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Inventing Baby Food by Amy Bentley

Inventing Baby Food Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet

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ONE

Industrial Food, Industrial Baby Food

The 1890s to the 1930s

Dec. 5, 1929

U.S. Department of Labor

Children's Bureau

Gentlemen,

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.

Gentleman,

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 can