The Problem of Food
Imagine spending half of your income on food. If you were a member of the American working class in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, food would have been the largest item in your budget, more expensive than rent or the mortgage, than heating fuel, than clothes or schoolbooks or anything else your family needed. About fifty cents of each dollar went toward food. Imagine how carefully you would buy and cook your food if you spent so much on it: looking for bargains on wilted vegetables and stale bread, walking an extra mile to buy meat at a lower price, fastidiously saving leftovers to make soup. Would you try growing your own vegetables or raising chickens, or would you use that time to work longer hours and earn more money? Would you spend the time to bake your own bread from cheap flour, or would you look for a good price on day-old bread? If eggs were only affordable for a few weeks in the summer, would you buy several dozen and try to preserve them for the winter, or would you just go without eggs for much of the year? How would you cook and eat if you could barely afford enough food for your family? Millions of poor and working-class Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries faced this problem-the problem of food-every day.
Like us, they lived in a time of massive social and economic changes. Many were migrants or immigrants who had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles from their birthplace in search of work or to follow kin. The kind of work they did, their homes, their neighborhoods, and their household tools were all likely to be very different from those of their parents. The traditional ways of living, working, and supporting a family weren't always useful to them; they had to find new ways to live.
Amid all these transformations, they had to face the following important questions every day: What will I eat? What will my family eat? Working-class people often spent about 40 to 50 percent of their family's income on food. The poorer the family, the larger percentage of their income they had to spend on food. The tools for cooking-stoves, pots, and pans-were also sometimes expensive, and the utilities that made cooking and housework easier, like running hot water and gas for cooking, were not common in poor neighborhoods. Men, women, and often children worked long hours to make enough money to survive, leaving little time to cook. And, perhaps most importantly, economic survival was uncertain. Everyday tasks like cooking were more difficult when family members worked different hours, some couldn't work at all because of illness or injury, and families might lack any income for long stretches when there was no work to be had.
Studying the food of working-class people is a challenge because, although they probably made up the majority of Americans at the time, they left few records, especially about commonplace tasks such as cooking. Working-class people did not frequently read or write magazine articles about how to keep house and cook. They rarely used cookbooks, nor did their recipes find their way into the published books. With a few notable exceptions, including the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, their homes have not been preserved as museums, and their possessions weren't preserved because they were used and handed down until they became worn out. And working-class people who wrote memoirs and autobiographies were more often concerned with the struggle for social justice or personal advancement than with the mundane matter of what they ate.
The largest body of evidence about the lives of working-class people of the time was generated by people of other classes, including journalists, nutritionists, doctors and nurses, philanthropists, social workers, and government researchers. These observers had a variety of reasons for investigating working-class lives, and were more or less critical, sympathetic, judgmental, or helpful. But they all considered food and cooking an important part of life that could be improved with study, and so they recorded reams of information about how working-class people cooked and ate. Government agencies studying the labor question gathered statistics on the price of food in relation to wages. Social reformers interested in nutrition estimated the caloric intake of working-class men, women, and children. Settlement-house workers and home visitors inspected kitchens, poked their noses into stewpots, and weighed the children of their immigrant neighbors. The information they gathered was shaped by social bias and political intent, and so it must be used with care, but it is invaluable in piecing together the food choices available to America's working people. Their observations and advice shaped the public dialogue about food, and in fact their ideas continue to influence the way we think about food and poverty today. Ultimately, however, individuals solved the problem for themselves in a multitude of ways that shaped our country, and the foods we eat, forever.
WHAT DID THEY EAT-AND WHY?
As working people rose early, they ate breakfast in the warming kitchen at dawn or carried it to eat on the way to work. Coffee or tea and a roll were considered sufficient by Jewish immigrants in New York. Mill hands in Massachusetts might have some beans and bread left over from the day before with coffee. Textile workers in the Piedmont had fried pork and wheat biscuits or cornbread with molasses. Single men in Detroit or Chicago might stop by the neighborhood saloon for a strengthening glass of ale before work.
After a long morning's work, those who had to pack their lunches ate quickly and simply: sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, small cakes, pickles. Coal miners in southeastern Pennsylvania carried tin or aluminum lunch buckets down into the mines. The buckets of Slavic miners contained sandwiches of ham and homemade bread with pastries and fruit. Locally born "mountain folk" brought in their buckets fried or roasted rabbit or squirrel or simply bread and molasses. Meanwhile, Cornish and Finnish metal miners in Michigan and Minnesota carried pasties, turnovers of meat and vegetables wrapped in pastry. Working men in cities or industrial towns often turned into dark and noisy saloons, where the purchase of a nickel beer earned them access to the free lunch counter: bread, cheese, soup or stew, perhaps some cold ham or sliced corned beef, and vinegary vegetable salads and pickles. Schoolchildren bought cakes, candies, nuts, and fruit from peddlers outside their school gates. Those who could return home for lunch ate a home-cooked meal that was a preview of their evening meal.
At suppertime families who all worked the day shift converged back at home. In other homes, workers were constantly coming and going and there were no regular meal hours; a pot of beans or a pan of noodle kugel, some bread, and tea or coffee were left in the kitchen for people to help themselves. Many people still clung to the rural tradition of a big midday meal, so supper was simple: bread and milk, or leftovers from lunch. Some evening meals were cooked in a big hurry, as working women left work, stopped to buy the day's groceries, and cobbled together a quick meal. Other suppers were cooked by daughters while mother was away.
The substance of the meals was as varied as the workers' daily routines. Yeast bread was the staple of the northern working class. Whether homemade wheat or sourdough bread or puffy, white American bakery loaves, crusty Italian breads, rye, pumpernickel, or black bread from Eastern European bakeries, or bagels and bialys from Jewish shops, bread was the first food workers reached for. Spread with butter, jam, or sweetened condensed milk, bread was eaten with every meal and was sometimes a meal in itself served with milk or tea. In the South and parts of the West, corn was king in the form of cornbread or mush, often served with molasses. Also popular in the South and West, wheat-flour biscuits were considered a social notch up from cornbread. Other starchy foods filled up stomachs instead of or alongside bread. People of Eastern European ancestry made rich homemade egg noodles to eat alone or to enrich a soup; Jews baked their noodles into a kugel. Italians imported pasta from Italy or bought it from neighborhood pasta shops or regional pasta factories. The poorest families combined their bread with more starch: bread and potatoes, bread and cornmeal mush, bread and oatmeal. But for most, their daily bread was enriched and enlivened with meat, vegetables, dairy, and fats.
At the turn of the twentieth century, meat was a recently affordable luxury. European immigrants, accustomed to eating meat only a few times a year, were astounded that Americans of all classes ate it nearly every day. The most sought-after and highest-status meat was beefsteak, but working people also enjoyed pork chops, slow-cooked joints, bacon, and sausages. The steaks, chops, and bacon were fried quickly in a pan; other cuts of meat (especially large, inexpensive cuts like beef brisket) were simmered slowly and then stretched for several meals. Although fresh meat had become more widely available and cheaper than it had been in the past, preserved meat still had its place; Southerners ate salt pork or fatback nearly every day, using the grease for cooking and flavoring. Chicken was a treat for most, often reserved for Sundays and special meals. Jews particularly appreciated poultry, prizing the meat as well as innards such as chicken livers and using chicken or goose fat for cooking. Those who lived in coastal cities or along rivers ate fish, usually small ones like herring; people far from the water might get their protein from canned sardines. Men in rural industrial villages fished, hunted, or trapped to add trout, squirrel, or rabbit to the family table.
The workhorse vegetables were cabbage, onions, and potatoes. These appeared year-round on workers' tables, in soups and stews or cooked by themselves. From cities to small towns, workers with Eastern European roots shredded, salted, and preserved their own cabbage into sauerkraut every year. Other vegetables and fruits were eaten mostly in their seasons. Workers in cities could often buy fruit from pushcarts near their workplaces for a quick snack. Workers in more rural places bought bushels of fruit cheaply at the peak of the season and canned or preserve it themselves: after the 1870s, glass Mason jars made home canning affordable. Those who had gardens or lived in an area with a lot of vegetable farms could stretch their diets with a bounty of vegetable dishes. Italian immigrants, known for their passion for vegetables, established thousands of small commercial farms to supply their communities with the variety of greens, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, and other vegetables they demanded. Some working-class people foraged for produce, picking wild greens, berries, and mushrooms in the woods and fields around industrial villages, and even in the green spaces of industrial cities. In Pittsburgh, women and children picked dandelion greens from local parks to eat and sell. After 1900, working-class people could afford some canned vegetables and fruits, most commonly tomatoes, peas, and peaches, to add relish to bland food and a few vitamins and nutrients to monotonous midwinter diets. The favorite use for fruit was in pie, especially for native-born American workers; the American mania for pie was well known. Any fresh, canned, or dried fruit could be baked in a crust and serve as a dessert, a snack, or part of a meal. The poorest members of the working class ate hardly any vegetables and no fruit, clinging instead to a dreary but filling diet of oatmeal, bread, potatoes, and cheap stew meat, with perhaps some milk or butter.
Milk became a more common drink during this time. Before the late nineteenth century, milk produced in cities was commonly "swill milk" from urban cows fed inexpensively on food scraps or on the mash left over from brewing, which gave their milk a sour taste. In the 1880s and 1890s, newly established "milk trains" with refrigerated cars brought fresh country milk quickly into cities, making it less expensive than it once had been. (The milk was increasingly pasteurized after the 1890s, which reduced milk-borne disease but added to the cost.) Cheese and butter were also increasingly manufactured in factories rather than farmhouses; the new cheeses may have had less character, but they were also probably less expensive. Refrigeration also made cheese and butter available throughout more of the year. Butter was still relatively expensive; working-class people bought butter substitutes like margarine (made from animal and vegetable fats) when they were available, or they spread condensed milk or lard on their bread instead. Those from northern and Eastern Europe were most likely to drink milk and to eat other dairy products like sour cream, yogurt, fresh cheese, and buttermilk. The Irish had traditionally counted themselves lucky when they could have buttermilk with their potatoes; Russians scooped sour cream atop their beets and cucumbers. Italians bought small quantities of the expensive imported cheese they prized to season their dishes.
Alongside the traditional dishes, people often ate food that their parents, or their grandparents, had never eaten. Immigrants to the United States adopted new food habits to varying degrees. Italians clung resolutely to their traditional diet, provisioning their new American homes with produce from local Italian-owned farms, pasta factories, and olive oil importers. Others, especially those whose diets in the Old World had been particularly drab, adapted more freely, eating whatever was plentiful and cheap. One Polish woman, "asked if she had changed her diet in this country, replied, 'Naturally, at home everyone had soup for breakfast, and here everyone has coffee and bread." The "American diet" seemed to incorporate more cakes and other sweets, much more meat, and more coffee-in short, more of the food considered luxuries in the Old World. Those who migrated from country to city in this period changed their diet too. Southerners who migrated north learned to eat canned ham instead of country ham, sliced yeast bread instead of biscuits. And the forces of industrialization meant that everyone's diet changed over the generations, as canned food became cheaper, margarine substituted for butter or lard, and all-new foods like breakfast cereal and soft drinks were heavily advertised even to the working class.
Just as we do today, working-class Americans around the turn of the twentieth century combined desire with practicality in their daily menus. When we decide what to eat, we first think about the foods we like to eat, the favorite foods of people in our country or region or age group, or the foods our mothers made: our culture and our cuisine. Most of us also enjoy tasting foods from other cuisines and have incorporated some new dishes into our everyday menus. But our choice of food is not simply cultural. We are also constrained by material circumstances. We must also ask: What food can I afford? What food is sold in nearby stores? Can I grow any food myself? Must I buy raw materials and cook them, or is food sold ready-cooked? Is there someone else who will cook for me, and will I have to pay him or her to do so? What foods do I know how to cook? Do I have an oven, a refrigerator, a microwave, a plate, a fork? The answers to these questions often trump cultural considerations. No matter whether you crave a hamburger, a plate of gnocchi, or a green salad, you can't get any of these unless you have money and access to food and a kitchen, or access to restaurants. Material conditions are especially important for those in limited circumstances, who must choose carefully how to spend their money. Part of what defines poverty in any era is the inability to make free choices about necessities such as food. Poor people must eat what they have, or somehow manage to buy food with the money they can earn, and they must fit the time required to cook and eat into the grueling task of earning enough money to live.
Although I'm certainly interested in cuisine-that is, specific recipes and dishes-I'm more interested in how people got food when money was tight and life was uncertain. Food has so many cultural and social functions that we can forget its more basic importance. Food can mark celebrations of all kinds, religious holidays, and deaths and births in the family. Cooking can be fun and relaxing for people who enjoy it. It can be a competition between people showing off their skills, or it can be a tool of courtship. But in this book I've tried to uncover the repetitive and rather dull task of getting breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table, day after day. This seemingly mundane task tells us about how people organized their lives, and how the massive changes of industrialization affected ordinary people
Food is always changing, but here I've focused on the period between 1870 and 1930. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, America became fully industrialized. Millions of people left farms for cities and large towns and took up jobs in factories and mills. The growth of the railroad system (49,000 miles of track in 1870 became 163,000 miles by 1890) transformed the way food was grown, shipped, and sold, and entrepreneurs developed new technologies to process food. In the late nineteenth century, American workers began a fight for political representation and better working conditions. Despite violence and setbacks, workers continued to organize and strike for justice until hard-won labor laws began to appear in the twentieth century. In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, the Progressive movement spurred thousands of social reform efforts, many aimed squarely at home cooking and the problems of poverty. Food processing continued to grow in sophistication, while prices for packaged foods dropped to within reach of working people. And for most of the sixty-year period, until immigration was limited beginning in the 1920s, European immigrants streamed into the country, affecting the American food scene even as they themselves adjusted to cooking and eating under the conditions of the New World. The working-class diet was changed because of all these events, but it was also during this time that the food of ordinary urban working-class people became part of the national culinary identity. American food after 1930 would never again be identified merely as the food of traditional, native-born, farming white Americans; it had been irrevocably marked by the street food, ethnic dishes, and "fast food" that began with the working classes.
America's working class was very large at this time and growing rapidly. Despite the size of the group, historical evidence about food habits is still elusive. The extant sources are unevenly distributed: we know more about urban people than rural people, more about northerners than southerners, more about easterners than westerners. The specific experiences of black Americans, though certainly shaped by pervasive racism and a unique culture, are not always delineated from those of white and immigrant Americans in the same areas. Unfortunately, the source limitations mean that this book cannot be comprehensive. My work focuses on the areas where efforts to "reform" members of the working class were strongest: the Northeast, Midwest, rural southeast, and, to a much lesser extent, the West. The food experience of people in other areas can be inferred to an extent; that is, working-class people in various industrial cities found similar opportunities and challenges, and people living in rural industrial areas faced some of the same conditions as coal miners and textile workers. I hope future scholars embrace the task of finding out more about what working-class people ate in those areas I have been unable to research in depth.
WHO WERE THE WORKING CLASS?
The working class might be defined in several ways: based upon income, occupation, standard of living, or a shared class consciousness. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people may have been referred to as workers, workingmen, or laborers. They might have proudly called themselves "producers," people who made useful objects with their hands (implying that white-collar workers such as managers, lawyers, and clerks, who failed to produce any useful objects, were less than useful themselves). Some had the benefit of skill and training and therefore earned higher wages, while others were equipped only for grueling manual labor, but all worked with their hands, making things, extracting resources, or working in service industries.
Myriad small differences distinguished workers from one another. They would have been aware of distinct differences between races and ethnic groups, between skilled workers and unskilled workers, between immigrants and native-born Americans. In Chicago's meatpacking plants in the early twentieth century, for example, at least forty different ethnic groups worked in close proximity, speaking almost as many languages. Most were unskilled or "casual" laborers, hired by the day or hour; others were highly skilled butchers who zealously guarded their workplace status and privileges. Their wages differed based on their origin: American-born workers made 17.5 cents per hour, foreign-born ones 12.5 cents, women 10 cents. Workers' ethnic or national background determined their language, their religion, their family life, and their cuisine. Their job status, as skilled or unskilled, determined their income, their standard of living, and their life chances. Any one of these factors might affect the food they ate: their traditional cuisine might not be available in a mixed-ethnicity industrial neighborhood, or a well-to-do skilled immigrant might be able to afford more meat than was customary in his traditional diet.
Although the working class is most often identified with cities, I have made a special effort to include in this book the rural working class, including people who worked in textile mills, lumber camps, and small coal-mining towns and others who did industrial work in a nearly rural setting. Many of America's industrial workers in this period, especially those engaged in extractive industries like lumber and coal, lived and worked far from large cities, and their living conditions were quite different from those of their urban counterparts. They did not generally lack living space, and they had plenty of space outdoors in which to raise vegetables and chickens. However, they lacked the amenities and opportunities that city dwellers enjoyed, including a variety of retail choices, the possibility of wage work for women, and particularly the freedom to seek another employer if conditions were bad. Some of these workers moved back and forth from industrial work to farming throughout their lives and preferred to live by farming if they could; they would have hesitated to lump themselves in with the full-time industrial workers of the cities.
In these ways and many others, the American working class was not cohesive; its members didn't always feel they had much in common with each other. These differences account for the often-mentioned fact that the American working class, though active in unions large and small and thousands of industrial actions, failed to form a politically strong worker's party, as those in several European countries did around the same time. But all American workers, unified or not, had similar life experiences due to their class. And by their dress, bearing, ethnic background, and job status, they were clearly distinguishable from the middle class, which was growing in size, power, and assertiveness.
Although social mobility was possible, most people born in the working class stayed there. America was celebrated as the land of opportunity, where a Scottish immigrant could rise from a factory worker to a millionaire industrialist, as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie did. By the late nineteenth century, however, advancing through the ranks of industry was quite rare. The writings of Scott Nearing, a radical economist with a lifelong interest in social justice, provide detailed information about working-class lives from an economic point of view. In 1914 he calculated that workers in the railroad industry had a 1 in 300 chance of advancement, but a 1 in 20 chance of injury and a 1 in 120 chance of death in the course of employment with the railroad. As Nearing bluntly wrote, "The chance to rise considered over a lifetime was considerably less than the risk of death or serious injury." Many working-class people hoped to improve their fortunes with a small business or through training in a skilled trade, and some succeeded. Those workers' lives could reach a level of comfort and stability near that of the middle classes, even if their employment status kept them firmly in the working class.
Workers might not achieve social mobility, but physical mobility was a part of life.Many members of the working class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries traveled as part of two great movements of people: from rural areas in America to cities and towns, and from foreign countries to the United States.Domestic migrants streamed from America's farmland toward its industrial towns and cities. The industrialization of agriculture, along with an expansion of land under cultivation, meant that in each generation fewer farm workers fed more people. Young people from farming families moved to towns and cities to take up industrial work. Often entire families moved together from marginal agriculture to industrial work, like the southern families who moved from subsistence farming or sharecropping to work in cotton mills. White Americans moved from farms to small towns and from small towns to regional metropolises. After 1910 African Americans began moving as well, from sharecropping in the South to industrial jobs in the urban North. As blacks flocked to Detroit for work in auto and other manufacturing industries, their population grew from barely six thousand in 1910 to over forty thousand in 1920. Vibrant black communities in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland owed their existence to the sudden concentration of migrants from the South, who were often crowded together in segregated housing.
Domestic migrants, however, were overshadowed by the huge numbers of immigrants from overseas. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an influx of European immigrants, along with smaller numbers from Asia and Central America. The origins of the immigrants changed over time. From the 1850s, immigrants came in large numbers from Great Britain, especially from Ireland, and from northern European countries such as Germany. They were followed by increasing numbers of Italians. Finally, after 1900 a flood of immigrants came from central and eastern Europe, including Russia, Poland, and other Slavic countries. The number of immigrants in urban areas during this period can hardly be overstated. In 1880, 78 percent of San Franciscans were foreign-born or the children of foreign-born parents. The numbers were 80 percent in New York and Cleveland, 84 percent in Detroit, and 87 percent in Chicago. In 1887 clergyman Samuel Lane Loomis observed, "Not every foreigner is a workingman, but in the cities, at least, it may almost be said that every workingman is a foreigner."
Immigrants were both pushed and pulled into the United States. American manufacturers and business owners actively supported immigration because it ensured a constant supply of low-wage labor for factories, mills, and mines. Many immigrants left their homes because, like the United States, their countries were converting to commercial agriculture and industrial production, leaving less room for farm laborers, small landowners, and skilled craftsmen. Others were lured by the promise of high wages, hoping to save up a nest egg and return home with money enough to buy land or a business. Immigration ebbed and flowed according to local conditions; for example, more Italian immigrants came during years when harvests at home were small, and fewer when harvests were good. Some, especially the Jews, were drawn to the promise of a land where they wouldn't face the discrimination and persecution of their homelands. Almost all of them saw America as a land of abundant food, a place where they would not be stalked by hunger as in the old country.
Immigrants and their food produced a constant challenge to American culture. Each successive wage of immigrants was more "foreign" to native-born Americans than the one before. The Irish were the first large group of Catholics in mostly Protestant America, and their ideas about drinking and sociability clashed with those of more sober, somber Americans, especially those who aspired to middle-class respectability. Their bare-bones cuisine of potatoes, based on English oppression in Ireland, drew contempt in the United States. But at least they spoke a dialect of British English; central and southern Europeans often did not speak English at all, and the customs of orthodox Jews and Eastern Orthodox Catholics seemed strange. Orthodox Jews maintained distinctive dietary and clothing traditions. Both Italians and Latin Americans ate food that native-born Americans considered too spicy and too strongly flavored, and Italians especially insisted on a huge variety of fresh vegetables, which were often eaten raw. These differences could create conflict. Popular pseudoscientific social theories suggested that northern Europeans had evolved into a people superior to other Europeans: taller, fairer, blonder, healthier, more intelligent, and with better moral character than central and southern Europeans, who were stereotyped as dark-haired, swarthy, unattractive, slow-witted, irrational, illiterate, and of dubious character. By the end of the 1930s, mainstream Americans had become more tolerant of difference and even exhibited a limited interest in "ethnic" foods and culture, but only after nativist activists had successfully called for immigration restriction laws that drastically cut the number of new immigrants after 1920.
Immigrants and migrants faced the choice whether to retain their traditional foods as much as possible or to adopt mainstream "American" foodways. This will be discussed at length in the chapter on cities, since it was primarily in the cities that people faced this decision. Most immigrants tried to eat at least some of their traditional foods, and in the process they started thousands of small businesses to raise produce, import traditional foods, manufacture pasta, butcher kosher meat, and provide other ethnic or religious food necessities. Others found that, even when the raw materials were available, the new shape of their lives meant that traditional food-processing techniques had to be modified or abandoned. Faced with considerable pressure to "Americanize" by eating American food, some immigrants conceded-and their children generally ate American food with gusto.
The living conditions of the working class were as diverse as its people. Recent immigrants, along with migrants from rural areas and the native-born, crowded into industrial cities. Most manufacturing took place in cities and large towns, near the railroads and ports that brought raw materials and carried away finished products and where there was a large pool of labor available to ensure constant production when demand was high. The conditions of urban living depended a good deal on density. In the most crowded cities, like New York, people lived packed tightly together. Most working-class people rented small apartments in tenement buildings or in converted former private homes. Family members, relatives, and boarders piled into beds and slept on the floors in order to make the high rents. Large cities also had large populations of single men and women who lived in boarding and rooming houses and took their meals outside a family setting. (The question of where one ate was so central that it marked the distinction between boarding and lodging.) In less crowded cities such as Pittsburgh, working-class people were more likely to have a freestanding home, either owned or rented, to themselves. The homes were often in poor condition. A constant stream of new immigrants arriving meant that the demand for housing outstripped supply, which allowed landlords to charge exorbitant rents for low-quality rooms. Not all workers lived in cities, however; workers at mines and mills lived in company-built housing in small "company towns" across the nation, which were sometimes very isolated from other communities. In these towns working people were forced to live in the conditions created by their employers, and, without a larger community, they depended on their own families a great deal.
Life and work experiences differed by race, ethnicity, gender, age, and sex, but life for all was precarious and unpredictable. Many of the economic safety nets we take for granted today, like unemployment coverage, Social Security, and Medicare, as well as welfare and food stamps for the poor, did not exist. Workplaces were lightly regulated and often dangerous. In general, and over the long haul, industrialization meant higher wages and more food for everyone. But in the chaos of short-term reality, getting enough to eat was a balancing act. There was a fine line between a family with sufficient food and a family who was hungry, and it was very easy to slip back and forth across that line.
Native-born Americans and immigrants, in big cities and isolated company towns, tried to earn their daily bread in a climate of economic uncertainty. Either because employers couldn't hire, or because workers couldn't work, wage earners in America found it hard to count on a steady paycheck. In 1914 economist Scott Nearing identified five factors that "reduce or entirely eliminate income": overwork, sickness and accidents, labor-saving inventions, shut-downs of industrial plants, and industrial crises. The United States' economy fluctuated wildly, experiencing regular upswings and downturns. Years of investment and high employment were closely followed by years of massive unemployment. Many industries were still seasonal, hiring many men at one time of year and laying them off at another. Firms stopped producing when weather made work or transportation impossible, when there was no demand, or when workers went on strike. Many firms worked at batch production, meaning that many workers might be hired to fill a large order and laid off again when orders decreased. Nearing pointed out that in 1904, for example, three-fifths of all those employed in manufacturing worked less than a full year. Another third worked fewer than 270 days. Wage earners might lose their jobs several times, or work reduced hours, or work only part of the year. Budgeting was difficult when income was uncertain.
Illness and injury, too, stalked the working class. Nearing estimated that in the early twentieth century there were half a million work-related injuries and deaths each year. In coal mining, for example, there was the constant threat of injury or death from accidents, such as exploding methane or tunnel collapse. But government investigators researching working conditions found that miners also often suffered from parasitic infections caused by working in damp environments without toilets, and miners contracted tuberculosis at ten times the national rate. Most of those injured or made ill at work would receive little or no compensation or assistance, either from their employers or from the government.
Among the working class, who experienced poor living conditions and had little access to medical care, communicable diseases spread quickly. Infant mortality was also high. In 1900, about 110 white infants of every 1,000 live births died in infancy; for blacks, the number was 170. (The different rates for whites and blacks indicate the very real impact of racial inequality.) And babies died more often in poor families. In some mill towns and other working-class areas, infant mortality was higher than 25 percent. In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1913, children of the lowest-earning men were twice as likely to die as those in wealthier families. Children and adults got sick from contaminated water, unclean milk, and filthy conditions in homes without running water and streets without sanitation. In 1909, 22 percent of Pittsburgh families in the poorest districts contracted typhoid each year through fecal-contaminated food or water. In one Pittsburgh family, a sixteen-year-old daughter was out of work for thirty-two weeks after falling ill with typhoid; at the end of that period, she had developed tuberculosis. Her family kept cows and sold milk to their neighbors, possibly transmitting the diseases further.
Even small injuries such as cuts on the hand could become infected without proper treatment and become serious wounds or disabilities. In one cotton-mill family in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1911, most of the eleven children were covered in sores, probably pellagra, from poor nutrition. One of the boys was born with a disability that prevented him from working. The father had a bone felon on his thumb, an infected finger injury that eventually required amputation. He was reported to be "extremely emaciated" from the pain and stress of the injury. Sick people couldn't bring in income, disrupting the family budget. Unlike today, sick people mostly stayed at home, which often required another family member to stay home to care for them. They needed expensive medicines and sometimes special foods as well, thus stressing the family budget even further.
Poor nutrition left people more susceptible to disease as well. Deficiency diseases such as pellagra and rickets were common. After about 1900 there was an epidemic of pellagra, a disease caused by vitamin deficiency that first causes diarrhea and a rash and lesions on the skin, then weakness, aggressiveness, and eventually dementia and death. Technological advances in flour milling had made white or "bolted" flour and cornmeal, with the bran removed, as cheap as the old-fashioned stone-ground whole grains that poor people had usually eaten. People greatly preferred white to whole-wheat flour once they could afford it. Poor Southerners who consumed most of their calories in cornmeal and ate few fresh vegetables, meat, fish, or eggs developed chronic cases of the illness, which grew worse in winter and hit women and children, who got a smaller share of the family's supply of meat, the hardest. Poor children in northern industrial cities were more likely to develop rickets from a lack of vitamin D and calcium in their diets (and little exposure to the sun to generate vitamin D); their bones softened, causing bowlegs and other skeletal deformities. Communicable diseases like tuberculosis were also more prevalent among those with poor diets.
Because of the uncertainty caused by irregular work and illness, most working-class people depended on the participation of all members in the family economy. The "living wage," whereby one man's work could support his family so that his wife could keep house and his children could stay in school, appealed strongly to working-class men's sense of masculinity, but it was difficult for most to achieve. Families needed each member's contribution to survive, and those families with the greatest number of workers (that is, with teenage or adult children who still lived at home) were the most stable and had the highest standard of living. Even women who didn't work for wages contributed materially to the family economy, either by performing labor that would otherwise have to be paid for (cooking, laundry, and growing and processing food at home, for example) or by "taking in" housework by doing other people's laundry, keeping boarders, or selling food. Almost all small businesses were family-run; wives and children all worked together. In rural areas, families often worked together in textile mills or in processing industries like oyster shelling. The middle-class ideal, in which the husband worked for a steady salary and the wife devoted all her time to household management, often did not fit working-class lives. Working-class women were often unable to be "just a housewife," even if they wanted to be.
Food is an important part of women's history, but food is not limited to women's history. Although cooking was certainly considered "women's work," food was a problem for the whole family. To be sure, the burden was not equally shared. Women bore the primary responsibility for finding, cooking, and serving food every day. Sometimes they had help from children or other family members, but often the dynamics of a patriarchal family meant that wives worked harder than anyone else in the family while receiving little comfort, security, or decision-making power in return. Ultimately, however, both men and women had to make decisions about how best to earn money for, buy, store, and prepare food every day. Just as the realities of working-class life did not permit a separation between family life and the world of commerce, they also did not allow cooking to be relegated entirely to women. The living arrangements of many working-class people were not based on the traditional family unit. Young single men and women and single-parent families had to find nontraditional ways to solve the problem of feeding themselves.
WAGES AND THE COST OF LIVING
How much did working-class people earn, and was it enough to live on? The cost of living was a subject of constant public interest, as working people adjusted to the dislocations of the industrial economy, and workers, employers, and legislators wrestled over the definition of fair wages.
Wages were affected by industry slowdowns, by seasonal layoffs, by union activity, and by skill level. The process of deskilling lowered wages over time. Employers sought to replace jobs performed by skilled, highly trained workers with jobs that could easily be filled by any unskilled worker. This trend lowered manufacturing costs but also eroded the privileges that skilled workers once held. For the sons of skilled tradesmen, learning their father's trade was no longer a guarantee that their standard of living would equal his, as employers were finding ways to make certain skills unnecessary. Many immigrants, though skilled in their home countries, could not find work in their skill areas due to language barriers or trade unions that controlled entry into lucrative trades, so they joined other immigrants in lower-paid unskilled work. Despite these dislocations, real wages slowly increased by 50 percent between 1860 and 1890.
The cost of living (including food, rent, fuel, and other basic requirements) during the same period also rose, but it did so more slowly, resulting in an overall increase in the standard of living. Food prices fluctuated markedly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to vast changes in farming, industry, and transportation. Americans paid less for food in the half century after the Civil War than before the war. The industrialization of agriculture was bad for the farmer, resulting in lower prices of the crops, but it was good for urban food buyers, as it resulted in lower food prices in the period leading up to 1900. Farm production had become so efficient by about 1900 that agricultural output increased faster than the population, and so food prices decreased and U.S. farmers were able to export its food surplus. In general, people could buy enough food with their wages, but the margin of comfort was always slim. After food, rent was the second largest item in the working-class budget. Working-class people often paid a disproportionately high price for low-quality lodging because they had few options, because they were often discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity, and because they needed to live near their work. But food was the most critical daily expense, and prices were unpredictable from day to day.
After around 1900, food prices for working-class people rose unevenly but steadily. With increasing mechanization, improved transport, and fewer new acres coming under cultivation than in previous decades, farm prices increased in the first quarter of the twentieth century before dropping abruptly at the end of World War I. Consumer food prices rose most sharply during the 1910s, especially after 1916, when international demand due to the war in Europe began to affect American food prices. Increased production meant employment, but also a skyrocketing cost of living. Government propaganda encouraging Americans to plant "liberty gardens" echoed existing working-class survival strategies. Housewives on the Lower East Side rioted in response to high food prices. Publishers put out books and pamphlets on economical cooking, and government officials and social workers took a renewed interest in family budgets. Prices smoothed out in the 1920s, but hard times continued for many working people. In her study of family survival strategies in the early twentieth century, Susan Porter Benson writes, "In the comparatively prosperous 1920s, as well as in the depression 1930s, most working-class families had to wrestle with the consequences of insufficient or irregular income; the difference between the 1920s and the 1930s was one of degree rather than kind." Food prices dropped again during the 1920s, as farmers were again distressed by overproduction and low crop prices, but decreasing wages meant continued hard times.
Almost everyone who wasn't wealthy was concerned with the cost of living during this time, but for the working class, the problem of food was one of life or death. Low wages or high food prices could mean starvation for working men, women, and children. Hungry men threatened the social order: without enough to eat, they might steal, strike, or riot. The problem of food and poverty was one of the central concerns of the Progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Progressives' interest in food not only provides us with valuable evidence of working-class foodways, but their ideas have also shaped the dialogue about food and poverty to this day.
PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
The public discourse on food, including the food of the poorest Americans, was dominated by the Progressives. Although Progressives had many different and sometimes conflicting interests-poverty, public health, child rearing, sanitation, housing, Prohibition, prostitution, corporate power, the environment-they shared a belief that the ills of industrialization could be solved with its gifts. In other words, the modern industrial city, full of poverty, sickness, immorality, and despair, could be improved by the application of modern social thought, rationality, and state power. When considering the labor question and other issues surrounding working people, Progressives positioned themselves as disinterested third parties. Neither working people nor capitalist business owners, they could mediate disputes so that industrial capitalism could be saved and the threat of Marxist or Socialist workers' movements defused.
Progressives were very interested in food. The Progressive movement was largely powered by women, especially women of the middle and upper classes who had received college educations but were informally barred from most professions. With too much energy to confine themselves to the traditional charity work performed by elite women, they created and utilized social sciences in an attempt to eliminate poverty rather than simply ameliorate its symptoms. These journalists, activists, and settlement-house workers felt uniquely qualified to help with "women's problems," including the feeding of families. Cooking was almost inseparably associated with women and motherhood. Women traditionally fed their families, from breast-feeding to preparing dinner to packing school and work lunches. Cooking reform was a way for female settlement-house and charity workers to enter the public realm via the private sphere, and to use their natural authority as women to set in motion changes that would benefit all of society.
Food was a private matter with public implications. Unclean food and food businesses could cause disease. Poorly fed children would become poorly educated delinquents. Poorly fed men were prone to drink. Women who were trapped at the stove had no free time to educate themselves. "Environmentalist" theories suggested that people could be changed by their surroundings: bad food made bad people, but good cooking could make better citizens. Legislation was considered the key to establishing safety and accessibility, education the key to banishing irrational prejudices. Food and cooking were steeped in tradition and superstition, but now rational inquiry could determine the "best way" to select, cook, and serve food. Perhaps most importantly, food could no longer remain a personal matter between a man and his appetite, or a woman and her children. Traditionally, food and cooking were part of the "domestic sphere" of women, a realm that was supposedly distinct from the men's world of business, politics, and science. But, as Progressives showed, food was closely entwined with business when it came to food prices and concerns about adulteration and sanitary processing. Food became political when working people asserted that their wages were insufficient to buy bread for their families. And science, in the form of the new field of nutrition, seemed to offer hard, verifiable facts about food, including exactly how much people needed and which foods were "best." In short, Progressives were very modern, with concerns similar to ours today about food quantity, quality, and safety and what we would now call food justice.
Their interest in food carried Progressives into the homes of millions of Americans on a search for detailed information about what Americans ate. Without the budget studies, photographs, price lists, recipes, anecdotes, and legislation they produced, our understanding of working-class diets would be much poorer. Throughout this book I have used images from a sociologist and reformer named Lewis Hine. In the early twentieth century Hine used photography to document living and working conditions among working-class people and to fight for change, most notably with the National Child Labor Commission. Hine's photographs showed children at work in tenements, fields, and canneries in order to draw public attention to their plight. His photographs also incidentally recorded details of working-class life that are hard to find elsewhere. Other Progressive sources are documentary, like the 1918 Department of Labor budget study. From 1917 to 1919, investigators for this massive study interviewed thousands of working-class families around the country to determine what they spent their money on, and whether their wages were sufficient to get by. The study recorded food purchases in dozens of categories, providing unusually detailed information about what foods working-class people bought and ate, as well as the kitchen utilities (running water, gas, etc.) they had available and whether they gardened or raised chickens for extra food and money.
The spur for all this documentation was a deep interest in food as a social problem. In the late nineteenth century, charity workers had begun to perceive a paradox about food. Despite advances in farming, distribution, and food processing that promised better and more abundant food for all, it was clear that working-class and poor people in America were very often hungry. In fact, it often seemed that industrialization had made the food situation worse, not better, for city dwellers. In large, dirty industrial cities, meat and milk were tainted with filth. Unscrupulous food processors adulterated food with valueless nonfood substances at best, or dangerous poisons at worst. Cheap "junk food" like pies and candy tempted workers away from plain, wholesome food. The long hours of grueling work required of wage-earning families made it impossible for mothers to devote much time to cooking. And the inhuman conditions of industrial workplaces distorted natural appetites, driving men to drink when they were simply hungry for nourishing food. The food problem was not limited to poor Americans. The "socialism of the microbe" meant that all urban Americans were at risk if unsafe cooking practices and dirty, adulterated food were produced and consumed anywhere in the city.
With their interest in food, charity and settlement workers merged with the domestic science or home economics movement. Since the mid-nineteenth century ambitious, intelligent women had been pushing for a more systematic approach to the myriad tasks that comprised housework. As early as the 1840s, Catharine Beecher had argued for a more thorough study of "domestic economy" in order to improve housewives' working conditions and their status. Later in the nineteenth century, women such as Ellen Richards (Vassar, 1870 and MIT, 1873) and Isabel Bevier (University of Wooster, 1885 and Case Western Reserve, 1889) earned degrees in chemistry and other branches of the natural sciences. But when they wanted to go on to graduate work or careers in science, they did so under the aegis of "household science." Richards became an instructor in "sanitary chemistry" at the Lawrence Experiment Station, applied chemical and scientific principles to household work and organization, published books on home science, and was the first president of the American Home Economics Association. Bevier was advised while in school that "the place for women in chemistry was in food chemistry," and thus went on to found an important home economics department at the University of Illinois that covered every branch of household science. Home economics was a field in which women could assume professional scientific identities within the university without threatening the definition of "women's work." As home economists saw it, making housework more scientific would help women by making their work lighter, more systematic, and more intellectually challenging. Society would benefit as well, as cleaner and better-organized houses and more nutritious food would produce better citizens. And home economists certainly shared the Progressive belief that food should be a public matter, the subject of study, education, and legislation.
The emerging field of home economics found useful partners in medical science and nutrition, reinforcing the idea that the home kitchen had an important effect on public health. Bacteria, microbes, and flies replaced "bad air" as the accepted source of disease transmission, justifying a more intensive scrutiny of household cleanliness and sanitation methods. Home economists and settlement workers thus entered workers' homes, chiding them to open windows, clean up dirt, and sanitize kitchen and baby equipment in order to control germs that caused disease. For example, the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution published Yiddish-language guides for new Jewish immigrants. The 1913 edition urged recent immigrants to keep milk covered, to wash hands frequently, to wash meat and produce before eating it, and to obey the Board of Health. Readers were not to spit, beat rugs out of windows, throw garbage on the street, or keep chickens. The guide exhorted its readers to keep a watchful eye on public cleanliness: "Select a milk man who has clean hands, clean clothes, clean wagon, clean cans, clean bottles. Tuberculosis kills 5,000,000 people annually. It may be carried through infected milk. Do not forget thatdirty milk may kill the baby." Every household had a private duty to its members and a public duty to the community to maintain standards of cleanliness and prevent diseases like tuberculosis. Home economists and settlement workers embraced this responsibility, arguing that a well-ordered home was cleaner, safer, and better for the community than a dirty, disordered home.
The most important scientific research for food reformers was in the new field of nutrition. In the 1880s and 1890s, early nutritionists like William O. Atwater at Wesleyan University theorized that the human body was a machine that required precise caloric inputs. Calories could be supplied by carbohydrates, fats, or proteins interchangeably. To early nutrition researchers, the precise foods that supplied these nutrients did not seem to matter very much. As Atwater wrote in 1899, "A quart of milk, three-quarters of a pound of sirloin steak, and five ounces of wheat flour contain about the same amounts of nutritive material, whereas the prices are very different. . . . This is a fact which very few people realize." The cheapest source of nutrients was surely the best for poor folks.
Cookbook writers and other food reformers eagerly adopted this new perspective, arguing for rationality over preference in food choice. In cooking instructor Mary Hinman Abel's 1890 cookbook, Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking Adapted to Persons of Moderate and Small Means, she encouraged her readers to substitute the cheapest possible source of nutrients for expensive ones, "for example, the proteid [protein] of beef instead of that of chicken, fat of meat instead of butter." To experts of the time, lard was nutritionally equivalent to butter and therefore absolutely comparable; people on a small budget must buy only the cheaper substitute. Foods were to be selected only on the basis of their constituent nutrients. Abel wrote, for example, "Eggs at their cheapest, as in April when they often sell at 15 cents a dozen . . . [are] still much dearer than the cheaper parts, flank, neck and brisket, at 8 cents. So that even at this low price, they are somewhat of a luxury to the man who must get his proteid and fat in their cheapest form." Since eggs were usually even more expensive than they were in April, there was no nutritionally defensible reason for buying eggs instead of cheap cuts of meat. Taste and preference were irrational distractions from the true purpose of food. The fact that one might prefer butter and eggs to lard and beef was irrelevant to Abel.
This mechanistic view of human nutrition could have some outrageous results, as nutritionists (and candy manufacturers) insisted that candy was a tremendously nutritious food because of its hefty servings of calories and fat. In a public lecture in 1910, Professor Jon C. Olsen of the Brooklyn Polytechnic displayed jars of chocolate creams and salted peanuts and declared, "Candy is a nourishing and sustaining food. . . . Any vigorous adult could make a good breakfast on those chocolate creams and peanuts." Olsen pointed out that, at almost three thousand calories for thirty cents worth of candy, it was cheaper per calorie than oysters and many other wholesome foods.
Simplistic views of nutrition were tempered by the "newer nutrition" of the twentieth century. Vitamins were discovered in the 1910s, when researchers realized that not only could certain nutrients, such as those found in milk, butter, fruits, and vegetables, cure diseases like rickets and pellagra, but that their absence could actually cause them. The discovery of vitamins elevated the importance of fruits and vegetables over that of candy (and, incidentally, served to legitimate the dietary choices of certain immigrants, such as those of Italians, who had always insisted on plenty of produce when nutritionists were pushing cornmeal and boiled beef). Nutritional science still backed home economists' claims that there were more important, more scientific criteria by which to judge food choices than the old-fashioned and irrational criteria of taste and appetite.
BUDGET STUDIES AND THE PROBLEM OF MANAGEMENT
Armed with this new scientific knowledge, charity and settlement workers, sociologists, and nutritionists converged on working-class neighborhoods in order to make quantitative studies of working-class food habits. Home visits, surveys, and budget studies were the tools that Progressive reformers used to study the problem of food.
Budget studies, in which investigators recorded an individual or family's income and expenditures for food, rent, and other necessities, had been performed occasionally by statisticians and economists since the seventeenth century. The first large-scale American budget study, featuring interviews with 397 working-class families, was published in 1875 by Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright in the Massachusetts Labor Report. Wright had hoped to find that working-class families could earn a decent living on one income, but instead he found that most families fell far short. Wives earned little (in terms of cash income), and children provided between one-quarter and one-third of household income. Wright became head of the United States Bureau of Labor in 1888 and went on to organize ever-larger studies of working families' diets. In 1890, his bureau gathered budgets from 2,490 families of coal, iron, and steel workers, and in 1891, the bureau studied the families of textile and glass workers. In an attempt to create a statistical basis, the investigators generally studied only families defined as "normal": "having husband at work, wife, not over 5 children, none over 14, with no dependent boarder, lodger, or servant." Yet even these families, selected for their completeness and stability, had trouble making ends meet. Life was even more difficult for the many families defined as "abnormal" because of a single parent or more than five children.
Meanwhile, from the 1890s onward, other investigators were making smaller-scale budget studies in cities and towns across America. Budget studies and nutrition studies relied on quantitative analysis of data gathered by paid or volunteer workers and meticulous record keeping, and they incorporated as much of the evolving field of nutrition as possible. Researchers recorded everything the family bought and its price in order to carefully compare the amount of money spent with the actual number of calories consumed. In addition to his lab work in chemistry and nutrition, Atwater performed dietary studies on working families in several cities in the 1890s. Robert Coit Chapin's study of New York City families, published in 1909, was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation. Louise Bolard More did another study of some two hundred families on New York's West Side, which was published in 1907. Numerous other settlement-house workers, social scientists, and government bodies continued to perform budget studies throughout the 1920s, including a massive study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1918.
Historian Daniel Horowitz points out two major problems with the information gathered by these studies. First was the problem of communication. Budget studies relied on personal interviews conducted by an American-born, college-educated investigator or government employee with a (usually) foreign-born worker's family, and a great deal may have been lost in translation. As Horowitz writes, "In 1875, for a worker's family to have a representative of the state, of a different social and ethnic background, ask about personal details must have elicited an immensely complicated series of interchanges, especially from poverty-stricken immigrant families."
The second problem was related to the categories chosen by the investigators. Interviewers of the late nineteenth century focused on market exchanges like wages, purchases, or sales in cash. The investigators did not ask about or consider the many nonmarket transactions that filled working-class lives: barter, shared work, household production, garden produce, gifts, and loans. Some excluded the many families who kept boarders, thereby ignoring a major strategy for making ends meet. Also, cooking at home is a form of home production, with costs and benefits, the same as keeping chickens or sewing clothes, but it was not seen or recorded that way by most budget investigators. Later budget studies partially remedied this fact, and by the 1920s those who planned budget studies examined sources of income and expenditure more comprehensively. In the 1918 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, for example, investigators asked about seven categories of family income: earnings; board and lodging; the net yield from gardens, chickens, and similar pursuits; gifts of money, food, or clothing; net income from rents and interest; fuel picked up; and "other."
As researchers investigated family budgets using nutrition studies as their guide, they saw a baffling tendency for the poor to spend too much on food and still be hungry and malnourished. In 1899 home economist Ellen Richards asserted, "The $200 which a Lowell factory operative spends on food, out of his $360 total income, is largely spent on costly meat, sugar, butter, and fine flour, instead of on well-chosen cuts of meat, peas, beans, and corn meal. He could have secured better nutrition for $100." In other words, his income was perfectly adequate to secure "good nutrition" via legumes, corn meal, and cheap cuts of meat, regardless of whether that's what he wanted to eat. Armed with new studies of human nutrition, the social scientists found what charity workers had long suspected. The same amount of money could be used for radically different amounts of calories and nutrition. It was possible, these researchers felt, to live better-that is, to acquire more calories and nutrients-for less money.
The budget studies were attempts to solve the problem of wages, a problem that had serious political and social implications. Were workers being paid enough? Exactly how much money was required to support an individual or a family? This inquiry was central to the "labor question," the controversy over the rights and duties of workers and employers under industrial capitalism. Workers organized to demand better wages and safer working conditions and, indeed, to protect their very right to organize. As Lawrence Glickman and other labor historians have shown, the idea of a "living wage"-a wage on which a male breadwinner could support his wife and children-was an important goal, both emotionally and politically, for generations of American workers. To those of the employers' class, workers' seemingly capricious and selfish demands, strikes, and riots threatened the social order and might soon topple the system of industrial capitalism that had brought so much wealth and material comfort to the upper classes. Budget studies offered a seemingly rational and unassailably disinterested solution to the central question of wages. If workers were ragged and malnourished, did the fault lie with their low wages or with their intemperate habits? Facts and figures-in budget studies, cost-of-living analyses, and retail price series-would answer the question once and for all. Either the prevailing wages could buy adequate nutrition at market cost, or they could not.
Progressives, like those who investigated poor and working-class food budgets, saw themselves as impartial mediators in the war between the rich and the poor. As historian Michael McGerr has argued, they held up their own middle-class lifestyles as an example for all: frugal but not penurious, comfortable but not extravagant. Ultimately, many of their writings are tinged with a moral disapproval of the working class for being insufficiently middle-class in their behaviors and priorities. To be sure, many investigators and reformers sympathized with the poor and wrote with compassion about their difficulties. Margaret Byington, for example, in her 1910 study of steelworkers outside Pittsburgh, clearly identified low wages as a reason for poor living conditions. "In spite of the reputed high wages among steel workers," she wrote, "the problem Homestead housewives face in trying to provide food and a good home on the man's earnings is no easy one." The middle-class Progressives who headed the budget studies cast the problem of food as one of individual skills and self-discipline-a problem of management. If workers could simply put aside their irrational appetites and cook cheap, nutritious foods rather than buy expensive luxuries like butter and steak, they would have plenty to live on.
Those who gave poor people advice on what to eat struggled with the tension between individual and public responsibility, a tension that was complicated by the heavily gendered nature of cooking. Although they recognized that food was everyone's problem, they did not veer from the conviction that the solution rested on women's shoulders. Often the solutions they proposed hinged on individual women's hard work, skill, and discipline. Although these are all noble qualities, the reformers who suggested these solutions tended to turn a blind eye to the structural inequalities that conditioned food choices. Hard work could mitigate, but not eliminate, the fundamental problem of feeding a family on insufficient wages. Working-class people and those who offered advice about food viewed each other across a class divide that influenced both the way the problem of food was perceived and recorded, and the solutions that were offered. This inability to see past class differences, despite good intentions and a wealth of data, continues to inform the way we perceive the problem of food today.
Although the Progressive food reformers were sometimes judgmental and critical, they still left a priceless legacy of information about the food habits of working-class Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We can combine these reports with other kinds of information to understand the actual conditions under which food was purchased and eaten, the limitations and opportunities faced by poorer people, and the structural changes that affect the entire food system. In order to understand people's food choices, we first have to uncover how people got their food, and how they cooked and ate it.