered damaging."10

Women shared home recipes for breast milk substitutes in this era before recipes included standardized measurements, and those women with the means or access found published recipes in the household advice manuals common to the period. "That which nature has provided is the milk of its parent," wrote Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale in 1857, "but when this is lacking, a preparation formed of cow's milk and water, with a little loaf sugar, supplies the desideratum [essentials]."11 "If the [cow's] milk cannot be obtained," added Joseph B. Lyman and Laura E. Lyman, in their Philosophy of House-Keeping (1867), "water in which cracker or good wheat bread has been soaked with sugar added to it is very nutritive and digestible."12 Alexander V. Hamilton in his Household Cyclopaedia of Practical Receipts and Daily Wants (1875) provided a more detailed recipe for a breast milk substitute:

The [packets of farinaceous] food should always be made with water, the whole sweetened at once, and of such a consistency that, when poured out, and it has had time to cool, it will cut with the firmness of a pudding or custard. One or two spoonfuls are to be put into the pap saucepan, and stood on the hob till the heat has softened it, when enough milk is to be added, and carefully mixed with the food, till the whole has the consistence of ordinary cream; it is then to be poured into the nursing bottle, and the food having been drawn through to warm the nipple, it is to be placed in the child's mouth. For the first month or more half a bottleful will be quite enough to give the infant at one time.13

Popular advice manuals recommended that cereals or meats, not necessarily in that order, be introduced when teeth began to appear, between six and nine months of age, but only as thin gruel mixtures, broths, or juices. Such "foods," as they were characterized, would a century later be considered "liquids." "The food for children should be light and simple," advised Mrs. Hale, "gruel alone, or mixed with cow's milk; mutton broth, or beef tea; stale bread, rusks, or biscuits, boiled in water to a proper consistence, and a little sugar added."14 Hale recommended that weaning could take place as early as seven months, but more commonly after twelve months.15

While mothers fed infants "strength-producing" meats and cereals in the first year, advice manuals recommended that children not be given fruits and vegetables until two or three years of age. This was in part the result of Americans' wary attitude in general toward fruits and vegetables. Both medical opinion and folk practice in the United States were still influenced by the centuries-old Galenic theories of health and disease, which dictated that eating fruit made people, especially children, susceptible to fevers.16 Properties inherent in fruits and vegetables were thought to cause severe diarrhea and dysentery, especially in the summer. An 1884 newspaper illustration, for example, depicted a skeleton disguised as a fruit seller offering produce to little children, suggesting that raw, unboiled fruits and vegetables led to cholera.17 The actual culprit, especially in such turn-of-the-century urban metropolises as New York City, with its inadequate, overloaded water and sewer systems, was most likely bacteria residing on the outside of the produce, or contaminated water or milk that happened to be ingested, rather than anything in the produce itself.18 Given the laxative effect of fruits and vegetables if consumed in excess, however, it is understandable that people assumed fresh produce might contribute to diseases with symptoms that included diarrhea. Moreover, in this era before the discovery of vitamins, most people felt that fruits and vegetables provided excessive bulk and roughage and contributed little in the way of nourishment helpful to infants.19

Advice manuals of the mid-nineteenth century reflected, while attempting to modify, this prevailing ideology that regarded meats and cereals positively and fruits and vegetables with caution. "The growing creature requires food that contains the elements of the body . . . food that abounds in albumen, fibrine, gelatine, and the earthy salts," Joseph B. Lyman and Laura E. Lyman informed readers in their 1867 guide. "What substances do we find richest in the constituents of perfect food? Flesh, milk, eggs and wheat bread."20 But, they noted, "there is in the minds of thousands of anxious mothers a great dread of fruits of all kinds as being dangerous for the young."21 Attempting to dispel these commonly held notions, the Lymans advised that the problem was children's consumption of fruits to excess, not the produce itself.

Industrialization, Scientific Motherhood, and Increased Use of Artificial Formula

By the late nineteenth century, the industrialization of the food supply, along with increased advertising, had laid important groundwork for changing recommendations concerning infant care and feeding. Before 1900, most Americans' diets were fairly monotonous regimes of soups, stews, bread, dairy products, meat (fresh when available, salted, dried, or smoked when not), and fruits and vegetables (fresh in season or preserved through pickling, jams, or preserves, or through drying and some home canning). Improvements in stoves and kitchen devices made food preparation easier; iceboxes kept foods fresher. All, in many ways, made cooking a less arduous task for women.

Canned goods, especially canned produce, though commonly available in the late 1800s, were too expensive for most. By the 1920s, however, manufacturers produced canned goods in sufficient quantity to allow Americans to consume fruits and vegetables year-round. Americans' diets became more varied and their nutrition subsequently improved.22 As literacy rates increased and print media proliferated, private food companies looked to advertising firms to help sell their mass-produced food products.23

Moreover, fin-de-siècle Americans turned increasingly to science as the most credible authority, particularly in matters of health and the human life cycle.24 An effect of this was the increased stature in society, whether self-generated or not, of the medical community. By the early twentieth century doctors supplanted midwives in delivering babies, who now entered the world more often in hospitals than in homes. Employing wet nurses, which had been a common practice among wealthier women, became less common as wet nursing, most often performed by poor women, immigrants, and women of color, became more stigmatized, and as safer breast milk alternatives, such as sterilized condensed milk, became available.25Instead, during this "chemical period" in infant feeding, medical authorities took charge, partially by devising complicated "percentage" formulas only they could administer as breast milk replacements.26 As Rima Apple and others have amply shown, the result was the "medicalization of motherhood," or "scientific motherhood." Profoundly influenced by prevailing behaviorist theories of psychology, by the early twentieth century authorities advised that parenting instincts and common sense should take a backseat to science. Infants were to be fed on strict schedules, for example, and were not to be picked up when crying, which would only reward their negative behavior, experts told women.27

Doctors and childcare experts still considered breastfeeding best, no doubt in part because of the high infant mortality rates occurring in the burgeoning cities that had limited access to fresh, clean cow's milk. Marion Mills Miller in 1910 advocated that "no other milk, however skillfully modulated, no 'infant's food,' however scientifically prepared," could fully replace mother's milk.28 But these experts often qualified their breastfeeding endorsements by explaining that they only applied if a woman's breast milk supply was adequate. In their 1920 manual, Martha Van Rensselaer, Flora Rose, and Helen Cannon, Cornell University home economists, gave recipes for artificial formula but called it "the next best thing" if a "baby cannot be fed by its own mother."29

Yet as the medicalization of motherhood developed, child specialists offered more and more reasons why breastfeeding was inadequate. Improved technology helped artificial formulas and cow's milk to become regarded as a safer and more healthful alternative for infants. Optimistic faith in science required little reasoning about why formula feeding was equal to-if not better than-breast milk. Formula feeding was easier for doctors to measure and regulate, allowing them to tinker with the makeup of artificial formulas when necessary. Anxious mothers, losing confidence in their parenting abilities and common sense, wanted what was best for their babies and voluntarily relinquished their authority. Hospital deliveries that whisked babies away to the nursery fostered a sterile and awkward climate for mother-infant bonding and discouraged breastfeeding. Taking their cues from the medical community, home economics experts recommended not only that an infant's mouth be swabbed and rinsed with fresh water after every feeding but that a woman's breast be cleaned with a boric acid solution before and after nursing as well.30

Thus an unintended consequence of the dominance of scientific motherhood, combined with changing social conditions and mores, was the decline of breastfeeding. The new advice and practice regarding birth and early infant care, such as hospital births that separated mother and infant for long periods of time, helped to decrease the amount of breast milk a woman produced. The result was that more mothers became convinced that they did not have sufficient milk to nurse their newborns. Although certainly some women could not physically breastfeed, and others, such as those who performed paid labor outside the home, found it logistically difficult to do so, these were the exceptions, not the rule. Yet it is not surprising that, given the changing perceptions at the turn of the century about women's ability to nurse, the numbers of women breastfeeding their infants declined. The percentage of women breastfeeding would still remain relatively high through the 1930s, however, when compared to the numbers just two decades later.31 Jacqueline Wolf, in her study of infant feeding in Chicago, found that despite the known dangers of using breast milk substitutes, by the mid-nineteenth century many women began weaning their babies at three months, even before cleaner cow's milk and more reliable proprietary foods were available. Some women never exclusively breastfed, but from the beginning fed their infants a combination of breast milk, cow's milk, and table food.32 No doubt many simply did not want to nurse their infants for a variety of reasons, including, Wolf argues, the sexualization of the breast fostered by the increased practice of marrying for love. Wealthier women, who had always breastfed less often than other women, now turned to using artificial formulas and cow's milk as it became safer, instead of employing wet nurses. Middle-class women followed suit, with working-class women and women of color gradually ceasing to breastfeed accordingly.33

Artificial infant formulas got their start in the early nineteenth century as scientists began to identify the basic building blocks in food-proteins, fats, and carbohydrates-as central to human nutrition, as well as to determine the chemical components of human and animal milks. According to the scientific calculations, cow's milk, the most common substitute for human milk, contained more protein but fewer carbohydrates than human milk. So to modify cow's milk to fit the profile of human milk, the thinking went, it would need to be thinned with water and supplemented with some kind of carbohydrate, usually sugar or malt flour. In the South the sweetener of choice became Karo syrup.

European entrepreneurs in the mid-nineteenth century were the first to create commercial artificial human milk formulas. In the 1860s German chemist Justis Von Liebig developed and patented one of the first artificial formulas for human milk, consisting of cow's milk, potassium bicarbonate, and wheat and malt flours. Produced first in liquid form and eventually in powdered form to which water or milk was added, Liebig's was successfully marketed in Europe and the United States. Also in that period Swiss pharmacist Henri Nestlé developed a patented formula for infants, a concoction of baked wheat rusks (slices of hard, twice-baked bread) crumbled into sweetened condensed milk, which was then dried and sold as brown granules. Later in the nineteenth century Mellin's Food was patented in England. Similar to Liebig's and Nestlé's, Mellin's consisted of dried wheat granules that were mixed with hot water, after which cold milk was added.34

By the late 1880s several brands of these "patent" or "proprietary foods" had appeared on the market and were sold primarily in drugstores. In addition to Liebig's Food,Nestlé's Milk Food, and Mellin's Food, there was Carnrick's Soluble Food, Eskay's Albumenized Food, Imperial Granum, Wells, Richardson, and Company's Lactated Food, and Wagner's Infant Food. Pablum, first produced in 1915 by Mead Johnson, was the one of the first patent infant foods to be manufactured in the United States. Most were powders made of various proportions of cereals, dried milk, and sweeteners. Some contained eggs or bicarbonate of potassium. All were to be mixed with either cow's milk or water, or both. Canned condensed cow's milk, such as Borden's Eagle Brand, both sweetened and unsweetened, also became a popular human milk substitute.35 Condensed milk was especially popular in the South and during the hot summer months in other regions of the United States, as it would not spoil in the heat.

As the brand names listed above reveal, the companies that produced the patent or proprietary foods designated their products as "food" rather than "liquid," as illustrated in figure 2, in part because most included cereal grains as part of their "formulas." Brightly colored and elaborately etched trade cards, the popular turn-of-the-century advertising medium that women and children particularly delighted in collecting and trading, illustrate this demarcation of infant formula as food. Advertising slogans included: "Nestlé's Milk Food: Baby's Friend"; "Imperial Granum: The Incomparable Food for the Growth and Protection of Infants and Children"; "Wells, Richardson, and Company's Lactated Food: A Scientific Food for Infants and Invalids"; "Wagner's Infant Food: Infants and Children fed on Wagner's Infant Food are remarkable for muscular strength, firmness of flesh, and a lively and intelligent appearance"; and "Mellin's Food for Infants and Invalids: The only perfect substitute for Mother's Milk."36


Although women in the newly emerging fields of home economics and dietetics embraced industrialized food products in general, most were wary of these early patent infant formulas.37 They felt that, whereas the patent food formulas might be beneficial for a few days if an infant were suffering indigestion, the overall nutrition content was suspect. Doctors working in foundling hospitals recorded a significant percentage of infants who failed to thrive on such formulas, and many derided them as "utterly useless."38 "Too much faith should not be put in the extravagant claims made for some brands of infant foods," admonished an early twentieth-century bulletin published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).39 "They cannot compete successfully with carefully made milk mixtures in substitute or artificial feeding," advised Flora Rose of Cornell University's recently established Home Economics Department. Rose felt they lacked "mineral salts," or what would later be called vitamins. "Many cases of malnutrition result directly from the use of such of these foods as are deficient in fat and mineral matter. A common ailment among babies thus fed is rickets, an ailment that is serious and may be lasting in its effects."40

What Rose called "mineral salts" were indeed important. Confirming what many chemists and nutritionists suspected, within the next decade researchers discovered the presence of vitamins in foods, including vitamin D, which prevents rickets, a softening of the bones that produced bowed legs in small children. Some evidence indicates that most mothers, at least in rural areas, did not feed their infants mass-produced proprietary foods. While Cornell University home economics students in the 1920s added a small amount of Mellin's Food to their month-old charges' formula, a 1933 study of over seven hundred infants in upstate New York indicated that only 6 percent of mothers had ever fed their babies patent foods, half using brands that were to be mixed with milk and half with water. Most stuck to the well-known and trusted recipe, found in Dr. L. Emmett Holt's perennially popular childcare manual, Care and Feeding of Infants, of cow's milk diluted with water and supplemented with sugar.41 Still, the increasing availability and promotion of such products, along with the rise in safer, cleaner cow's milk thanks to certification programs and pasteurization, contributed to a growth in the number of women who bottle fed their infants.

It makes sense that manufacturers and advertisers constructed these liquid formulas as "solid" rather than "liquid." This was the infant "food" of the time, after all, the nourishment on which babies survived, as there was not yet a tradition of feeding infants under nine months real solids, especially fruits and vegetables. Although a small supply of canned fruits and vegetables for infants was available, these were sold at apothecaries and used as medicine. They were clearly not designed for widespread, everyday use.42Without a mass-produced baby food such as that later made by Gerber, Heinz, Beech-Nut, Libby's, Clapp's, or a number of other small manufacturers, there was no solid commodity known as "food" with which to contrast the infant formula.

In the 1920s food corporations and pharmaceutical companies developed and marketed a second generation of commercial infant formulas, the availability of which contributed further to the decline and duration of breastfeeding. These products, including such brands as Nestlé's Lactogen and SMA (Synthetic Milk Adaptation), as well as the several brands of evaporated milk that were popular breast milk substitutes, were regarded by most physicians and dietitians as acceptable breast milk substitutes. Many of these "formulas," as they were still called, were packaged without directions, the design intending to make it necessary for a woman to rely on a pediatrician's instructions in order to use them.

Infant Feeding in the Early Twentieth Century: Shifting Advice and Practice

The first three decades of the twentieth century, a time characterized by the arrival of the culture of modernity, was a period of great change not only for women but also in the realms of economics, politics, the arts, science, and social and religious thought. In the 1910s and 1920s, before the advent of commercially produced solid baby food, infant feeding practices had begun to change noticeably, most prominently in the larger role fruits and vegetables were to have in an infant's diet. Still, experts recommended a relatively late introduction of solids, and grassroots evidence indicates that most mothers began feeding their infants solids at relatively later ages, usually six months of age or older.

During these decades scientists had begun to identify as "vitamines" (the spelling was later modified) the specific nutrients contained in foods that were previously called "mineral salts." Vitamins, scientists learned, existed not only in meat, grains, and dairy products, foods they had always considered vital to nourishment and growth, but also in fruits and vegetables, which had previously been regarded as benign at best and as suspicious by many, although several nineteenth-century groups did espouse the virtues of a vegetarian diet.43The promotion of fruits and vegetables as vital to human growth and nourishment grew during the Great War. Finding it difficult to recruit able-bodied young men and maintain their health while in the service, government officials and military physicians used and propagated the new knowledge of vitamins to help solve this problem of recruits' poor health.44 By the 1920s home economists and dietitians were introducing Americans to the notion of vitamins, advising them not only to consume more fruits and vegetables themselves but to feed more such foods to their children as well.

Early twentieth-century household advice manuals, though at times contradictory, increased their emphasis on fruits and vegetables, while still recommending the introduction of solids in the second half of the infant's first year. A 1914 advice manual, with the delightfully straightforward title How to Cook and Why, by Elizabeth Condit and Jessie A. Long, for the first time enthusiastically endorsed fruits and vegetables specifically for their "mineral matter." "As in all questions of feeding," related the authors, "it is the food given the children which is of the greatest importance. Serious results follow in the unhealthy development of their bodies when their food lacks mineral matter and the acids found in fruits."45They recommended introducing a barley flour and water mixture and strained diluted orange juice at between six and nine months of age, but (still) did not advocate the introduction of solids until between nine and twelve months. Cornell's Flora Rose recognized the importance of vitamins, referring to them as "fat-soluble" and "water-soluble growth-promoting substances."46

In 1928, on the eve of commercial baby food's introduction, Carlotta C. Greer, in her Foods and Home Making, gave both vitamins and vegetables a prominent place in advice for infant feeding. Experts advocated orange juice for infants, Greer informed, "because it contains vitamins and minerals."47 In fact, Greer noted, "Scientists working on the effect of food on the body are proving that fresh vegetables are needed to make us healthy."48 "Both babies that are fed on mother's milk and those that are fed on modified cow's milk should have certain food other than milk," Greer advised, although "the young baby must not be given solid foods."49 Greer recommended introducing a teaspoonful of orange juice at three weeks of age, cereals at five to six months, vegetables at six months, toast or zwieback at seven months, and egg yolk at twelve months.50Although she championed the introduction of certain foods, including fruits and vegetables, much earlier than previous advice givers, she still recommended the relatively later introduction of cereals and meat (the latter of which Greer did not recommend during the first year at all). Indeed, while some well-known authorities in the 1920s advocated that a one-year-old consume a diet almost entirely of liquids-whole milk or whole milk with a cereal diluent, orange juice, and perhaps simple cereal gruels and beef juices-increasingly these recommendations were viewed as "conservative" or "old-fashioned." Most experts suggested a diet similar to Greer's: the early introduction of orange juice (for vitamin C), cod liver oil (containing vitamins A and D), and solids, specifically nutrient-rich egg yolks and cereal, at five to six months of age.51

While some women no doubt had always introduced solids at an early age, the mainstream consensus and practice was not to rush introducing them, especially fruits and vegetables. For example, a collection of letters written in the 1910s to Cornell professor Martha Van Rensselaer reveals glimpses of both early and later introduction of solids. The letters were written mostly in response to Flora Rose's Care and Feeding of Children pamphlet series. The pamphlets, part of the Cornell Farmers' Wives Reading Courses (later called the Cornell Study Clubs), contained study questions that women were to fill out and send back to the Home Economics Department. While most of the letter writers praise the courses and the information, a few take stern issue with the information presented.52

Mr. W. J. Gilchrist's January 30, 1911, letter, for example, indicates that he and his wife followed Flora Rose's advice to breastfeed exclusively until at least nine months: "We have now a fine healthy child of 9 months. No little credit is due to the information contained in the above-mentioned tract. As the baby is about to start on artificial foods, would you kindly inform me where we can procure part 2 of [The Care and Feeding of Children]?" Another 1911 letter from a German immigrant reveals the opposite.53 "Dear Miss Van Rensselaer," began Mrs. Marie Christ. "I [raised] 6 babies myself and have got them all. 3 strong boys, and 2 girls, one girl got drowned, 7 years old." Responding to the study question Is it as common as it used to be for mothers to nurse their infants? Christ replied, "I think no and these is lots of reasons for it":

Some have to work to hard, and that was my reason, because I could not nurse a one. Some are to[o] [weak] in their whole system and some do not want the bother. . . . I think there is not hardly a one among thousands in the european country who thinks that just the nursing of the mother should be enough after a babie is 3 months old, and some start earlyer than that, to feed them something besides the nursing. The[y] look at they nursing just as we do, to the tea and coffee given to a five year old one. Nobody would think that would be enough for a whole meal. The[y] all feed them something besides the nursing, thousands of mothers just simple[y] cook a porridge from half watter, half milk and sugar and god wreath flour. The older the[y] get, the less water the[y] put in. I know babies and my oldest boy never got a drop of water after he was 4 months old.

"What the american babies needs," Christ concluded, "is more nourishing food, less [waking], less candy, and cookies, and [cakes], and a little toughening."54

While the letters show that women introduced solids to their infants at various ages, a 1933 Cornell study (still in the early years of mass-produced baby food) of the feeding practices of over seven hundred infants in upstate New York revealed on average the late introduction of solids. Although 60 percent of infants were fed orange juice during their first three months and infants received cod liver oil at 5.2 months on average, the average age at which solids were introduced included: cereal at 7.5 months; vegetables at 9.4 months; fruit at 8.1 months; egg at 10 months; meat at 11.6 months; and fish at 12.1 months-much later than the practices that occurred only a couple of decades later.55

Enter Commercial Baby Food: Origins and Icons

Thus by the 1920s, with the discovery and promotion of vitamins and changing attitudes toward fruits and vegetables, the market was ripe for the introduction of industrialized canned food for babies, especially produce. The new baby food products met with great success and solid growth, even during the 1930s Depression.56 Despite competitors' early development of their own mass-produced strained baby foods, Gerber (then officially named Gerber's, the "s" being dropped later) dominated the baby food market from the beginning.57

The conditions were such that mass-produced baby food struck a chord with consumers, mothers, and health professionals alike, and commercially canned baby food provided mass quantities of prepared strained fruits and vegetables to a public ready to accept them. Canned goods were becoming more affordable and familiar to more Americans; advertising was hitting its stride; fruits and vegetables were more commonly recommended for infants; and doctors and health professionals were becoming more and more involved in (and controlling of) infant health and everyday care. Both full-time mothers and the considerable number of working mothers-employed as domestics, factory workers, seamstresses, teachers, secretaries, clerks, or telephone operators-no doubt embraced and benefited from already-prepared solid infant food. Moreover, commercially produced baby food was not the only new phenomenon at the time that significantly altered child rearing. Commercial diaper services, increased wiring of homes for electricity, washing machines, refrigerators, and other technological innovations altered women's work in general and childcare in particular.58

Although Gerber dominated the commercial baby food market early on, it was not the first company to commercially manufacture solid baby food. Evidence suggests that Harold Clapp of Rochester, New York, developed Clapp's Baby Foods a few years earlier. In 1921 Clapp, on the advice of doctors, developed a type of "baby soup," a combination of beef broth, vegetables, and cereal, when his wife was too ill to feed and care for their infant son. Apparently their son did so well on this mixture that Clapp made large batches and began selling to individuals and through local drugstores. At its height, Clapp's Baby Food advertised and distributed nationally its hundred-item product line. Clapp's was eventually sold to the American Home Products Company, which in turn sold the brand to Duffy-Mott in the early 1950s.59

Gerber baby food entered the market a few years after Clapp's. Begun by father and son Frank and Daniel Gerber in Fremont, Michigan, the company was founded in 1901 as the Fremont Canning Company, a general cannery built to service local fruit producers. According to a 1983 biographical dictionary of business leaders, in 1926 the younger Gerber "began urging his father to begin the production of strained baby foods at the cannery."60 The dictionary entry mentions that, given the new practice of feeding infants solids before the age of one year, "if [the Gerbers] were to begin manufacturing baby foods, they would be bucking long-held traditions of baby care, and had no idea of what their potential market might be."61 The elder Gerber commissioned tests of both the potential market and the possible products themselves. "Experimental batches were tested on Daniel's daughter, Sally, and other babies, with great success."62 While pharmacies sold a small number of canned foods for infants for about 35 cents a can, the Gerbers' new business plan included selling their product in general grocery stores for 15 cents a can.63

As part of the canned goods industry, which in general experienced solid growth during the Depression years, baby food in general and Gerber in particular did extremely well.64 First producing pureed vegetables and fruits-the process was termed "strained" or "sieved" at the time-Gerber soon added a line of cereals and within a few years introduced chopped produce and dinner combinations for older toddlers. In 1930, the company produced 842,000 cans of baby food; by 1931 the number had risen to 1,311,500 cans; one year later, in 1932, Gerber manufactured 2,259,818 cans of baby food.65 Despite competitors' quick development of their own mass-produced strained baby foods, Gerber dominated U.S. market share over such competitors as Clapp's, Heinz, Beech-Nut, Stokeley, and Libby.66 The new baby food products were so successful that by 1941 the Fremont Canning Company changed its name to Gerber's Baby Foods (and in the 1960s became the Gerber Products Company), and two years later it abandoned its line of regular vegetables to make baby foods exclusively.

Americans in the early twentieth century were still becoming acquainted with mass advertising, which was designed to create new needs where none had existed before, such as for mouthwash or deodorant, or to promote products, such as baby food, that responded to and enabled a more fast-paced life brought on by technological innovation.67With the mass production and advertising of goods, memorable packaging and branding became an essential part of the product, "an integral part of the commodity itself," as one business executive noted in 1913.68

Thus as soon as manufacturers began mass producing baby food in the late 1920s they began to advertise their products in print media. Baby food manufacturers, like other manufacturers of new products, found it necessary not only to educate and persuade the public to feel comfortable enough to buy and use their products, but to acclimate and familiarize people with the manner in which baby food was packaged and presented-the metal cans (glass jars came later) and the labeling. Mass producing any industrial product, especially during the Depression-era 1930s, when consumer purchasing slowed to a minimum, meant establishing and expanding a steady market of buyers by acquainting the public with products through advertising campaigns. At the same time that Gerber launched its baby food, for example, it undertook an ambitious advertising campaign in several women's magazines as well as professional medical and nutrition journals. Gerber knew its task was not only to promote its novel product but to convince parents to adopt a new philosophy of infant food and feeding practices. These early baby food advertising campaigns document the emergence of the idea of introducing solids at an earlier age.

The Gerber Origins Story and the Mainstreaming of Commercial Baby Food

While the 1983 biographical sketch describing the origins of Gerber baby food makes no mention of Daniel Gerber's wife, she plays a large role in the narrative promoted by the Gerber firm itself. According to this corporate narrative, the Gerber Products Company grew not out of a corporate-driven search to develop a new product and generate a consuming public, but out of the genuine need and inventiveness of a mother trying to prepare mashed peas for her seven-month-old child. Those canned fruits and vegetables for infants previously brought to market were expensive, manufactured in limited quantities, and available only at drugstores. Now that fruits and vegetables were a recommended part of a six- to twelve-month-old's diet, women had to cook and strain fruits and vegetables for their toddlers, an often onerous process. Thus, in the summer of 1927, Dorothy Gerber, wife of Fremont Canning Company owner Dan Gerber, "following the advice of a pediatrician," was trying to strain peas for her infant daughter. Finding the job tedious and time-consuming, she asked her husband to try his hand at it According to the company history, "After watching him make several attempts, she pointed out that the work could be easily done at the Fremont Canning Company, where the Gerber family produced a line of canned fruits and vegetables. Daniel Gerber, covered in strained peas, thought his wife had a good point."69 From this, we are told, came the idea to market strained vegetables and fruits along with the company's regular line of canned produce. By late 1928, strained peas, prunes, carrots, spinach, and beef vegetable soup were ready for the national market.70

Though this story has taken slightly different forms over the decades, the facts are plausible.71 Because women at the time performed most of the child-rearing work, it makes sense that one mother, frustrated at the time it took and messes it created to prepare the now-vital fruits and vegetables for infants, would seek time- and labor-saving methods. That Dorothy Gerber's husband owned a produce-processing plant makes it more plausible. The story creates a compelling, personalized portrait of the beginnings of Gerber-a homey, "authentic" happening far removed from the cacophony of noise and detritus of the industrial canning factory. The story of a woman's ingenuity transforming child rearing in the United States enhances the purity and trustworthiness of the product, and also mutes the profit motive of the company.

By playing on parents', especially mothers', emotions, presenting medical doctors as the ultimate baby experts, and positing the uncontested assumption that commercially prepared foods are superior to, or at least far more efficient than, those cooked at home, the new commercial baby food advertising in the 1930s successfully imbued its products with qualities of exceptional purity and wholesomeness, convenience and modernity, and scientific efficiency. As evidence, a survey of 1930s' issues of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and Ladies Home Journal, while by no means an exhaustive study of Gerber promotion pitches, reveals that Gerber quickly undertook an ambitious national campaign to convert health professionals and consumers to its baby foods. In its earliest years of advertising Gerber focused on helping consumers and dietitians become comfortable with the idea of using canned goods in general and Gerber products in particular, and persuading women that it was in their best interest, and in their babies' interest, to use commercially produced food in general and Gerber baby food in particular.

Convincing the Dietitians

From the late 1920s well into the 1930s Gerber placed full-page advertisements in each monthly issue of the Journal of the American Dietetics Association, the official publication of the American Dietetics Association (ADA).72 The ADA, founded in 1917, was the professional organization for the overwhelmingly female field of dietetics and nutrition. The field was growing rapidly at this time: between 1925 and 1938 the ADA's membership expanded from 660 to 3,800. The ADA in the 1920s and 1930s became influential in coordinating and promoting dietary policy and guidelines for optimal health and nutrition.73 By advertising in the organization's journal, Gerber was clearly aiming to promote baby food as scientifically prepared and thus free of contaminants, a vitamin-filled, healthy, and wholesome food for infants. "Care in every detail makes the Gerber products better for Baby," began one 1932 advertisement.74 Two 1934 advertisements, each complete with photos of workers dressed in white, operating sparkling clean machinery, began, respectively, "Oxygen is excluded in the Gerber straining process [to conserve vitamins]," and "Careful sorting-rigid inspection, another reason why Gerber's are better for Baby."75 In the same issues, the American Canning Company ran advertisements designed to resemble scholarly articles on the safety and healthfulness of canned foods. "The Canning Procedure,""Vitamins in Canned Foods: Vitamin A,"and "Canned Foods for Infant and Early Child Feeding"76were three such ads, each providing scientific information on the benefits of canned foods. Such ads, along with the Gerber ads, were attempting to combat suspicion toward canned foods.

Since fully automated canning factories had been in operation for only a relatively short while, Americans still held lingering suspicions about the quality of canned goods. Though it had been two decades since Congress had passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, some remembered well the days of adulterated and spoiled foods concealed by opaque packaging.77 While many middle-class women in the United States used commercially canned goods with some regularity by this time, dieticians in particular still questioned whether canned produce was as nutritious and safe as fresh, especially if the products were designed specifically for infants. In what would become standard practice, some 1930s ADA journal issues included research, funded by Gerber, touting the safety, health, and full vitamin content of canned baby foods. Flora Manning, a home economist at Michigan State College, published two such articles in the 1930s, "Canned Strained Vegetables as Sources of Vitamin A" and "Further Studies of the Content of Vitamins A and B in Canned Strained Vegetables."78 Manning found a minimal difference between the vitamin content of (Gerber) canned, strained vegetables and fresh, noncanned vegetables (a slightly lower vitamin content in the former), but whether intentionally or not, the articles minimized this difference through opaque, indirect language.

Another set of Gerber ADA journal advertisements situated dietitians as the intermediaries between women and their children's doctors. Revealing their faith in the power of persuasion through advertising, ads targeting dieticians and nurses began with such openings as "Gerber advertises . . . so that mothers will cooperate with you."79 Other taglines included "Yes, Doctor, we do talk to your patients . . . and we tell them facts which help you and help us" and "Thanks, Doctor, this helps me carry out your instructions."80 The copy construed the reader as a female dietitian conversing with a (male) medical doctor about how to persuade women to feed their children Gerber baby food. The ads and articles function to advance the idea that commercial baby food, Gerber's in particular, is just as nutritious as fresh as home-prepared foods, and even more appropriate because it is so scientifically prepared.

Convincing the Mothers

Like the advertising campaigns for many new mass-produced products in the early twentieth century, Gerber's first campaign in 1929 focused on selling its products directly to women, since many grocers did not carry Gerber baby foods.81 The ads were placed in such leading women's magazines as Ladies Home Journal, subscribed to by over a million women.82 In what was common practice at the time, the advertisement urged women to send in one dollar for a set of Gerber items and asked them to provide the name of their grocer, whom Gerber would then persuade to carry its products. Doctors, however, could request the products free of charge. Emphasizing its products as scientifically prepared and thus trustworthy, Gerber informed women that they "provid[ed] in a scientific, wholesome manner . . . the important vegetable supplement to baby's milk diet." Advertisements also focused on the products' ability to impart freedom and mobility, notably modern concepts, to both women and their infants: "The new Gerber Products make Mother and Baby alike independent of the kitchen's restrictions. Baby can really travel now."83

Later advertising focused on this theme of freedom for Mother and Baby. Not only did Gerber provide freedom from kitchen drudgery, but ads informed that preparing baby foods by hand was essentially a disservice to the woman herself, her baby, and her husband. "For Baby's Sake, Stay Out of the Kitchen!" read the headline of one 1933 advertisement. "It isn't fair to baby-really-to spend long hours in the kitchen. . . . For baby's sake and for your own-learn what doctors tell young mothers just like you."84 Moreover, the ads argued that women could not provide the same quality no matter how hard they tried: "You can't, with ordinary home equipment, prepare vegetables as safe, as rich in natural food values, as reliably uniform as ready-to-serve Gerber products!"85 The opening of another Gerber ad read, "Square Meals for Baby . . . and better for him than vegetables you could prepare yourself with ten times the work!" "Don't serve Gerber's for your sake," the ad went on, "serve them for Baby's sake! . . . They're the finest vegetables Baby can eat-and Baby deserves the best!"86

Perhaps most strikingly, the advertisements focused on a woman's relationship with her husband. An early Gerber ad in the Ladies Home Journal opened with a photo of a concerned-looking man's face. Surrounding the male face was the text, "To puzzled fathers of rather young children. If you've had to exchange a charming wife for a tired mother who spends endless hours in the kitchen dutifully scraping, stewing and straining vegetables for your child-you'll be glad to read this story." It continued with a version of the Gerber creation story different from the late twentieth-century one mentioned earlier, one that focused on a male persona entirely. "Five years ago, Mr. Dan Gerber faced the same situation, and knowing a great deal about vegetables he set out to solve this problem."87 Although an accompanying photo depicted a woman identified once more as "Mrs. Dan Gerber" feeding a baby, there was no mention whatsoever of her involvement in the creation. The narrative implies that Dan Gerber's frustration and dissatisfaction (at "having to exchange" his once-charming wife for a now tired and haggard-looking spouse) led to Gerber baby food's invention. Although the advertisement carried a masculine persona, it was clearly designed for women's consumption, appearing as almost a warning to mothers of small children. Gerber advertising as a whole aimed not only to increase women's confidence in the wholesomeness of the product but also implicitly to reduce their confidence in their ability to care for their infants-and also that hardworking provider-without the help of these experts and these products.

In addition, both sets of advertising indirectly or directly advocated the earlier introduction of these foods. Many ads referred to the use of solids at three months or earlier. Under the above-mentioned photo of "Mrs. Dan Gerber" and her daughter Paula, for example, the caption notes, "Paula began to eat Gerber Strained Cereal at 3 months, and had her first Gerber's Strained Vegetables at 3 1/2 months."88 Gerber's competitors did the same. A 1937 ad for Clapp's baby food included photos of three-month-old baby "John Curlett" being fed his Clapp's Baby Cereal. "At 4 months," the copy informed women, "he'll be introduced to all of Clapp's Strained Vegetables." The final photo showed John at eleven months of age, "flourish[ing]" because of his Clapp's diet.89 Figure 3, a 1938 Libby's baby food ad picturing a baby barely able to hold up its head, was perhaps one of the most blatant. The caption reads: "Hurry, Mother-it's Libby time! Tiny babies love the vegetables that Libby prepares so carefully."90


Not only did specific ad copy and photographs encourage the notion that infants under four months need solid food, but the icon of the Gerber Baby itself legitimated the idea. Nongovernmental organizations that monitor compliance with the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes argue that the Gerber Baby, whose sketch has graced every Gerber product and advertisement since 1931, appears much younger than six months of age. They argue that the appearance of the Gerber Baby itself gives the implicit impression that babies this young should be eating solid foods, despite World Health Organization guidelines that deem six months the appropriate age for infants to begin receiving solids.91

The Gerber Baby

The iconic Gerber Baby proved to be a powerful and effective tool in many ways, including as an indivisible part of the commodity, allowing the company to bypass such traditional middlemen as grocers and appeal directly to women as dietitians or as mothers. Few Americans today are unfamiliar with the winsome, compelling Gerber Baby, who has graced the labeling and advertising of the Gerber Products Company since the early 1930s. The Gerber name has long been synonymous with baby food, and the icon of the Gerber Baby traditionally has symbolized quality and trustworthiness; indeed, a late twentieth-century survey found Gerber to have the highest consumer loyalty of any commercial brand in the United States.92 In 1928 the Fremont Canning Company solicited illustrations of a baby face for the advertising campaign to introduce its newly developed baby food. Dorothy Hope Smith, an artist who specialized in drawing children, submitted a simple, unfinished, charcoal drawing, indicating she could finish the sketch if it were accepted. Again, according to the company narrative, Gerber executives were so taken with the simple line drawing of an infant's head that they acquired it as it was. The illustration proved so popular that Gerber adopted it as its official trademark in 1931 and offered consumers copies for 10 cents. Recognizing a good marketing opportunity, Gerber offered free copies to doctors and nurses, as illustrated in figure 4.93Americans mused over the identity of the sketch's model, and at one point it was widely believed that Humphrey Bogart had posed for the sketch.94


The Gerber Baby turned out to be a pitch-perfect icon for this new product. Consumers had been primed to respond favorably to the sketch by a couple of decades' worth of advertising of a variety of products, including food, clothing, furniture, and health elixirs, featuring children and infants cast with wondrous and innocent expressions.95 The Gerber Baby's large eyes and dilated pupils, round symmetrical head, button nose, and tiny bow-like mouth typifies the "cuteness" and perceived vulnerability that evolutionary biologists surmise increases the likelihood of parents' protecting their young.96

Further, the Gerber Baby cultivated a powerful connection with female consumers in a unique respect. Unlike most of the advertising of the period, which featured infants in the presence of adults, mostly their mothers, the Gerber Baby is alone, its large round eyes looking straight out into those of the viewer. This mode of typification Daniel Thomas Cook has termed "matriocularity," that is, "seeing with or through mothers' eyes" an image of an infant that "seek[s] to evoke the emotional response of what companies wish mothers to see and to feel as a consequence of possessing or contemplating their products."97 Cook further explains that "this mode of depiction . . . represent[s] her viewpoint and perhaps her desires or aspirations for what they presume she hopes to see," a happy, contented infant or child.98 Thus in the early years of commercial baby food production, the Gerber Baby sketch, along with a good percentage of baby food advertising, which featured the matriocular gaze of babies seeking to connect with the mother-consumer, proved visually distinctive and commercially compelling.

As mentioned in the introduction, the appealing sketch of the Gerber Baby and the abundance of advertising in the 1930s by the major commercial baby food makers contributed to the emerging phenomenon of the "mother-consumer."99 Mothers were to provide both love and material comfort to their infants, and the early twentieth-century era of rapid industrialization and increased availability of goods made it difficult for women to separate the nurturing and capitalism-facilitated aspects of parenting. Baby food advertising not only shaped a woman's understanding of her role as mother-consumer but also provided an efficient commodified structure through which to perform that role.

Introducing Solids at Earlier Ages

During approximately the same time period as commercial baby food was being developed, the average age at which infants were first fed solid foods, including fruits and vegetables, was decreasing. In the late 1920s, just as commercial baby food manufacturers began national advertising and distribution of canned baby foods, prevailing wisdom advocated introducing strained fruits and vegetables around seven months. By the next decade, however, pediatricians recommended introducing fruits and vegetables between four and six months of age.100

But this change did not occur without much discussion, debate, and research. During the 1920s and 1930s the new professionalization of the medical establishment, which included the development of the specialty practice of pediatrics, continued a serious and at times impassioned conversation about the introduction of solid foods. In 1920, for example, one pediatrician, clearly an advocate of late introduction of solids, called the early feeding of solids ("early" being six months at this point) the new "liberal diet" and registered his opinion that the "traditional timetable" was still the best for babies.101 Yet by the mid-1920s several doctors were noting in medical journals that, with the relatively recent discovery of "vitamins," it was necessary to change an infant's feeding timetable.102

The discovery of vitamins' importance to human growth and health as well as the awareness of the foods that contained them created a paradigm shift of sorts for the medical community. The existence of scientific evidence for the value of vitamin-laden fruits and vegetables framed the discussion of newer notions of infant feeding. As researchers began to understand the importance of vitamin C, for example, they began to experiment with the assortment and timing of introducing foods rich in vitamin C to young children. Studies found that tomato or carrot juice were appropriate substitutes for the more-expensive orange juice as a source of vitamin C for babies.103 Another study tested the use of the once-suspect banana as a good source of carbohydrates for infants.104 As researchers conducted studies to measure food values, others experimented with the age of introducing solids to infants.

In the early 1930s the number of studies on introducing solids to infants increased significantly, and the use and efficacy of commercially prepared canned baby food was integral to this research and the debate. In 1932 one doctor took the dramatic step of introducing solids to infants as young as six weeks of age. In his study "The Nutritive Value of Strained Vegetables in Infant Feeding," George W. Caldwell, MD, noting on the first page that "the vegetables used in this investigation were furnished through the courtesy of the Gerber Products Company, Fremont, Michigan," concluded that infants fed vegetables are healthier, with no adverse side effects. Moreover, Caldwell asserted, commercially manufactured products were better than those prepared at home.105 Others reached the same conclusion. The chief drawback, according to these physicians, was the manner in which vegetables were cooked at home, which led to diminished nutrients: "The infants . . . showed definite ability to digest strained solids, even in the early months of infancy (second and third months). This easy digestibility may be due to the recent great improvements in the manufacture of strained fruits and vegetables."106 Some medical researchers preferred commercial baby food because its large-batch preparation allowed for nutritional uniformity, an asset to their research studies.107 The American Medical Association's Council on Foods, a governing body of doctors, in 1937 issued a report on infant feeding of fruits and vegetables. Though the council indicated that home-prepared foods could be used, and "if properly prepared, are not inferior in nutritive value to the commercial product," it noted that the machinery at the processing plants enabled a more finely sieved product that allowed optimal digestion and minimal stomach upset, though "methods of preparing commercial canned sieved foods vary somewhat in different factories."108 The report recommended feeding infants strained fruits and vegetables at between four and six months of age.109

There was perhaps good reason to be troubled by the methods of cooking vegetables at home. Given the long-held cultural distrust of fruits and vegetables, tradition dictated a long boiling time to remove impurities and harmful substances. Recipe books and early infant care advice manuals recommended long cooking times for vegetables. Afraid of stomach upset and diarrhea-which without proper treatment could be lethal, especially for the elderly, infants, and young children-cooks were advised to break down the fiber in produce as much as possible through rigorous cooking. Further, among the more privileged classes fibrous foods were seen as intrinsically too course for delicate ladies' stomachs.110 So whereas some groups, such as recent Italian immigrants, continued a culinary tradition of lightly cooking vegetables, other Americans did not. Southerners, long noted for their extensive gardens and consumption of fruits and vegetables, commonly cooked their vegetables for a long time in water, a practice that tended to leach out vitamins. Some consumption habits included the practice of drinking the vegetable water, or "potlikker," as it was called in the South.111 In most regions of the United States, however, it was not a common practice, though housekeeping manuals often advised readers to drink the water in which the vegetables were cooked.

Given the emerging industrial markets for commercial baby food as well as other food products, combined with scientific evidence of the efficacy of fruits and vegetables, it makes sense that baby food manufacturers would assertively advertise their products. Moreover, advertising that advocated the early introduction of their foods was a way to create and expand the market share of this new product that fit right into a society increasingly shaped by technology, convenience, and modernity. Further, the rapid growth of the baby food industry offers evidence that consumers-primarily mothers-were eager to try and stay with the products.

It is not difficult to see how, once the idea of "baby food" in general became a common part of American infant feeding practices, experts could assume that when it came to fruits and vegetables, the more the better and (lacking substantial scientific research indicating otherwise) the earlier and "more scientifically produced" (industrially manufactured) the better. By the mid-twentieth century, as the next chapter details, the prevailing wisdom, which gained credence in the 1930s, was that while the early introduction of solids might not necessarily help infants, neither would it harm them.

Further, although there is not necessarily a causal connection between the decline of breastfeeding and the earlier introduction of solid baby food, it is highly plausible that the widespread acceptance of artificial formulas acclimated mothers and doctors alike to infants' ingestion of non-breast milk substances. Thus it may have felt more comfortable, and seemed more customary, to introduce solid baby food into an infant's diet at earlier and earlier ages. As this early introduction of solids became standard advice and practice, commercially produced baby food functioned not only as a supplement to, but also as a substitute for, breast milk.

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